James Yorkston, Summerhall (Dissection Room, 7 December 2021)
Fife-based folk artist James Yorkston made a return to Edinburgh in an impressive solo show at Summerhall on 7 December. The performance was the second of an eight-date UK tour.
Following support acts Djana Gabrielle and Viking Moses, Yorkston's performance began without fanfare. While checking the tuning of his guitar, he could have been confused with a roadie, such was the lack of showmanship. He was straight into it; four songs played without a pause, smoothly flowing onto each other, not allowing applause to break the spell.
The line 'Existing on the margins, exciting to be sharing Christmas with you all', from When The Haar Rolls In,
was the only one given extra emphasis, for reasons clear to all those in the audience looking forward to a 'proper' Christmas this year. There was rapt attention in the audience; a sense of real appreciation at being able to see a top-class performer in public, having had such limited opportunities over the last couple of years.
Yorkston was clearly delighted to be back on stage and performing publicly. He was also excited about his new album, recorded in Stockholm, which will be released in 2022… 'hopefully'. Though, given the circumstances, he did wonder aloud if this will come out as a posthumous release. Certainly, the pandemic hung over proceedings; hopeful just metaphorically. Yorkston admitted that the arrival of the Omicron variant had hit ticket sales for this and the remainder of his tour. With a fully masked audience, there was a sense that even small gigs such as this might become difficult in future months. As Yorkston put it: 'Thank you for coming and risking your lives'. The audience were prepared to brave this and the chilly draught which swept through the room. They were well-rewarded.
When finally Yorkston spoke, it was with a casual 'hiya' and a short riff about Edinburgh and Glasgow rivalries (he had played at Òran Mór the night before). The focus was very much on the music and on the songs. Yorkston didn't want to waste a minute. The general lack of chat gave space for the audience to absorb and appreciate the performance. It was minimalist: acoustic guitar, with the only loud sound coming from Yorkston's feet rhythmically smacking the stage and reverberating around the intimate venue.
An energised There Is No Upside
was the first tempo change. The gig was low key but the intensity built to an emotional performance of Broken Wave
. The feelings wrapped up in the song – a tribute to his friend and collaborator Doogie Paul – really came through. The audience was hushed; couples clenched and heads were tilted in contemplative appreciation.
After starting on acoustic guitar, he switched to keyboards to play slightly ramshackle versions of three new tracks. Yorkston politely asked the audience not to put any videos of them on YouTube. In terms of live performance, they are clearly works in progress but suggest a broadening of Yorkston's sound. They suggest that Yorkston's new album is worth waiting patiently for.
The whole performance was humble and unpretentious. His down to earth and thoughtful lyrics avoid the portentousness often associated with the genre. Among the highlights of the show was a gorgeous performance of one of his most elegant and melodic songs, The Queen of Spain,
from 2008's When the Haar Rolls In
. After threatening to inflict on the audience some of his new electronic music (recorded under his real name J Wright), he finished confidently with an excellent rendition of Great Ghosts
and a playful version of Tortoise Regrets Hare
A theme of many of the songs and the night in general was the passing of time and the regrets that brings with it. After finishing one of his early compositions, he reflected that the song is 20 years old, though 'still held up pretty well'. He admitted lyrics of some of his early songs made listening to them and performing them 'difficult'. This is something which affects all mature performers, as Yorkston now is with 10 studio albums (including 2021's The Wide, Wide River
) under his belt.
Thankfully, Yorkston is not a fan of the encore – a silly, time-wasting charade in most cases. Instead, he finished with a fine, sarcasm drenched, version of Fellow Man
(from his exquisite collaborative 2014 album The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society
). In the current climate, both literal and metaphoric, Yorkston's performance was a warming balm, calming and reflective. For those who accepted Yorkston's challenge of 'venturing out into the sleet and wind and hearing some most braw 'n wintery music', they were well-rewarded. A mature performance in the best sense of the word.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher based in Edinburgh