The origins of Everything Sacred, the new album by James Yorkston, Jon Thorne and New Delhi based sarangi player Suhail Yusuf Khan can be traced back to a 2013 show by Yorkston, at a festival in Edinburgh. He met Khan backstage pre-show and they made the commendably swift and bold decision to play together despite only knowing each other for a matter of hours. Such was the enthusiasm that followed that they decided to extend the arrangement and record an album, recruiting former Lamb bassist Thorne along the way.
Their debut London gig saw them reprise the album at the appropriately atmospheric and lived-in surroundings of the Old Queen’s Head in Islington. The winding interactions and rough traversals of Knochentanz open the show, the sounds of Khan’s sarangi edging out the wiry tension of Yorkston’s guitar and Thorne’s supple bass. His name may be the least familiar to those in the audience, but by the end of the show it is arguably Khan’s contribution both musically and vocally that is the most striking element to be taken away (no mean feat given Yorkston’s consistent and quietly commanding input – something shown to superb effect early on in the stealthy, surreptitious beauty of The Blues You Sang). Yorkston delivers typically understated guitar work and delicately conveyed vocals which form the first of a couple of tributes paid tonight to the late Doogie Paul.
The album is notable for two cover versions included – Song For Thirza by Lal Waterson and Little Black Buzzer by Ivor Cutler. The former shows that, despite coming from different worlds, the instrumental combination is surprisingly complimentary and natural-sounding when placed alongside each other – Khan’s sarangi providing gently resonating echoes to Yorkston’s guitar. Little Black Buzzer in this context may seem on paper a musical multiplication too far, yet in practice it’s a different proposition, even if still lyrically absurd in places. It presents a three-way delta of voices, the raw beauty of Yorkston’s voice running into that of Laura Moody with Khan’s rhythmical inflections spinning it in a different direction. Thorne takes on vocals for the album’s title track, describing it as a song “about infidelity and divorce”, the bleakness of the lyrics and overall tone cutting through the juxtaposition of voices.
The inherent longing bound up in the bereft, inconsolable tones of the sarangi comes through clearly on Vachaspati Kaavya, while its pleading sounds and suspended notes also add an elusive quality to Sufi Song. The liberating nature of the latter transports us briefly to India, and we’re suddenly among distant sunsets, colourful panoramas and mystical backdrops (that is, if we close our eyes to block out the oil paintings and mirrors from another time that adorn the walls of the Islington venue). The quietly mercurial presence of Yorkston is restored on the stark Broken Wave and exerts an anchoring, sobering effect.
Yet the melancholy of the album doesn’t weigh too heavy over the gig, being balanced out by light-hearted moments of humour and warmth. Ahead of closing with a cover of Jansch’s Rosemary Lane, Yorkston curtly offers up a self-deprecating line of “if it’s shite you can blame Bert”. Needless to say, no apologies are required – it’s an apt finale, a reminder how they’ve preserved the truths and traditions of folk music whilst injecting new, progressive ideas. The best thing of all is that it feels like there’s still much more to come.