Back in 2012, I made a fairly hopeful wishlist of the fifteen musicians I most wanted to see live. Fulfilling the list has been an uphill struggle, even though nearly all the people on it are still active and regularly touring; up until a week or two ago, I’d only been able to tick two of the fifteen off the list. Now, though, and thanks to the brilliant programming at Cave 12, I’m able to tick off a third.
Richard Youngs has actually been on my radar ever since 2002, when I reviewed his early acoustic masterpieces Sapphie and Making Paper for The Sound Projector. I’ve kept an eye on his output since then, without ever attempting to keep up with the endless flow of releases that have appeared under his name. Every so often, though, I’ve picked up one of them and have been staggered by the variety and the creativity Youngs brings to everything he does.
One of my favourites of those later releases is Beyond the Valley of Ultrahits, perhaps Youngs’s poppiest and most immediate album. It was a knockout, therefore, to hear him sing “Collapsing Stars” from that record as the opening song of his Geneva concert, albeit in a lonely and desolate acapella version. Reflecting the incredible versatility of the man, the next two hours passed in a mesmerising whirl of drone guitar, delicate fingerpicking, shaggy-dog stories, audience participation, Fluxus playfulness and always that unmistakable yearning voice.
Youngs had set up the room in quixotic fashion, with a large carpet directly in front of the stage and a few seats further back. I had wondered what the carpet was for, and didn’t have to wait long for the answer, as Youngs occasionally stepped down from the stage onto the carpet and took several more acapella numbers at audience level. In between delivering his haunted, broken texts and stamping his feet to keep time, he encouraged the audience to add harmonies, bringing a strange feeling of unity to his long, questing ballads. Not since I saw the Copper Family and Shirley Collins lead the audience at the Royal Oak in Lewes in a stirring rendition of “Thousands Or More” has an audience singalong made such perfect sense.
Showing an equal flair for the conceptual and the ridiculous, Youngs presented the set as a selection of pieces from various categories, such as lists of numbers and one-chord tricks. Every so often he would solemnly intone a series of numbers or strum a single chord repeatedly, interspersed with laugh-out-loud stories related in his comforting Home Counties voice. It was never long, though, before Youngs broke out the moves on electric guitar, his inspired soloing and cracked, pleading vocals recalling near-namesake Neil Young.
Seemingly at a loss at one point as to which category to turn to, Youngs suggested exploring his voluminous back catalogue. This was the cue for a deranged fan sitting on the carpet to request another song from Ultrahits, which unfortunately Youngs didn’t know the words to. Undaunted, the fan persisted, this time calling for “something from Sapphie”, which Youngs conceded he “could probably remember”. There followed the evening’s most transcendentally beautiful moment, as Youngs’s reverb-drenched tenor and sublime arpeggios traced their way through the unbearably tender elegy “Soon It Will Be Fire”. Running it a close second for sheer heartstopping perfection, the encore of “Spin Me Endless In The Universe” (from 2013’s Summer Through My Mind), with its lonesome voice and slowly revolving guitar, sent us floating off into the Geneva night. Concert of the year? Don’t mind if I do, and it’s only February.