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Nick Harper and John Smith, Azuza Bar, Marlborough, April 18th 2010

April 19, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, son Mr P sent me a hopeful email detailing a free afternoon of music to mark Independent Record Store Day. Folkie John Smith and non-folkie Nick Harper were down to play in the pretty town of Marlborough in Wiltshire. Mr P was wondering if the family might like to go.

As it happens, I had a ticket to see Lou Reed’s Metal Machine extravaganza in Oxford on that Sunday night, so I thought, hey, let’s make a weekend of it – Saturday visiting the neolithic remains of north Wiltshire and Sunday slobbing around in Marlborough before heading off to Oxford. The family could then wander round sightseeing and grab a meal while I listened to two hours of Lou making feedback.

And so it came to pass. The weather was brilliant, the Travelodge on Saturday night was dependable and we found ourselves at some point after midday on Sunday listening to John Smith. Back in February, I made a mildly unfavourable remark on this blog about John Smith in the course of a Smoke Fairies review. Put briefly, my frustration is with artists who sign an exciting deal and get led down the road of adding a band, smoothing off the sound and becoming… well, slightly dull. That’s what I feel about his new album Map Or Direction – a lot of it is good, but not as good as he is just armed with a guitar and his great voice.

There’s a small minority of us who think many songs are best stripped down to the essentials, but I suppose the record company’s right. When was the last time someone had a hit with just guitar or piano? Hits schmits, I say… Anyway, John was playing solo, so he was as compelling as I know he can be. We got Winter, his percussive guitar wonderwork, and Hands, from his new album, followed by a couple of traditional songs. He rounded the set off with his party-piece, a toe-tapping acoustic version of Queens Of The Stone Age’s No One Knows, and finally the touching To Have So Many from his first album, The Fox And The Monk, which has just been reissued. Here’s Winter from a few years ago:

We then wandered around sunny Marlborough, along the river and into a pub, before returning at five-ish for the closing set from Nick Harper. Nick said he was feeling a bit weird, but I suspect the combination of lager and cough mixture that he was glugging liberally might not have helped.

Despite his cough, he roared through a very uptempo set, with few of his slower songs, except for the wonderful Blood Song. Aeroplane, The Story Of My Heart and Simple all ripped along nicely, and with the final three songs, Boy Meets Planet, Love Junky and encore By My Rocket Comes Fire, he was sufficiently animated to go for one of his audience walkabouts. In fact, during the second wander he jumped up on the bar and wiggled a few bars from up there. All great fun on a fine afternoon.

Once again, Nick effortlessly meshed his radical humanist philosophy into the entertainment – perhaps better than his father has often done, but let’s not get into that whole father-son thing, except to say thanks to my son Mr P for suggesting the day and emailing me the setlist just now. Older son Humungous enjoyed the show too, sitting on the floor by the front, impressed by Nick’s guitar pyrotechnics and spiky attitude. Here’s my camera-phone pic of Nick’s very own barstool blues….

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