At the Old Queens Head in Islington on Tuesday, the main topics of conversation in the upstairs venue were loft conversions, the definition of success and Coldplay’s Chris Martin. Stay with me.
The bar is a lively place on the Essex Road, the deliberately quirky interior lit with yellow and orange, walls adorned with busts and stag heads. Downstairs is almost full at 7PM in expectation of a quiz, whilst those of us lucky enough to be invited to the launch of James Yorkston’s new album The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society stand in whatever space is available, nursing drinks and waiting for the clock to finish its journey to doors opening.
There’s a buzz, but it’s low key, in keeping with the headline artist. James Yorkston is a well respected but unassuming member of the folk fraternity these days. He has a back catalogue of considerable weight, both volume and artistry. New studio work arrives with expectations attached, more so when he’s collared fellow Fence Collective alumni to join the sessions, Pictish Trail and KT Tunstall among them. Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor produced and played on the album too, suggesting potential changes in direction, but it’s another reassuringly warm and traditional nugget dug out of his talent mine and buffed to a sepia shine.
A healthy crowd is on hand to welcome Lisa O’Neill, who has stepped in on James request so that Rozi Pain can sing with him; Tunstall would have been singing, but more of that later. Lisa steps to the microphone without an instrument for the opening song, a strong Irish burr and confident projection belying her small frame. She follows that with As I Rode Out on guitar and I detect a hint of Amy Allison in the delivery. A friend adds mandolin to Come Sit Sing, the fierce undertow of the melody pinned to the stage with foot stomp rhythm and determined visage.
Her songs are full of delightful imagery and she backs them up with unusual stories. Neillie’s Song was written whilst travelling in the US about a favourite uncle. It has the merest hint of Americana and a back story that uses the ability of dying fireflies to change colour as a metaphor for the positive elements of a long life well lived. Same Cloth Or Not, the title track of her latest album, begins with the line ‘My heart is swollen with memories’ and uses the phrase ‘slip of a girl’, which makes it okay in my book straight away. She finishes with Dreaming, which builds in pace throughout after going through the gears a third of the way through. There’s plenty of invention in the songwriting and a voice distinctive enough to stand out from the crowd; tonight’s attendees provide well-deserved appreciation.
Yorkston has spoken about his new album having three distinct inspirations. The first was the tragic passing of his bass player Doogie Paul from cancer at 40, the second a wish to articulate his feelings about his children. The last was a deliberate attempt to inject some light-hearted material to balance the first two out. Tonight we get all three. He sits with longtime friends Pictish Trail and Rozi Plain in a semi-circle as if they’ve come in out of the cold and settled in their favourite snug.
Two bars of finger-picked guitar from James silences the crowd. Fellow Man opens the set as it does the album; Yorkston, eyes closed, rocking slowly back and forth emulating the ebb and flow of the seashore lyric in the second verse. A brief introduction and hello and we’re informed that Tunstall would have been on stage were it not for a late invitation to the Emmys; c’est la vie. The Blues you Sang is beautiful, perfect lullaby sounds and superb harmonies. Sweet Sweet is dedicated to Doogie. It runs on a picked guitar riff that threatens to fall over itself, as if delaying the end risks the moment becoming too emotional. Guy Fawkes Signature references Fellow Man in its amusing spoken lyric that hides in plain sight a message on tolerance. A clear style emerges from these opening songs; the arrangements are similar but each is given space by the dynamic Yorkston creates with his playing, moving from delicate to forceful at a moments notice, weaving one line harmonies in and out of verses and arranging abrupt song endings that leave us wanting more.
The three artists are clearly having fun too. The long-term friendship between Pictish and Yorkston is evident in the almost telepathic way they communicate on stage; the little glance in each other’s direction, the odd smile at a private joke. Serious or sad stories are delivered with the requisite amount of gravitas but they’re never far away from a self-deprecating comment or, if the need to break a solemn moment is required, they just take the piss out of themselves. It makes for an arresting evening of roller-coaster emotions where at any given moment you might feel the sadness of a lost loved one segue into a spoof about Chis Martin or a ribald story about an ex, this last finding particular favour with them and leading to a truly awful play on words involving loft conversions. Despite the camaraderie on stage, it’s never exclusive; the crowd is fully involved, the odd (good-natured) heckle playfully responded to and regular laughs shared.
An example. The jazz-inflected Thinking about Kat stems from an old story about someone coming to St. Andrews to get off on heroin. A heavy subject in anyone’s book, unless it’s leveraged with an introduction claiming the venerable university town was, prior to that, best known for lesser addictions, as if context somehow lessens the seriousness. Broken Wave (Blues for Doogie) is Yorkston stripped bare. It’s played without artifice or joke and with a total respect for its subject. The lyrics are bluntly descriptive and touch on the sort of day-to-day events that rarely see print on the inside of a CD case. It’s a highly effective, beautiful song sang about someone very dear to the artist’s heart, and it shows:
‘With the shortest of breaths / I watch you drift to sleep / with the eyes that cannot quite close / And I hope I bought you some comfort / that your dreams then were your best / of our younger times, our better years.’
Great Ghosts, ‘…wall flowers have the most regrets, and the dullest songs to sing’ and The Very Very Best are wonderful, but the real highlights of the closing section are King of the Moles, an endearing love letter to his offspring prefaced with his definition of success (the number of days he gets to spend with his children), a cover of Erasure’s A Little Respect, and a marvellous encore of Tortoise Regrets Hare, this last the trigger for the Chris Martin story, which was highly unbelievable and therefore possibly true (but I’m for the former).
It’s an assured and confident performance borne of years of experience and the comfort of friends, understated and funny, sentimental but never saccharine or whimsical. It touches on the key elements that make a live gig very special for the attendees, musical excellence, humility and charm, and goes beyond them, running the gamut of human emotions to leave us both drained and fulfilled come the end. A job well done.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
The Blues You Sang
Guy Fawkes’ Signature
Thinking about Kat
Feathers are Falling
Broken Wave (a blues for Doogie)
King of the Moles
Honey on Thigh
The Very Very Best
Year of the Leopard
A Little Respect
Tortoise Regrets Hare
The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society is available now.
Order via: Amazon
Lisa O’Neill plays Moseley Folk Festival on Saturday August 30th.
Her album, Same Cloth or Not, is available via her website, www.lisaoneill.com