James Yorkston, Withered Hand and Pictish Trail: Out To Lunch
‘The Songwriting Circle tour’ consisted of songwriters James Yorkston, Withered Hand (aka Dan Willson) and Pictish Trail (aka Johnny Lynch). All veterans of the Fife based Fence Collective, founded by Kenny Anderson (King creosote), they carry a noble pedigree of lyrical and musical craftsmanship. They were in Belfast playing the Out To Lunch Festival; we were really pretty lucky to have them.
It was an In The Round set up, only better. Each in turn would lead on one of their own songs but instead of performing individually and then passing the spotlight to the next singer, the other two would join in, support it, add harmonies and instruments, fill the room or swallow the quiet lines even deeper. And considering the mighty talents that were on stage, that is exactly what we would want – to see them working together, hear how they bounce off each other, drink it in.
When Pictish Trail was singing the ethereal “I Don’t Know Where To Begin” Yorkston was turned towards him in his seat, aiming the face of his guitar towards the singer. “I know I have to get a few things off my chest” they shared the chorus, then Yorkston’s gorgeous guitar was joined by Pictish Trail on his.
The opening bars of Withered Hand’s “Life Of Doubt” were accompanied by Yorkston on the “moothy” (the harmonica to you and I). A whole swathe of Midnight Cowboy feelings lapped in even before the words. “I want to give up the ghost/But the ghost won’t give up me so easily”. And while he wasn’t employed on harmonies, Pictish Trail sat with his eyes closed, smiling. Listening for his cue.
“Broken Wave (A Blues For Doogie)” was a tribute for Yorkston’s old friend and bassist Doogie Paul who died in 2012. It’s a lament, a eulogy. Anyone who has been through it will recognise what he’s saying. It captures those last times you are with them, the broken wave they have become, the reality of it, crashing. Maybe I’m supposed to find comfort in the song, but I didn’t. I tried to listen to it again, just now, to catch some lyrics to quote you, but I turned it off. Thing is though, even without those simple, particular words, the performance was so starkly beautiful on the night that I think I could have found it sad anyway; sometimes beautiful songs hit me like that.
How do you follow that? Well, if you’re as gentle and hilarious as Pictish Trail, you tell the room “It’s all bangers from here because it was so sad before,” and we were able to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves down as he told us about the homage to Fargo he was just about to play. This one had an electronic bass beating through it as Pictish swopped the guitar for a synth sound. Withered Hand plucked the lightest of guitar, while Yorkston used the bow on the nyckelharpa (a wooden Swedish string instrument). And this wasn’t the only song of this nature that he treated us to. In a way it turned his voice into another instrument, his clear folk-soaked vocals heavy with Scottish vowels held the tradition inside it all.
There he sat, on a chair upholstered in what looked like red velvet, while he pressed buttons like a sound wizard, a mad king of electrical musings. Frightened Rabbit meets Mighty Boosh. Joking aside though, Pictish Trail’s electronics were a beautiful surprise for me. It is an aspect I see more of, mixing electronic in with folk, and this was another kick up the bum to search more of it out.
Withered Hand is an interesting choice of moniker for a musician don’t you think? He shied away from nothing in his songs; they were frank to the bone. From sex to religion to love to loss to fear of loss. The very private was brandished as natural, the very personal was discussed. He made me laugh, recoil, and recognise. He sat there with the charm and wit of Johnny Vegas, while his voice was honest and truly melodic, but had the attitude that it shouldn’t be either. And man is he clever. Song after song of sideways swipe and word play. Take “Religious Songs” for example, this tickled me to the core.
“And I don’t really know what the wine was for
cos if it was Jesus’ blood, wouldn’t there be more?
I’m knocking on Kevin’s front door
James Yorkston sang a song for Warren Beatty’s wife. Apparently Warren Beatty is a dick, but his wife is a nice woman. The gorgeous, crafty “Tortoise Regrets Hare” had Withered Hand on guitar and Pictish Trail on high harmonies. Animal society entered another of his songs too in “Red Fox”. “If I dare there will lie a sparrow/and in that that sparrow there will lie a finch … /and in that wren I will lie asleep.” It was from another world, another time. It mixed the uncomfortable questions with a childlike acceptance. Yorkston was the only one on guitar with Pictish’s high clear vocals wrapping it up.
Even the encore ensured there were three songs to leave us with. To be honest it is hard to point out stand out songs. New ones needed to ruminate; those I recognised were as clear and heartfelt as I expected them to be. I didn’t expect the fun though, the laughs and the banter. That made me smile when I got home. Thanks Songwriting Circle – it was emotional.