In Review: James Yorkston at Heimathafen

Self-professed ‘well dressed loon’ warms hearts in intimate Berlin showcase.

Whether or not it was the case, as James Yorkston mused, that everyone in Berlin must be seeing Bob Dylan, the lucky few who chose to journey to Neukölln Heimathafen were treated to an inspiring collection of songs by the incredibly warm and talented musician. With songs touching on the profound, the banal, the heart-breaking and everything in between, the hour and a half spent in Yorkston’s company were like that spent seeing an old acquaintance for the first time in years.

His songs possess a timeless quality, as though unearthed from the rich soil of Scottish folk music. Its occasionally jars to hear references to smartphones and the modern world disrupting the provincial serenity of the pictures created. Yorkston quips that the room feels like the small village he lives in and this reflected the bon homie and trust felt between audience and the artist by the end of the set. A few small technical hitches early on were swiftly overcome by his affable charm.

The performance was divided into two parts, the first was heavier on older material with only ‘Shallow’ from the new album having an outing. The self-professed “well-dressed loon”, something of an overstatement given his choice of bootcut trousers, Converse and signature cap, set out to sing a song from each of his albums. Highlights were the lengthy traditional ‘Ballad of Little Musgrave’, from 2009’s ‘Folk Songs’, depicting an epic tale of romance in middle England, and the excellent ‘Tortoise Regrets Hare’ from 2008’s ‘When the Haar Rolls In’, which rounded off the first half of the show.

After a short pause, Yorkston ambled back out onto the stage. With apologies for “that support act”, he launched into a run of songs from new album ‘Route to the Harmonium’. With greater fluency, perhaps due to the three beers he claimed to have imbibed during the break, Yorkston used the time between songs to talk about his life and family as well as the themes on the album. His natural gift for storytelling lent itself to humour, including a wonderful and bathetic tale from the night before about a Munich hotelier, a piano and a pigeon, and more serious topics.

One of the themes of the ‘Harmonium’ album is the fragility of life, of friends passing away either through natural causes or taking their own life. Before ‘My Mouth Ain’t No Bible’, Yorkston says he was “furious” with his friend and former bandmate who had killed himself last year and this anguished rage is palpable in the lyrics and delivery. In “Brittle”, he wrestles with his own inability to process yet another tragedy, while “Broken Wave (A Blues For Dougie)”, from 2014 album ‘The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society’, is a raw and profound epitaph for his colleague Dougie Paul.

This is not to suggest that the evening is spent engaging with maudlin topics, however, and Yorkston concludes the evening on an altogether more optimistic note. ‘Fellow Man’, from ‘Cellardyke’, begins as an encouraging paternal message from Yorkston to his son and ends as a rousing call-to-arms and celebration of life and the flawed but beautiful world we all inhabit. “I’m full of love for my fellow man / Stay full of love for your fellow man” sings Yorkston and its almost possible to see a world in which the community and well-feeling nurtured in this small auditorium might be shared between each and every one of us.

With a few warm words of farewell (“encores are weird, this is the encore…”), Yorkston left the stage and the forty or so attendees file out into the clement Neukölln evening. Fragments of melodies lingered, faint reminders of his impressive musical talents, though the overwhelming feeling was that of having spent time with a brilliant storyteller. Yorkston’s ease in spinning the yarn, of weaving tales seemingly from thin air, is masterful. His songs are testament to that, at turns inciting laughter, introspection and glassy eyes. It feels a joy to have shared in this gift.

A Scottish troubadour, scientist, writer. Jack of few trades.

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