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Happy Mondays and James, review: lairy hedonism and questing spirituality from two very different 90s bands

·3-min read
'How's Dancing on Ice going?' Bez from the Happy Mondays - Mike Gray/Avalon
'How's Dancing on Ice going?' Bez from the Happy Mondays - Mike Gray/Avalon

In their pomp three decades ago, Happy Mondays would probably just have been emerging from bed at 7.30pm – the hour at which they took the stage for this enticing evening of ‘Madchester’ revivalism.

In terms of cultural standing, many might see their supporting billing on this seven-date arena jaunt as counter-intuitive: after all, the Mondays’ loping, drug-fuelled fusion of indie-rock and acid-house was genuinely era-defining, referenced still as the core soundtrack to the emergence of 90s dance culture in the UK. They actually headlined Wembley in April 1990, with a giant letter ‘E’ onstage behind them.

The wayward Mancunians’ initial life-span was explosive but brief, however, as they quickly fell apart amid spiralling narcotic habits in 1993, after making only four albums. They’ve reunited in line-ups of varying completeness ever since, only ever managing one further unsuccessful album.

Here, then, their purpose was simply to dust off the crown jewels of ‘baggy’, and get the party started, which they achieved with an effortless primordial groove. Shaun Ryder, 59, once a figure of droopy-lidded menace, barked from beneath a black baseball cap, cuddly and confused by the lights, while his non-singing co-frontman Mark ‘Bez’, 57, gamely prowled the stage, waving his maracas out of time.

These days, the pair’s popularity springs from their TV appearances. “How’s Dancing On Ice going, B?” Ryder asked his spar, who only got bumped out of Celebrity Masterchef last summer because of some undercooked flatbreads, and is due to appear on the all-skating reality show in January. “You wouldn’t *believe how slippy it is,” Bez replied, before tripping over the monitors to huge applause, and kneeling adoringly before their female vocalist, Rowetta Satchell, as she belted out a triumphant Step On.

When James hit the stage, it was clear that this oddly sober sell-out crowd was theirs, and the response to the musical mood-shift from lairy hedonism to questing spirituality was an appreciative roar. I first saw James in December 1983, and back then you’d never have believed they’d one day be arena-fillers.

Their frontman, Tim Booth, now 61, recently described early James as “hopelessly indie-schmindie”, yet he struck gold circa Madchester while spurning its druggy vocabulary, and with a guru-esque zeal has held together an ever-shifting personnel without intermission, recently releasing a 16th long-player. So, he’s earnt that top billing.

Force of character: Tim Booth from James - Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage
Force of character: Tim Booth from James - Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage

“We’re all gonna die!” were the first words he sang, establishing a pattern of connections with his audience through passionate performance, rather than via James’ biggest hits. That song, ZERO, inspired by losing his father-in-law to Covid, certainly hit the mark.

Sporting a fake-fur coat, billowing yoga trousers and the kind of voluminous woolly hat that rastafarians store their dreadlocks in, Booth bulldozed through by sheer force of character, dancing as if electrocuted, and frequently orating between numbers.

He defined his sprawling but surprisingly coherent eight-piece ensemble’s indulgences as “somewhere between the E-Street Band and The Grateful Dead”. That was stretching it a bit: 2020’s-model James offer a no-sell-out take on U2 and Coldplay’s horizon-wide sound, with a genuine sense of inclusion thanks to two women in their ranks, and a male trumpeter in a flouncy red skirt.

Approaching 11pm, the band’s early-90s gems finally materialised, with Come Home, a cathartic venting of frustration, and Sit Down, a freaks-united anthem whose unifying message felt doubly meaningful, mid-pandemic. As their show rambled into its third hour, James’s feelgood factor kept on coming, with rare engagement and depth.

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