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Nick Harper, Union Chapel, Islington, March 26th 2010

March 31, 2010

I wonder if it would be possible to review a Nick Harper gig without using the words ‘folk’ or ‘Roy’. As I’ve already failed in that task, please let me explain: Nick Harper is an acoustic singer-songwriter in the percussive-rock and picking styles. He is not a folk musician – I’ve never heard him sing a traditional song or play a traditional tune – but it’s much easier for idle reviewers to see the guitar, hear some picking and slap a big ‘FOLK’ label on him.

Of course, this is true also of his father, Roy, with whom Nick is inevitably and pointlessly compared. What he does share with his father is a confidence and assurance about his music that borders on arrogance – and a pathological hatred of fossilised forms of authority, particularly governments, armies and organised religion. Which suits me fine. This fiercely humanist/pagan attitude to life makes a Nick gig at the Union Chapel even more compelling, as it’s still a consecrated place of a worship, rather than just a nice old building like the deconsecrated venue St Luke’s Church on Old Street.

After kicking off with oldies A Hundred Things and Shadowlands, both from his debut CD Light At The End Of The Kennel, it’s into his funny and wonderfully written historical piece The Field of the Cloth of Gold. In fact, here it is from the gig, complete with dodgy tuning and silly rambling intro, both of which are essential Harper features…

The next song, Evo, is Nick’s tribute to Bolivia’s radical president, Evo Morales, although the political ranting has been kept to a minimum this evening. The more personal stuff is always more powerful and the next number, Blood Song, is one of my very favourites – a deeply moving song about the fundamental ties that bind across and down the generations.

Other, more uptempo, favourites come thick and fast – Love Junky [sic], Aeroplane and more – followed by another stunner, Bloom, a heart-wrenching (and, according to Nick, true) account of child abuse. The guitar-playing is simple and the vocals out-of-this-world – Harper’s falsetto turns into a high, wailing cry of pain and a scream for justice. It’s not easy listening, but he follows it incongruously with one of his prime pieces of silliness, Eric Idle’s Galaxy Song – and yes, he can remember all the words.

The cornerstone of most of Nick’s gigs is the epic Building Our Own Temple, which gives him the opportunity to show off his guitar skills and vocal playfulness while singing out the most defiant anti-religious song. As it drives along, samples of other songs come in and out of the wall of sound – Led Zeppelin’s Friends, Holst’s Mars, Kool and the Gang’s Jungle Boogie and Public Enemy’s Don’t Believe The Hype. Now you should be able to tell that Nick’s no folkie…

The evening winds up with the expertly crafted story of birth to death, By My Rocket Comes Fire, and he encores with oldie Radio Silence. Nick’s not to everyone’s taste (The Suit avoided this one like the plague), but I admire his pugnacious, cocky attitude, his guitar-playing and some damn-fine songwriting. My advice to the unconverted: skip the studio albums and go and see him live. Here endeth the lesson.

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