Venue: Triskel Arts Centre, Cork
Date: 10th December 2002
Author: Tim Peacock

The first time Whisperin’ & Hollerin’ encountered JAMES YORKSTON & THE ATHLETES, they played a petulant, pissed-off 15 minute set on a mismatched bill with slick popsters McAlmont & Butler, eventually stomping off in disgust and leaving us wondering why they even bothered.

In tonight’s more sympathetic surroundings, however, they more than banish the bad vibes from that unfortunate evening and really do justice to the wistful songs of quiet triumph that made their debut album “Moving Up Country” such a seductive introduction earlier this year.

It’s fair to say, though, that a place like the Triskel is far more in keeping with Yorkston’s gently beguiling songs. The seated, receptive audience are here to really listen and as soon as Yorkston and his two serious cohorts, Doogie Paul (upright bass) and Faisal Rahman (hurdy gurdy and lap steel) take their place you instantly realise why the showbiz world of McAlmont & Butler would be anathema to them.

Because, while James Yorkston is clearly a songwriter of note, he’s no natural performer. He’s visibly nervous, cracking shy (but witty) asides in between songs, and breaking into laughter during “The Patience Song.” You feel that his gently mischievous nature is probably eaten away by butterflies before showtime.

But none of that matters when THE ATHLETES ease into the fragile “In Your Hands” that also opens the album. Theirs is a gently beguiling magic that gradually warms your heart and thaws you out as they proceed. Comparison -wise, the obvious signposts are Nick Drake (with additional, knowing Celtic leanings) and early Van Morrison before he even began to think of being crap, but really such thinking becomes irrelevant as they quietly weave their sonic spells.

Visibly, there’s little to latch onto. Doogie Paul towers sullenly over his bass, while Faisal Rahman forsakes his drum kit from the record to hunch over the wheezing hurdy gurdy. (Actually an Indian Harmonium. Ed.) It’s especially affecting the way he coaxes and strokes the notes from it as James lurches into the swaying harmonica refrain of “Moving Up Country, Roaring The Gospel.”

On occasions, Faisal swaps this instrument for lap steel, making telling contributions to songs like “The Patience Song” and the album’s excellent closer, a reworking of the old folk song “I Know My Love”.

Here, Faisal’s steel evokes the curling melancholy Brian Jones’ slide brings to The Stones’ “No Expectations” and – even minus the crashing percussion of the recorded counterpoint,the live version reaches a satisfying climax.

James Yorkston himself just gets on with the business at hand of bringing in these songs with maximum emotional value. He’s actually got a lovely dry wit (”Just as well I don’t have to feel foolish with an embarrassing T-shirt” he jokes, removing his shirt to reveal a huge tiger picture on the T below at one point), but his shyness belies the fact he’s a truly fine songwriter, as the likes of songs like “Tender To The Blues” and the new B-side “La Magnifica” make abundantly clear.

Towards the end, Faisal and Doogie exit for James to play through a few tunes alone. These include great early B-side “Are You Coming Home Tonight?” (intro line: “If I had an ace up my sleeve, believe me I’d have played it by now” – cool!) and “old Scottish folk song” “Blue Blazing Blind Drunk”, which relocates prime era Richard Thompson north of the border with a ready supply of bootleg whisky.

They save the absolute best for last, though, with a gripping finale of the lengthy “The Lang Toun”, their legendary Domino Records debut single. It’s an amazing, mantra-like thing, with its’ hypnotic rhythms, Doogie’s violent basslines and Faisal’s screeching lap steel whipping up fire and brimstone and creating a set piece The Velvet Underground would have maimed for. It’s almost The Athletes’ very own “The Gift” actually, and remarkably lives up to its’ genius intro line of “You’re lying face down in a bog.” Mesmerising stuff.

There’s no encore (they’ve already played everything they have rehearsed), but they’ve already done more than enough. We leave, safe in the knowledge we’ve witnessed something special and realising that Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus isn’t the only unlikely star to emerge from the mysterious Fife countryside.