James Yorkston – Live at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 11th November 2011
Back when he first released Moving Up Country I was pretty damn impressed, but when he then followed it up with the outstandingly beautiful Just Beyond the River a couple of years later I was entirely smitten.
For all that, however, it’s now been a good few years since I’ve seen him play, despite both he and I being at pretty much every Homegame festival for the last few years. As with a lot of locally based artists (in particular the Fence Collective heroes, who tend to pack venues out) I’ve tended to skip his performances in favour of bands I knew less well and who might offer something a little new in a slightly less suffocatingly busy room.
Eventually, I ended up saying ‘yeah, but I can see James Yorkston anytime’ so often that I got to the stage where, almost accidentally, I hadn’t seen him play live in about three years. Foolish boy!
I got to the venue a little late, and only caught the last few songs of The Pictish Trail’s support set. He sounded really good with a full band. I saw Fence compatriot King Creosote play with a full band the other week at the Liquid Room, and to be honest, it didn’t really do it for me.
KC’s songs are a little more edgy, and the full band seems to smooth off those edges a little too much. I’d say about ninety percent of his stuff is at its best with absolutely minimal instrumentation, so with a couple of exceptions the full band just added an unnecessary and fairly undistinguished pop rock sound to songs which are at their most captivating when they seem on the verge of either falling apart or just evaporating into the ether altogether.
The Pictish Trail’s stuff, on the other hand, is a little more robust and, little as I have to confess to having seen, seemed to rise to the full band treatment rather than be swallowed by it.
I have actually seen James Yorkston with a full band – a small drumkit, a piano and upright bass – but on this occasion he kicked things off solo and when he did add instrumentation it was fiddle, clarinet and harp, rather than a typical ‘band’.
His songs seem to have the countryside in them, with a gentle rise and fall, rolling fluctuations which recall either the swell of a calm sea or the modest yet lovely Fife landscape.
A friend of mine who was less entranced found that the set failed to hold his attention for the entirety of the evening, and with similar, soothing oscillations at the heart of most of the songs I can understand how that might happen. In that respect a drummer and bass player to make an appearance here and there might perhaps have been able to break up what was a relatively uniform pace, and give the odd song a little more bombast or sense of urgency.
For my part, however, I thought it was fucking lovely. Yorkston himself is an accomplished enough performer to easily hold the attention of the Queen’s Hall by himself and, in the accompanying hush, the surroundings lent even more gravitas to the emotional heft of his songs.
He can punctuate them with humour at times – in fact that seems to almost compulsory for miserable music in Scotland, lest you are accused of taking yourself just a bit too seriously – but for the most part his songs are weighty and serious.
This is the kind of thing X-Factor devotees might write off as depressing or boring, but as you will know all too well by now, it is the kind of music I find more rewarding than almost any other. There is something indulgent and enriching about listening to slow, lovely morose songs and letting them wash over you.
Maybe it’s the luxury of being able to appreciate the intensity of the feelings without the burden of having to bear the damage. Maybe that is a significant part of the appeal of sad music in general. The makeup of his band add a little to this, giving the songs a slightly more elaborate, intricate feel, reinforcing the impression that even the most intense of feelings are there to be welcomed and embraced, be they happy or sad.
Were I listening to James Yorkston’s albums I would do it late at night, when it’s cold, there are candles lit and no-one else around. Despite a full Queen’s Hall, that is exactly what this gig felt like, somehow. Bloody lovely.