I’ve seen James Yorkston turn the dingiest of basement dives into a snug, little oasis of beauty and wonder through playing his deeply personal and quietly intimate songs. So I imagined that the lush Victoriana and cosy intimacy of The Deaf Institute would be a perfect setting for the Manchester leg of this short tour to accompany the release of his first book “It’s Lovely To Be Here: The Touring Diaries of a Scottish gent”.
Tonight the stage contained only a single mic stand and a wooden chair behind the long row of monitors – it looked painfully barren. And it turned out the chair was simply a stand for paperback book and glass of red wine, the latter untouched until the end of the evening. Singing the opening song ‘Queen of Spain’, Yorkston stood himself close up to the mic, eyes shut tight, lit up by a strong single spotlight. Of course he needed that brightness for the readings from his book but the barrenness of the stage and unforgiving glare left him exposed on this normally most welcoming of stages.
This actually suited the exposing, heart-laid-bare nature of the evening as he mixed songs old and new with three short readings from the tour diaries. These took us from an overnight sleeper train from Glasgow to a pre-gig meal in Belfast and onto a post-gig encounter with bikers in Canada. All were delivered with character voices, comic asides and the witty, self-deprecating humour and keen eye for detail you get from his stage banter and song-writing. There was something comforting in the familiarity of older songs, even when given little twists: ‘Steady As She Goes’ segued straight into an acapella version of ‘Tortoise Regrets Hare’. But there were also moments of potent, concentrated emotion – I have never heard the Deaf Institute as quiet as it was for a hushed version of ‘Heron’.
The rawness of this performance was matched by the pained intensity of the new songs, particularly one sung about ‘The Fire and The Flame’ which left the singer spent and doubled over when it finished. Yorkston said at one point he was “having a shit year”. He instantly admonished himself for sharing this but the bitterness was out and it only added to the emotional roller-coaster of the evening: great humour and compassion contrasting with heartfelt songs and emotion stripped bare. I may be overstating the darkness here – it could be the genteel surroundings and that merciless light exposed and distorted the morbidity in ways I hadn’t heard before. But when he took that glug of wine at the end of the set, boy, did I think he – and we – had earned it.
James Yorkston strikes me as the perfect fireside pub companion for laidback tales over a large whisky - and this is probably what the rest of the touring diaries are like. But his song-writing is engrossing in a very different way. And tonight was a stark reminder that no matter how amiable and casually attired, these songs are journals of devasting honesty. Reading from that book Yorkston referred to himself as an “un-pop singer”. Ten years into writing and playing, his powers as a performer and song-writer are only getting stronger. Long live the un-pop.
The Set List:
Queen of Spain
New Song (‘Way We Were’)
Steady As She Goes
Tortoise Regrets Hare (acapella)
New Song (‘Receiving Love’)
New Song (‘The Fire and The Flame’)
Tender To The Blues