James Yorkston at the Union Chapel: Three notes, and a setlist

Not really a gig review (it was a great gig), but three things that occurred to me as I sat in the Union Chapel, enjoying the songs of James Yorkston.

Note One: Union Chapel as sacred grove

A book I’ve been blown away by these last few days is The New English Landscape, by Ken Worpole (Field Station Press), a set of essays on the post-war landscape of East Anglia, showing how much culturally-embedded ideas of an ‘ideal’ England upstream from London have damaged our relationship with the much more lived- and worked-in landscape ‘downriver’: a landscape – of mudflats and sea walls – that I love. I’ll write more about it, but Worpole makes one off-hand comment that struck me as so obvious that I was shocked never to have come across it before.

Using it as a comparison to the dangerous, ‘liminal’ locus of the seashore, Worpole talks of the sacred grove, which is, he says:

a secret, enclosed space known only to the gods and their self-elected worshippers. It is a powerful spatial configuration which starts with the clearing in the forest, or the woodland glade, and over time is transmuted into the interior of the Gothic cathedral.

I’ve no idea if this insight is Worpole’s, or is common anthropological knowledge (from Frazer, perhaps?) but it struck me as wonderfully, obviously true, in the way that mythic/pscyhological correspondences often do. (eg the expulsion from the garden of Eden as a metaphor for puberty, or the 1970 doubling of Hippolyta/Theseus and Titania/Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Peter Brook.)

It struck me doubly true, sat in the beautiful Union Chapel, my first visit there, under its beautiful dome, columns as trees. Those inside the initiated, having chosen to be there, gathering.

(The person I had arranged to meet at the gig couldn’t make it, but we sat down in the pew behind a woman by wife knows through work, whom she’d been trying to arrange to meet outside work for months. I had a tweet from someone else I know afterwards saying they’d seen me from across the room. Sacred grove…)

Note two: The singer takes nothing home

Yorkston said he would play two songs from his new, very-nearly-finished-being recorded record (produced by Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip). The first, an immediate belter, began with the lines I dreamed I was a red fox/Spiraling over the rooftops

He worried that the second, though, would be too sad (it was) and so decided to cheer us up with a personal favourite from his Folk  Songs album, ‘Just As The Tide Was Flowing’, which, he said, he and his family sing along to the car, adding their own bird noises to at the appropriate time. (“One morning in the month of May/When all the birds were singing”).

It was his daughter’s favourite song, he said, and he had an idea: if he played it now, and we all made bird noises, he’d record it, and he could play it to her. So, he got out his smartphone, placed it on a music stand, and did just that. When it came to the line, the chapel erupted in a minute-long cacophony of birdcalls.

We also made sea noises (“Just as the tide was flowing”). There was also a tiger somewhere there, which isn’t in the original version.

It was fun, and heartwarming, but I loved about it most of all was that the singer, the performer, had something to take away with him at the end of gig, something that we didn’t.

Performers give, and audiences take. This is the nature of the contract we both sign. Performers are ‘in the moment’, are given no time or position from which to capture the event. Audiences are forever taking photos, videos, sound recordings (not that I think any did last night), but that’s their right, these days: to bite off little digital morsels from the body of the event, and take it home with them, like taking home a little piece of the Berlin wall.

Well, James Yorkston took something home last night, on his phone, that none of us did, and not for himself, but for his daughter. I like that.

(In fact, he’s put the recording up on SoundCloud, which I don’t think goes against my thought, so long as his daughter heard it first! Here it is. Do listen, it’s lovely. Though it sounds more like the monkey cage than the dawn chorus…)

Note three: Sea noises

There is a lot of sea in Yorkston’s songs. Not just in the words, though there are plenty there. Last night we had ‘When The Haar Rolls In’, ‘Surf Song’, ‘Just As The Tide Was Flowing’, and we also had another new song dedicated to and about Yorkston’s longtime double bass players, Doogie Paul, who died a year ago of cancer, that started I want to tell you I will remember you as a man full of love/Not as this broken wave.

Sea not just in the words, though, but in the music, too. There is a thing in Yorkston’s songs, in folk music perhaps (I’m no expert), where the words stop and the music takes over – perhaps the place where a chorus would come in a traditional pop song – and the music swells, like a wave, like a tide. The singer steps back from the microphone. The musicians half turn inwards, towards each other. The audience is forgotten, the place where the gig is happening, now, is in between the musicians. There are no solos. They are all doing solos. The music rises, crests and falls. Like a wave.

It doesn’t even need instruments. The last song of the night was ‘Tortoise Regrets Hare’, done a cappella, primarily just JY, with Emma Smith doing the female harmonies, but – listen to the song – the ‘tidal’ passages that come after the refrain were sung, now, by all five musicians on stage, a wave of unaccompanied voices. It was a dramatic and memorable way to end the show. 

Set list

My own true love (Trad.?)/True Love Will Find You in the End (D. Johnston)/When the Haar Rolls In (solo, a cappella – JY bringing in his guitar half way through Haar)

St Patrick

Surf Song

A new song I dreamed I was a red fox

Just As The Tide Was Flowing

New song (for Doogie) Not as this broken wave

Border Song – JY, solo till this point, with long digressions about Doogie, and about a disastrous remix that was supposed to get him onto the Radio 2 playlist, was joined by John Thorne (double bass/vocals) and Emma Smith (violin/vocals)

Moving Up Country, Roaring the Gospel

Sweet Jesus


The Year of the Leopard – band joined by Rozi Plain (vocals)

New song – I’m full of love my fellow man/woman – band joined by Seamus Fogarty (first support act) and Stuart Braithwaite (second support act)

Tender to the Blues

Tortoise Regrets Hare (a cappella)



  1. Max Cairnduff

    I’ve only been to the Union Chapel once. The Emeralds were on with Fennesz opening. It’s an amazing venue, intimate and with the sound wrapping round you. A sacred grove as you say.

    I’m not actually particularly familiar with James Yorkston’s stuff, probably as I’m much stronger on electronica than I am on folk.

      • Max Cairnduff

        Will.i.am at the O2? I can actually imagine he could be fun, in a small venue, just from sheer charisma. I can’t think of much of anything that would be fun at the O2 though.

        Thanks for the link. I’ll take a look.

  2. Pretzel Logic

    The other femal vocalist was Rozi Plain.

    Seamus Fogarty and Stuart Braithwaite (support acts) were also on stage for the penultimate song, and Seamus stayed on for Tortoise Regrets Hare.

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