May 24th 2007, Union Chapel, London
Pete Paphides at the Union Chapel, N1
A few hours earlier at the Grosvenor Hotel the music industry had gathered to toast the art of the songwriter. As the Ivor Novello Awards reached their conclusion, the unnominated James Yorkston was on a train from the previous night’s show in Manchester to his biggest London show to date. Quite what criteria the Ivors steering committee use to ascertain a decent song is unclear – and watching Yorkston dispense his gentle Caledonian burr before a church of devotees brings you no closer to solving that conundrum.
Accompanied initially by the accordionist Reuben Taylor and double-bassist Doogie Paul, the ursine 35-year-old picked up his guitar and began with two folksongs – Thar She Blows, followed by an abused wife’s lament entitled Mickey’s Warning – before lurching into a beautifully bleary treatment of his own Banjo #1.
Without a pause between any of these songs, there was no applause to sever the hushed intensity of the performances. When he briefly abated, Yorkston seemed almost abashed by the small gale of affection that came from the pews. It was an affection that he drily deprecated when he was able to find the words, pointing out that it was about now that he should tell a funny story about something that had happened on this tour – “Sadly, we’ve just done two dates and the only funny thing that has happened is when Reuben slipped on some jam.”
Augmented by female violin and clarinet players, the ensemble converged with an unshowy, almost psychic, attunement around Yorkston’s conversational meter on 5 am – a crumpled meditation mined from that exact point when drunkenness becomes the morning after.
Yorkston’s best creations swell like a waxing tide in a heavy mist, lifting the listener with them. Two cases in point were a breathlessly epiphanic Shipwreckers and The Brussels Rambler, which was lent a frisson of portent by the scrape of fingers across violin strings.
Then, on the bone-dry soliloquising of Woozy with Cider, Yorkston surmised, “The world isn’t going to be leaping out of its bed to make me rich/ Using my songs in adverts for oranges, lemons and Kerrygold butter.” Maybe so, but the longer he played, the more you realised that there had been only one truly life-affirming celebration of great songwriting in London that day. And it didn’t happen at the Grosvenor.