James Yorkston, Charlie McKeon, The Matt Barton Band: The Magnet, Liverpool

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James Yorkston at The Magnet

With James Yorkston’s Christmas show at The Magnet, Getintothis’ Paul Higham revels in the easy conviviality of an old friend.

James Yorkston and Liverpool must be cursed. Where last time his performance was undermined by sounds from an over-amplified open-mic night penetrating Leaf Tea Shop‘s floorboards, tonight saw the Fife folk singer struggle with his voice, not that it detracted from his performance one bit.

With an unexpected sense of surprise he declared it “fucked” at the conclusion of the yearningly beautiful set-opener B’s Jig. Later recounting the story of his last visit and remarking that the promoters felt like they let him down in 2014, tonight he felt the tables had turned. That it was him on this occasion letting them down on account of his strained vocal chords.

Yet tonight James Yorkston let nobody down. Playing for close on 90 minutes to a near-all-seated Magnet, decked out in chairs, tables and twinkly lights, Yorkston held the audience in the palm of his hand. Rapt near-reverential attention was the order of the day, as the attendees clung to every word of the unassumingly charismatic singer.

Alone on stage with only an acoustic guitar and a bottle of water for company, it is no mean feat to prevent attentions from wandering and wavering yet Yorkston can do it with ease. Despite his problems, his voice remains his greatest weapon and, thankfully, reports of its however temporary decline were exaggerated. It is rich, warm and inviting, gently encouraging you to listen and to cling on every word.

Easily a stand-out moment was the desperately poignant Broken Wave, Yorkston‘s heartfelt tribute to his best mate and bassist Doogie Paul. It dripped with emotion, the slight cracks in his voice adding to rather than detracting from its heartbreaking resonance. The song invites you to think of your own lost loved ones and it is clear that many took the opportunity for personal reflection, tears mingling with applause at its conclusion.

It is apparent that Yorkston enjoys a special relationship with his fans, although the term is perhaps misleading. Any Yorkston show feels like a reunion with an old friend, one with whom the passing of time barely matters or is even noticed. Things stay the same, there is no initial awkwardness or nerves, you can pick up exactly where you left off irrespective of all you’ve been through in between.

It is that relaxed ease and mutual understanding that comes to mind tonight. The warm embrace of old pals, certain and confident in their relationship with each other. Audience interaction is encouraged with self-deprecatory conversational ease, song requests are not greeted with disdain but welcomed and played. The resultant spontaneity adding charm to Shipwreckers and final song Queen of Spain.

The call-and-response of Fellow Man was not a contrived attempt to add atmosphere, but the instinctive and uncoaxed helping of a friend in need: in this case his struggle to quite hit the higher notes. It didn’t matter that his voice had fallen victim to the ailments of the season, the warmhearted smiles at the end and the genuine laughter in between told its own story. The perfect reviving tonic at the end of a difficult and tumultuous year.

Earlier we had enjoyed two contrasting folk sets. Opening was the everyman amiability of The Matt Barton Band, whose harmonies made like a northern working class Simon and Garfunkel. Their songs are rooted in place, particularly Boo to a Goose which told the story of a man paralysed by nerves and fear, unable to strike up a conversation with a young woman. Set in the real world of bakery aisles at the supermarket and laced with humour (“It takes a skinful to make me feel loose, and I wouldn’t say boo to a goose“) it is a vignette of working class life capturing the pathos of prime-era Coronation Street.

Second performer Charlie McKeon offered a contrasting take on folk music, moving far from England’s North West and opening with a cover of Appalachian murder ballad John Hardy, initially made famous by the Carter Family. His was a style that recalled the freak-folk revivalists of the mid-2000s or, moving further back, the late sixties acid-folk movement. Guitar held high and played with a freeform confidence, weaving in out with subtle changes of amplitude and tempo.

What exactly was Freak Folk and where did it go?

Thereafter his short set was a mix of traditional folk music, including the delicate one-man Kentucky bluegrass of Sail Away Ladies, and the lyrical charm of his own compositions that ranged from one written when aged sixteen, a romantic ode to then-love Nina, and one penned just the day before. A talented wordsmith and distinctive vocal performer, McKeon‘s embroidered folk-poeticism indicated a talent sure to rise high above standard singer-songwriter fare.

Photos by Getintothis’ Tom Adam.

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