“I’m not used to this,” Jim Ghedi bleats as he looks out into a sold-out crowd in London’s Hoxton Hall. Arriving earlier today from an agrarian Sheffield village into London’s fug - it appears the audience and the man on stage share a mutual misunderstanding. He sits with what looks like a hand-me-down guitar, while his bandmate dons a beautiful double-bass which he had hand-crafted himself (I know this because his parents are sat beside me, and they’re happy to tell me so). Jim starts with an instrumental song, ‘Gaughan’ which begins with what sounds like a demonstration of the most gorgeous chords he can find. He lovingly runs his thumb down each of the six-strings as his left hand wields the chord formations that stir a different feeling in the audience with each combination. Then a pause. He begins to play sweeping arpeggios as quickly as though a bee were buzzing over them. It yields the very distinctive feeling of a summer’s day in England. As with all the songs in his set, it is geographically rooted in Ghedi’s love of rural Britain. He plays ‘Bramley Moor’ - a song dedicated to a pregnant goose he’d been asked to tend the day before. It too vibrates with the calm urgency of a perfect English day. As he plays ‘The Elan’, his thumb on the bass notes of his guitar suggest an avidity, while his fingers on the thinner strings coruscate prettily. It too evokes all the synaesthesia of a summer’s day - with the bass like a thud of sunshine, and the higher notes which slowly spin like a pond full of swans.

“I just love trees” he says after the final note. The London audience, who had stood outside queueing with nothing but cafes, bars, and grey in sight laugh at this ebullience. We are, after all, in an area of London where the scrawny trees grow no taller than the traffic lights. He brings out the twelve-string for his next song, which he wrote after seeing one of the world’s tallest living trees. It’s called ‘Fortingall Yew’. We are made to notice the inseparability of this handcrafted instrument and the tree that would have been axed down to create it. Before playing his penultimate song, 'Phoenix Works', he tells of us of the last remaining blacksmith in his village. In his workshop he had salvaged the remainder of a poem, written by a former striker from long ago. Though much of it had been burned, Ghedi has saved a verse. He uses this opportunity to showcase his John Martyn-esque singing voice for the first time in the set, as he sings an ode to the love of land. Finally, he spins a rendition of the traditional Irish gypsy-folk song, ‘Banks of Mulroy Bay’. A recording of which was passed down to him from his Irish grandfather, he says. It was a song made to unite the women who gossiped in the kitchen, with the men who drank furiously in the living room. Ghedi plays it on accordion as he chants, “I will oft times on my pillow think of dancing song and reel.” You can feel the conviviality and simplicity in each of his songs, as we listen on in this city of muck. If only this audience could embrace the boredom and beauty of a village on the outskirts of Sheffield, we too could have our spirits emboldened by trees, and carry stories in our hearts of blacksmiths and grandfathers. But we stay put. The daydream that we share with the singer onstage is nice, but it’s soon disturbed by the reminder that we’d rather live in crud than live more than five minutes from a corner shop.

In the interim between acts, the audience light the candles onstage. There are twenty-two in total - symbolising the number of lives taken in the Manchester attack which had happened the night before. Julie Byrne walks out, carrying her guitar in one hand and a mug of herbal tea in the other. “Before we begin,” she says, “I need to say a word about what happened in Manchester last night,” shuffling onto the chair and readjusting the microphone. “We need to go forth with fortitude. We need to love ourselves, and we need to love each other. We are here because music creates a community of healing, and nothing can stop the music.” She starts to play ‘Sleepwalker’, her voice even more gilded with emotion than it is on recordings. The quavering vibrato as she questions: “Before you, had I ever known love/ Or had I only known misuse of the power another had over me?” punches the solar plexus. We go along with her, on her journey across the States, between lovers, from misery to contentment before she finally she rests on: “The one sense of permanence that I came to feel was mine/ Only beneath your gaze.”

She smiles graciously at the end of the song, and invites her bandmate on stage. She plays ‘Follow My Voice’’s astral chords as her fingers dreamily and drowsily slide down the fretboard. He joins with an airy synth which gently emphasises Julie’s clean-yet-throaty vocals. Playing songs mainly from her latest and highly-lauded record, Not Even Happiness, she allows the audience to travel alongside her in an event that concretises the prize storytelling on the album. I can hear some members of the audience whistling along to the synth riff in ‘Melting Grid’, and tapping ferociously at their knees with each syllable that Julie delivers. Each tap seems to be saying ‘yes!’, ‘yes!’, ‘yes!’ as though we’re listening to some great public speaker. But we’re not. What we’re presented with is a soft-spoken and gracefully unassuming singer. We are pressed and held down by her gentleness alone. Just as the audience has begun to listen as keenly to her as though she were a troubadour, she starts to lightly cull the strings of her guitar. Her bandmate builds a swirling cloud of sound with loops and the docking noise of waves. It swells and gradually lulls, until there’s nothing but the sound of Julie’s fingers on her guitar and the waves. “You are the sea as it glides,” she sings, and I can hear the sibilance in the audience as they mouth along those words with her. Before a resounding call for an encore, she plays the album’s standout track, ‘Natural Blue’. The opening "ooh"s rise with vitality, and the sound comes from her so instinctively. It’s as though she’s using her song to wake up a flight of birds before the sunrise. It’s artless, effortless, natural enough to make the audience’s eyes sting. It brings the audience to their feet in a fury. “I love you, I love you all” she says. And she means it.

After a brief departure, she steps back onto the stage grinning, as she has been for most of the evening. Delving back into her catalogue, she plays an older favourite: ‘Marmalade’, which showcases some of her most deft guitar playing. The almost overly clunky arpeggios which introduce the song recede into the simple, sparkling verses. She reduces the chorus to a lackadaisical strum as she sings, “High, high, high, low, low, low/ I would have seen you through both,” and her minimalism is felt deeply. It begs the point: Julie seems to triumph in the simple and the stark. She’s no need for artfulness, and this is what people mean when they say they’ve found it. Julie is it – you know she’s one of the greats, in the same way you know when a plumb is ripe. There is no contortion nor refraction, it’s clear than within Julie is a profound inner radiance, and tonight we have the privilege of seeing a single projection of it. It’s corny, of course it is, but Julie Byrne was born to be a singer. She was born to do this the same way a chiff-chaff was born to chiff chaff. Nearing the end of her journey she wonders, “if travel led me anywhere,” there is a “passion in me” that is pulling her. As the closing song’s title suggests, Julie lives life now as a singer. As she exits the stage, grateful to the point of near-tears, the audience takes a deep breath, "wow"s fill the room.

julie byrne

Photo by Stephanie Nicola-Miller / insta: @stephmnm