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Roy Harper, The Jazz Café, London, June 5th 2010

June 26, 2010

This gig, courtesy of Mojo magazine, was one I thought might never happen. Over the last three years, Roy Harper – England’s finest radical acoustic singer-songwriter – has suggested that he’s had enough of live performance. At the age of 69, the chaotic fun of a Roy gig might just be getting too much for him. The last time I saw him, at the 100 Club, he physically evicted a crazy ex-girlfriend for shouting and screaming at him, a crowd of very drunk Glaswegians shouted and sang raucously all night, and one young chap climbed on the stage and asked to join Roy in a rendition of his early tune Blackpool. At the time, it was all quite surreal and enjoyable, but I left thinking that Roy might not want all that crap at his time of life – not that he’s noticeably mellowed, but maybe we should show him a certain amount of the respect that is due to the older and wiser among us.

I’d love to ramble on at length why I think Roy deserves the accolade I gave him above, but time is tight and I’m falling behind with this blog as it is… so I’ll just give you a bit more background with these comments I made on Facebook a while ago about the first time I saw Roy, at Birmingham University way back in 1978:

OK, this is where it starts getting weird. I’d discovered Roy thanks to Led Zeppelin’s Hats Off To Harper and I was hooked… I’d got hold of his Lifemask album and loved its attitude and aggression… this wasn’t some winsome folky in a field smiling at buttercups, this was a headcase who wanted to air his grievances. Fantastic.
Anyway, so a friend and I get to the gig to discover everyone sitting on the floor. Whaaa…? Why are they doing that? We’d never been to a ‘laidback’ gig before – and I mean laidback. The entire audience was outrageously stoned and Roy himself had clearly smoked an entire bush – which for him is just about right. And as with most Roy gigs, you get five minutes of song followed by ten minutes of anecdote. You soon get used to it…
Last year, Roy said that he’s had enough of playing live, which is the world’s loss. Genius.  

Thankfully, he crept out of semi-retirement this year to play a few gigs supporting Joanna Newsom (not my thing – and it’s not for Roy to support anyone in my not-so-humble opinion) and this one solo gig at the Jazz Café. The Suit, Mick the Banjo and I joined up with Hippy Nick at the Spread Eagle for a few ales before the show, but we arrived in good time to take a spot close to the stage – unlike Jimmy Page, who’d planted himself at a table on the small balcony.

Jimmy Page 'rattling his jewellery'...

After a brief intro by Mojo Editor Phil Alexander, Roy took the stage to great applause. He started the swirling intro to One Man Rock And Roll Band and its emotional and appropriate first line – ‘Welcome back you total stranger…’ It became clear that Roy’s lost none of his edge and the song unfolded with a sense of restrained anger and defiance that typifies many of Roy’s ‘protest’ songs.

It’s a great song to kick off with, dealing as it does with two of Roy’s great enemies – the Army and the Church, two of the three pillars (along with Government) that he sees as utterly destructive of the human spirit and the ‘old ways’. In that, he shares a certain similarity with other post-War English musicians who kicked against the Establishment and the people’s acquiescence in its hegemony – I’m thinking here particularly of John Lennon and Roger Waters, both of them (like Roy) war babies.
   You tell me that Granddad was a hero,
   That he fought for peace and no more guns,

   But you know I think he must have changed his name to Nero,
   You see every time he grunts he kills his sons.

That’s an extreme thing for a post-War Englishman to say, but, like most of Roy’s songs, it rings loud with truth, whether you agree with it or not.

If you have the time, it’s worth reading some of Roy’s extensive notes about this and other songs from the Stormcock album on his blog. About One Man‘s everyman character, Johnny Soldier, he says: ‘[He] represents somewhat willing but increasingly unimpressed gun fodder. He is much more self-determined than would have been possible for his equivalent even fifty years previously. He’s found himself and he has a voice and an attitude. The attitude is more articulate than the voice.’ That’s a pretty good description of Roy himself – the voice can sometimes be slightly too strident or bathetic, but the attitude is always, always spot-on. And Roy’s blog is also entertaining for such conversation-stoppers as, ‘The horrible death of the progressive Giordano Bruno in 1600 will tell you all you need to know about the policies of the church/state.’ Follow that.

In fact, Roy followed it with a very sweet version of The Girl From The North Country, showing the other, more sensual, side of his music and his obsessions. After the stirring Judas anthem Don’t You Grieve and 1988’s Pinches Of Salt, he treated us to a devastating rendition of Hangman, his nakedly painful and desperate plea against capital punishment. But, as ever, Roy doesn’t see things in black and white – the grey in between can turn black too: ‘We are creatures of darkness’ indeed.

Following Another Day, a pretty song popularised by Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel, Roy sang Commune, which is now a period piece (in a good way) and a beautiful one at that. There was a fair amount of banter going on all evening and at one point mention was made of the screaming woman mentioned above, and Roy wondered whether she was still with us… Not at this gig, thankfully.

After pagan paean The Green Man and the sensual Me And My Woman, Roy said goodnight. The crowd applauded wildly and got to vote on the encore – only one, alas, because there was a club night following the show, so a strict curfew was in place. When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease won the vote and it was a beautiful and emotional way to close the evening. I left wondering whether Roy had perhaps left the crease and we might not see him again.
   When the day is done, and the ball has spun, in the umpire’s pocket away
   And all remains, in the groundsman’s pains for the rest of time and a day,
   There’ll be one mad dog and his master, pushing for four with the spin,
   On a dusty pitch, with two pounds six of willow wood in the sun.
   When an old cricketer leaves the crease, you never know whether he’s gone,
   If sometimes you’re catching a fleeting glimpse of a twelfth man at silly mid-on,
   And it could be Geoff, and it could be John, with a new ball sting in his tail,
   And it could be me, and it could be thee, and it could be the sting in the ale,
   Sting in the ale…

Here’s One Man Rock And Roll Band from the gig:

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. paul dionne permalink
    July 16, 2010 2:35 pm

    Thank you Guy – finally catching up on my emails; this is a great one of a great performer – I’ve never had the chance to see him & doubt it’s going to happen now….

    • brandnewguy permalink*
      July 16, 2010 5:11 pm

      Thanks, Paul. Here’s hoping Roy won’t become a hermit again 🙂 There are some great live shows out there – I’ll get some for you…

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