James Yorkston, Union Chapel, London
One of the several rambling, funny tales James Yorkston tells tonight has him bumping into an old acquaintance he hasn't seen for years who, worried he's looking "a bit rough", enquires if he has a job these days. Yorkston, considering his wandering singer's life, allows him to think he's unemployed, just scraping by. He's offered a house-painting job, but can't make it as, dressed in the clothes that had him tagged as destitute, he's playing this gig.
Yorkston could have offered a more impressive resume. He’s the leading light of Fife’s Fence Collective, an informal community ranging from KT Tunstall to King Creosote (Mercury-nominated this year with Jon Hopkins), who over six albums has ranged from pure folk which helped start the form’s recent revival, to searching songs of his own. But that story’s extreme self-deprecation is in character. Though Yorkston is as usual entertaining company, there’s an almost painful modesty just beneath the surface, something agonised and doubting, which may help his songs’ skin-peeling sensitivity. His lyrics sometimes suggest a man who would wince if touched.
It’s been three years since the last original collection of those songs, When the Haar Rolls In. With typical forthrightness, he explains the last twenty months have been dominated by his children’s serious ill-health, the inspiration for the new “The Fire And The Flame”. There’s a jarring dischord in his acoustic guitar as he sings this sort of prayer - “Did he fly, is he well?” - and he hunches over as the applause washes over him.
Friends and collaborators soon appear, and this affable man soon brightens. “I can play it on my phone!” he realises when a duet gets off to a rocky start, and does, surely a folk music first. What follows is chamber-folk, built on warm arrangements of clarinet, violin and lovely vocal harmonies. “Tender is the Blues”, a timely song about a broken person “just losing faith in these costly times”, becomes a pensive country swoon. “Tortoise Regrets Hare”, by contrast, climaxes in a small storm of looped self-sampling. Jon Hopkins wanders on for “Woozy With Cider”, to play piano behind Yorkston’s spoken-word account of a worried man, just married, made content by his wife. It’s the best of his intimate lyrical art, and perhaps explains how he carries on.