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Wednesday
Oct232013

Roy Harper at the Royal Festival Hall

The encore was inevitable, but a triumph of confidently realised expectation. 'When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease' soared up to the high ceiling of the Festival Hall, buoyed by strings and brass, Roy Harper's voice as clear and true as ever. 

He's 72 now and, compared with some septuagenarian singing models, is neither the grizzled old trouper of the Never Ending Tour nor the preternaturally sprightly phenomenon that is, sincerely, L. Cohen. Roy can definitely do the business, but lacks match practice. There were occasional stumbles with lyrics and chords from more recent songs, and couple he chose to stop and start again. But when he hits his stride - which is mostly - he can be awesome.

He's promoting a new album, Man & Myth, both sprawling and inspired, a glorious return to the sound of his seventies heyday. I last saw him live in 1975 and there is a lot of common ground with the fire and panache of the HQ album he was then touring, and with its lyrical concerns. I hadn't been aware that there was a gap in my auditory life that a fifteen minute epic about the myth of Orpheus would fill, but 'Heaven Is Here' has firmly put me right. And, in concert, that song's complex challenge is confidently dispatched to the boundary before the interval.

The show is opened by American singer-songwriter Jonathan Wilson, who co-produced the album and who goes on to accompany Harper for the rest of the evening on guitar, mandolin, banjo and percussion. The remainder of the accompaniment comes from a five-piece string section and three brass players, evoking memories of the always striking arrangements David Bedford provided for Roy's records back in the day. Bedford died a couple of years ago and Harper is clearly missing him - though he also goes out of his way rightly to praise Fiona Brice for her work on the new album's songs.

Those songs form the backbone of the set, which otherwise comprises older Harper classics: 'Highway Blues' from 1973's Lifemask is the opener, 'to exercise my tonsils' he says; then Stormcock's 'Me And My Woman' at the close, introduced, entirely accurately, as 'something immense'. In between we've had his lovely take on Dylan's 'Girl From The North Country' as well as a shimmering 'Hallucinating Light'.

A great record, a lovely show. What next? Roy is suitably enigmatic as he thanks the crowd for coming: 'I hope to see you again. But it's in the balance.' He holds his hands in front of him, miming settling scales, before dramatically lurching one hand downwards. You can read that two ways, of course. Let's see.

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