James Yorkston and the Athletes Winterville Spiegeltent, Victoria Park, London
Article written by
Matt H - Dec 12, 2015
It’s been a very long time since I saw a James Yorkston full band set. (He doesn’t tend to drag many cohorts on occasional jaunts to Sheffield.) While the basic excellence of his songs comes through in a smaller gig, it takes a show like this to remind you of the other reasons why he stood out so much in the first place.
In a spiegeltent amongst the fairground lights (and noises…though those weren’t really an issue it seemed they might be – the odd screams drifting in from the rides didn’t distract) of Victoria Park he’d assembled some old compadres (Reuben Taylor, Adem, Seamus Fogarty), a couple of slightly more recent but established musical partners (Jon Thorne, Emma Smith) and a drummer he’d barely met – to play a slightly tipsy and not noticeably festive set of songs.
Yorkston doesn’t do obvious sweeping themes in his songwriting. He draws out joys and sorrows from small things and captures the more ambivalent and complex feelings that mark out real life in a way few manage. The strongly felt emotions are there but hinted at rather than waved around. The real sense of underlying strength, passion and even a wee bit of threat, needs the band to bring it out. This happens best in the numbers that show off the repetitive, building, driving rhythms whose simplicity and force marked him out as much more than another new folky sort (although of course he was there well before they rose to their rather drab prominence). The Lang Toun remains a wonder and giving Midnight Feast the treatment really helps to highlight the steel and menace in Lal Waterson’s songwriting (not that it needs much help). And When The Haar Rolls In stands out even compared to them, marrying the power to the oblique storytelling and almost spoken word complexity of some of his other songs to fabulous effect.
That these high points are matched by the more restrained songs from throughout his career just shows how good he is. Years on, 6:30 Is Just Way Too Early remains almost perfect in its bruised hopefulness and finishing with Broken Wave, a warm and wonderful farewell to a friend means there’s barely a properly dry eye amongst us. It’s fitting that as we drift away the fair is winding down, stalls are being boarded up. There’s a sense of fun that’s been had, of time to dial down and appreciate a bit of quiet and chance to reflect with a glass of something strong and warming. Which is a very Yorkstony sort of Christmas feeling.