WHEN Johnny Lynch, aka The Pictish Trail, sang “Playing to literally tens of people… just to cover my travel home”, it raised a fair old chuckle among the few dozen folk in the Mareel auditorium.
The line belongs to ‘Believe Me, I Know’, one of several superb pop songs Lynch sang in the course of a cockle-warming set as part of a loose, informal songwriter’s semi-circle.
Completing the trio at Mareel on Wednesday night were folk balladeer James Yorkston and the indie craftsmanship of Dan Willson, aka Withered Hand.
While a turnout of little over 50 folk was disappointing even for a winter weeknight, that did not obscure the sheer artistic quality on show.
All three share in common a dry, offbeat sense of humour, a host of highly literate songs and an easy-going onstage demeanour.
Yorkston and Lynch have done this sort of thing for years, whereas it was Willson’s first tour in the format, and he’d just come along “for shits and giggles”. He must have mislaid the dress-code memo, being the only one not sporting a baseball cap.
Willson has released two LPs under the Withered Hand moniker, and he reeled off some choice cuts from each over the course of the two-and-a-half hour show.
The lovelorn anthem ‘Cornflake’ told how “I’d do anything to get my dick inside her…”, then provoked a few grins with the enjoinder “…but that’s not what she wants to hear me say”.
Later Willson brought to the table the sprightly melody of ‘Religious Songs’, which is primarily a hymn to atheism but also to enjoying carnal pleasures while sleeping on a friend’s futon.
His voice’s high register has earned inevitable comparisons with Neil Young, and there’s undoubtedly a cracked vulnerability that adds emotion to his vocal delivery.
Stripped down selections from Withered Hand’s most recent album ‘New Gods’, a cracking collection of pop-rock sounds, stood up well in an acoustic setting – aided by harmonies from the other two and some lovely plucked guitar from Yorkston.
The format made it easy for the threesome to intersperse beautifully melancholy songs with hilarious storytelling and sharp repartee.
Yorkston makes quite the raconteur, riffing with great mirth in a part-anecdote, part-stream of consciousness containing an odd hotel receptionist, an uncomfortably hot bedroom, a collapsing window, defecating pigeons and being visited in your dreams by a terrifying cocktail of Ian Paisley, Brian Blessed and Cliff Richard.
He’s not too shabby at putting pen to paper, either. 2008’s ‘Tortoise Regrets Hare’ is a truly marvellous song: serene, understated and all the more captivating for it.
The ever-so-sad ‘Broken Wave (A blues for Doogie)’, about Yorkston’s band’s late bass player, had the audience in hushed reverence, and not for the only time.
Speaking of those who departed too soon, we also got The Pictish Trail’s powerful acoustic reworking of one of David Bowie’s greatest pop songs, ‘Let’s Dance’.
There is a bruised beauty to Lynch’s voice. It’s adaptable enough to tackle acoustic nuggets like ‘I Don’t Know Where To Begin’, soar above the electropop beats and blips of his digital samplers, and repeatedly attempt a riotous piss-taking impersonation of Tom Jones.
Yorkston then emerged alone for the encore to allow his co-workers to tend to their weak bladders, launching into 2008 track ‘Queen of Spain’.
When Lynch rejoined the fray and promptly bolted a Scottish rewrite of ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ theme tune on as an interlude to another of Yorkston’s slices of blissful alt-folk, it encapsulated the evening’s charmingly zigzag nature.
By far the most extroverted of the three, Lynch squeezed in a series of playful 30-second long sketches including a sort of reggae/techno-type number called ‘Sweating Battery Acid’ and dedicated, naturally, to his mum.
He seemed to be having a whale of a time leaping around the stage, before not leaping around at all because he was singing about having his feet stuck in concrete.
Then it was over to Withered Hand and another acoustic pop gem, ‘Horseshoe’, to round things off.
The audience may have been few in number, but their show of appreciation was as warm and generous as the evening of stories and songs they had been treated to.