Live Review: James Yorkston, Nina Persson and The Second Hand Orchestra + Julian Taylor @ Celtic Connections, Drygate – 4th February 2023

Back in August 2022, during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, James Yorkston played a gig at Summerhall featuring two notable but very different guest musicians. Due to a bout of illness, The Second Hand Orchestra’s founder and drummer, Karl-Jonas Winqvist, was unable to play so Philip Selway from Radiohead was standing in… a pretty excellent stand-in. But out front, it was an even bigger surprise to see Nina Persson joining Yorkston on vocals. Persson is the singer from The Cardigans and it’s fair to say she’s absolute European pop royalty. The gig was excellent and although it was just at the early stages the chemistry between Yorkston and Persson was already evident with The Second Hand Orchestra demonstrating how talented they were across every song. Given the timing, the set was mainly focussed on the songs from the recently released and critically lauded album, ‘Wide, Wide River’ but they also played a few news songs with Persson in a more prominent role that we were assured would be featuring on a forthcoming new album.

Cut to early February and the release of the new album, ‘The Great White Sea Eagle’ and a further slew of glowing reviews confirming that the collaboration between Yorkston and Persson had worked just as well in the studio. Yorkston and Persson  are promoting the album with an extended tour performing as a duo but their appearance at this sold-out Celtic Connections gig featured members of The Second Hand Orchestra: Ullis Gyllenberg (violin), Lina Langendorf (saxophone, flute), Daniel Bengtsson (bass), Peter Morén (guitar) and Karl-Jonas Winqvist (drums).

The show opens with Yorkston and Persson taking the stage with Yorkston at the piano where he spends most of the set, to sing a couple of songs, including ‘A Sweetness in You’, Yorkston’s gentle musings on his friend Scott Hutchison, lead vocalist of Frightened Rabbit, who took his own life in 2018. “I think of him often as I look out to the sea. And I live by the coast.” The song sets out a template for the evening – songs about family and friends that are intensely personal but never straying into over-sentimentality.

The Second Hand Orchestra take the stage to join Yorkston and Persson on “An Upturned Crab”. They are a collective of experienced and talented Swedish musicians with impressive track records themselves, including playing on and producing the two albums they’ve done with Yorkston. From bursts of incendiary saxophone, sweetly lyrical lines on flute and violin, to clanging electric guitar solos, The Second Hand Orchestra light up every song with perfectly judged musicianship. It’s easy to see why Yorkston can’t help proclaiming how much he loves playing with them.

Yorkston and Persson make a slightly odd pairing. He’s an engagingly energetic, affable and witty performer and about as literary a songwriter as you could imagine, with a couple of well-regarded novels already published and a reputation as one of the UK’s most gifted lyricists. Although he is steeped in folk music, he has enough of a pop sensibility to write some great hooks and perhaps it’s that combination that appeals to his Swedish collaborators. Persson is a talented lyricist in her own right, but appears more self-contained, intense or even guarded when she’s on stage but it’s still clear she’s enjoying herself and she seems to be as charmed as the rest of us by Yorkston. Although this is a relatively recent collaboration, clearly they are both very experienced singers and together their voices work exceptionally well, with some lovely harmonies lighting up the set.

Yorkston’s introductions to both his songs and his band members were almost as good as the music; laugh-out-loud funny but always warm and appreciative. Running out of time at the end of another superb set, he announced that they’d just play the encores straight away. If the house-lights hadn’t gone up immediately after the end of their final song, Yorkston, Persson and The Second Hand Orchestra would certainly have been called back for more by the very appreciative audience.

The same appreciation was evident at the end of Julian Taylor’s opening set. He is a fabulous talent and much more deserving of his own review rather than being a footnote to someone else’s. He received a rapturous reception from the Celtic Connections audience, confirming everything in Jonathan Aird’s excellent review of Taylor’s earlier appearance at the UK Americana Music Week Showcase.

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