REVIEW: Paul Rhodes’s verdict on Rachel Sermanni and Gary Stewart, National Centre for Early Music, York, November 23

State of grace: Rachel Sermanni on stage at St Margaret’s Church, home of the National Centre for Early Music, in Walmgate, York. Picture: Paul Rhodes

BEING born gloriously Scottish is simply the luck of the draw. What the performers at the NCEM on Tuesday chose to do with those lovely accents is anything but arbitrary.

Rachel Sermanni’s upbringing in the Cairngorms must have contributed to her distinctive personality, and certainly can be heard ringing through her wonderful singing voice.

Sermanni has only just turned 30. It’s almost a decade since she opened up for Jesca Hoop at one of Tony Fothergill’s much-missed House Concerts. Then, she had the charisma but not the songs, but now an adult, she is much further down that (never ending) road.

Her 75-minute set was richly textured – high praise as she was playing solo – and drew on songs from across her career. As a performer she naturally draws you in, and her habit of holding your gaze is quite disarming. While sometimes on record her material lacks heft, live and buoyed by her stage craft, it made for a really enjoyable evening.

Singer-songwriter Gary Stewart (who also fronts a Paul Simon tribute show built around the Graceland album, by the way)

Things had got off to a promising start with a charming support set from Gary Stewart. Comparisons with Paul Simon were inescapable, even down to the tank top, but then is there any higher benchmark for a singer-songwriter?

Born in  Perthshire, we are lucky to have Stewart live near York, and he performed a set of songs from his home-recorded lockdown record, Lost, Then Found. His lilting, airy voice and dextrous finger picking were a treat.

While it was a shame he didn’t play his dainty Sadder Day Song – where laying on the grass in York’s Museum Gardens finally makes it into song – there was still much to enjoy. Pick of the set was Sailors And Tailors, which wittily and tunefully brought back to life the romance of his Scottish ancestors.

Kudos to Please Please You promoter Joe Coates’s attuned ears for matching these two performers.

Rachel Sermanni: “Her habit of holding your gaze is quite disarming,” says reviewer Paul Rhodes

Sermanni’s songs took the evening up another level. While she professed to be rusty, the occasional ‘alternative’ note added rather than detracted, making it feel much more human and real – more in keeping with her organic persona.

She wove in a mix of happy songs, with the audience stirred into voice for Dream A Little Dream Of Me (made popular by Doris Day), bitter (the curiously titled Tractor and searching and sad (Everything Changes, a standout from 2014).

Her most recent EP focused on her response to giving birth, Swallow Me sharing the stage with its darker brethren, Travelled. It makes her a highly relatable artist. What Can I Do sparkled, with our Covid powerlessness adding extra layers of meaning to her powerful cry.

Her fascinating introduction to discovering that Semisonic’s late-1990s’ hit, Closing Time, was actually a song in disguise about fatherhood almost made up for Sleeping, which was less hidden, rather winking, in plain sight. It was one of very few weaker moments.

In contrast, her pre-encore set finished with Lay My Heart. Easily her most memorable number, or at least the most anthemic, this enraptured song of being in a state of grace was stunning. Written under the influence of the aurora borealis, it might have been better to leave the audience in that condition.

Custom and good manners demanded an encore, which didn’t reach the same heights but such was the warmth in the room that we could have looked on into the early hours, like Sermanni under those dancing Canadian skies, whisky full until frost grew from our noses.

Review by Paul Rhodes