At this point, it only qualifies as news when bands of yesteryear don't reunite. (Way to keep it real, Talking Heads and the Smiths.) James -- that's the band's name, after bassist Jim Glennie -- clawed its way to stardom in England over the course of a 20-year career but had just one U.S. hit, the mid-'90s dorm-room anthem "Laid." Still, that's one more hit than plenty of other bands that have recently regrouped, and the sold-out 9:30 club Thursday night was proof that there's actual demand for this particular return. What made the two-hour performance so satisfying was that the highlights were equally split between old fan favorites and selections from the band's excellent new album, "Hey Ma." This wasn't some simple exercise in nostalgia: James proved itself to be plenty relevant more than two decades after its first album.
The biggest cheers from the enthusiastic crowd came for wistful chestnuts such as "Sit Down" and "Come Home" and, of course, the still-frisky "Laid," which featured singer Tim Booth at his yodeling finest. But the most moving numbers were the soaring anthems from "Hey Ma," including the antiwar title track, which made up for any lyrical heavy-handedness with a forceful vocal hook delivered over appropriately rumbling drums.
The new songs took full advantage of the seven-piece lineup onstage, particularly Andy Diagram, whose trumpet blasts provided a nice counter to Larry Gott's shimmering guitar lines. The climaxes of "Waterfall" and "Bubbles" made some of the older songs seem almost quaint by comparison -- and when Booth bellowed, "I'm alive!" it served as an appropriate statement on the band's return.
-- David Malitz
Johnny Flynn, Laura Marling
"If food be the music of love, eat on," quipped Johnny Flynn at the Birchmere on Thursday night, remarking upon what it's like to sing for an audience of masticators. Flynn, who shared a bill with Mercury Prize nominee Laura Marling, is an alum of the dudes-only Shakespeare troupe Propeller, so if anyone was prepared to deliberately misquote "Twelfth Night," it's he. That his Elizabethan ad-lib might have been the liveliest moment of the evening kind of says it all. (The joke came between the tunes "Cold Bread" and "Leftovers," so maybe he makes that crack every night.)
Flynn exuded an actor's unhurried confidence as he segued from violin to guitar to mandolin and trumpet and back, surveying the agreeably slippery folk songs from his strong debut album, "A Larum." They're evocative, they're original -- they're just not appreciably more exciting live than on disc.
Still, Flynn's energy seemed Springsteenian compared with his co-star's. "Hello, we're Laura Marling and we're here to entertain you," she murmured as her band took the stage, in a tone usually reserved for asking if we'd like, er, chips with that. You might expect an 18-year-old rising star on tour in a foreign country to be many things, but bored? Not so much. Later on, "Night Terror" felt prophetic: A broken string at the end of the brooding tune left her so paralyzed by fear or frustration that her drummer had to come to her rescue, engaging the smallish crowd with good-natured patter until his boss was ready to resume.
The rub is that Marling, despite her youth, truly does have the goods as a songwriter and singer, her clarion voice recalling the young Sinéad O'Connor or Dolores O'Riordan of the Cranberries. And few songwriters of any age could ape Roy Orbison as convincingly as Marling does on "Crawled Out of the Sea." Her parting shot, "Your Only Doll (Dora)," was wistful and haunting. Wish she'd gotten us -- and herself -- there sooner.
-- Chris Klimek