Tim Booth shuffles on in an outsize wool hat and Afghan coat and without speaking a word, starts singing: “We’re all going to die.” It’s a typically perverse opening from a band who have long ploughed their own furrow, and darkly but amusingly tees up one of their most absorbingly wilful shows. If having Happy Mondays as a support act suggested a night of Madchester nostalgia, James’s first 75 minutes takes in just three copper-bottomed smashes – She’s a Star, Born of Frustration and a rapturously received Come Home.
Instead, an adventurous setlist careers through six songs from recent Top 3 album All the Colours of You to surprise Hymn from a Village, a Factory Records single from 1985. Clearly not content to become a heritage act, Booth seems on a mission to prove that James still say something. The songs’ themes range from the pandemic and the transitory preciousness of life to George Floyd’s murder and the state of the US, with lyrics that are wonderfully observed (Curse Curse’s acrobatic leap from the couple having sex next door to, well, God) or simply powerful (Miss America’s “live the dream, as long as you’re white”). After a brief trip to 1990 for Gold Mother, Booth chuckles that during the baggy explosion James were “writing songs about childbirth”.
It works because newer songs such as climate change anthem Beautiful Beaches more than live with the old and Booth is such a livewire, charismatic performer. In full flow – hyperactively shake-dancing, beatifically grinning, at one point using a megaphone to shamanically shout to the spirits – the 61-year-old seems to transcend global worries to reach a highly engaging enlightened contentment. The singer’s smile widens at the arena-sized wave of clapping that greets 2001’s sublime Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) and the band finally unleash whoppers Sound, Laid and the perennial Sit Down, during which the band sit down and seated audience members stand up. The hits bring crowd euphoria, but James are still on a quest for humanity’s deeper truths.
• James play Utilita Arena, Birmingham (26 November) and Motorpoint Arena, Cardiff (28 November). Then touring.