Roy Harper may well be rock’s least well-known legend. The only non-band member to have sung a lead vocal on a Pink Floyd song (Have A Cigar from Wish You Were Here), he is also the subject of a Led Zeppelin song (Hats Off To (Roy) Harper).  David Gilmour, Paul And Linda McCartney and Kate Bush have guested on his albums and Bush, Peter Gabriel and This Mortal Coil have covered his songs. 

In 2013 Harper broke a hiatus with the release of a new album, Man And Myth, and played a series of highly acclaimed gigs.  It seemed like Harper was all set for a new phase in his career.  However, as he played the last of these gigs, he knew something that his fans and the press were yet to discover; he was facing the possibility of charges of historical sexual abuse being brought against him.  It was eventually found that there was no case to answer but waging his defence cost him dear, both financially and emotionally.  Harper has decided to mark his 75th birthday with a tour.  Is it a last stand or another new start? Only time will tell.  But as Harper notes in one of his songs, time is temporary. roy_harper_live_20168online

Although he is at heart an acoustic performer, comfortable enough with only his guitar for accompaniment , Harper has often detoured into rock and often used string and brass arrangements in his songs.  On this tour he is backed by a small string and brass section and by Bill Shanley on second acoustic and electric guitars.  The arrangements are light touch with the musicians often sitting out all together where the song clearly requires no adornment, but adding an extra texture as and when required.

As the musicians takes their seats an audience member calls out: “Where is he?”.  Harper wanders on and is greeted like a long lost friend.  Opening with Commune from his 1974 album Valentine, Harper takes just a little time to settle in.  The occasional lyric is fluffed and the odd line started over.  ”There will be mistakes” Harper warns us later.  These mistakes may be seen as  being  aged-related, but in fact seasoned Harper fans will be aware that forgetting the odd lyric has been a staple of his gigs over the years.  Harper’s voice, which was in fine form on his last album, remains strong and although it takes a song or two to get fully warmed up, his ability to hit high falsetto notes is undiminished.  roy_harper_live_20168online_2

Alluding to recent events, Harper tells us that he is the kind of person who can fall in love four or five times a day and attributes this to genetic programming.  He admits that this has resulted in “inappropriateness” but has always been “stopped by his own cops”.  This seems to fall somewhere between an admission of his own failings and an excuse, but I admire his honesty in addressing the matter on stage rather than airbrushing it from his history.

The passing of time is, unsurprisingly, a recurring theme tonight.  January Man from his last album Man And Myth  examines the thoughts of a man confronted by his own ageing.  Time Is Temporary, played later in the show and dedicated to Harper’s wife and best friend, Tracy, is similarly contemplative.

The string and brass section come into on their own with the lush Another Day, a personal favourite from Harper’s Flat, Baroque And Berserk album.  Between-song preambles are A Harper staple and tonight it is enlightening to get a glimpse into the genesis of some of his songs.  Some members of the audience are keen to add to the banter and these interjections are warmly received and responded to by Roy.  Towards the end of the show though, it appears to have got a bit too much for one individual.  “Just sing a song, for fuck’s sake” he interjects.  Roy takes this in his stride, laughing and seeming to consider whether this request is a reasonable one before rejecting it.

While the string and brass section deserve a special mention for their contribution, particular praise is due to Bill Shanley on guitars and Beth Symmons on double bass.  Bill has the unenviable task of playing guitar on some songs on which Jimmy Page was the original guitarist. – no pressure there.  Rather than imitating Page, Shanley brings his own interpretation to the songs, adding an extra dimension to Roy’s own playing, which has lost none of its skill.  When not bowing decorously as part of the string section, Beth moves centre stage behind Bill and Roy and gets down to some serious plucking, her percussive bass lines adding a bit of bottom end to Bill’s guitar. roy_harper_live_20168online3

The second half of the show opens with a version of North Country Girl, a folk music standard possibly made most famous by the Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash version on Dylan’s Nashville Skyline.  Other highlights include Time Is Temporary, before which Roy reveals that he spent his honeymoon in Edinburgh.  Naming the hotel in which they stayed elicits a loud “boo” from an audience member.  “Why the boo?” asks Roy.  “It’s overpriced” comes the reply.  Roy thinks for a while. “Yes, it was overpriced” he agrees, “and there was a large bust of Queen Victoria in the room that watched over you while you, err, made your moves.”  Roy goes on to regale us with the tale of an earlier Edinburgh visit involving infamous  mining union leader Mick McGachey and a bag of mushrooms.  A double whammy of excellent versions of Hallucinating Light and Me And My Woman take us to the end of the evening.  After a standing ovation from the audience and some heartfelt thanks from Roy, we are treated to a particularly poignant When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease.  Roy describes it as a song about changing times, which perhaps it was when he wrote it forty one years ago, but it carries a deeper resonance now, one that is not lost on any of us, least of all I suspect, Roy himself.

On the strength of tonight’s performance Roy Harper has a good few innings left in him.  Let’s hope he’s back again soon.

John Scott

 

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