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Entries in Roy Harper (2)


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 a 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.


Where did September go?

There was too much work and not enough writing, I fear.

October will bring a wonderful crop of live gigs, with Ahab, Coal Porters, Tunng, Roy Harper and Black Twig Pickers already booked, so I need to do a bit of catching up before that gets underway.

There have been some very interesting records released in the last few weeks...

I'm warming up for Roy Harper's concert at the Royal Festival Hall in the best possible way: listening to his glorious new album Man And Myth. One usually has to make some allowances with a seventy-year-old hero's new releases, but there's absolutely no need here. Roy's singing is virtually indistinguishable from his classic seventies records and the writing, arrangements and playing all have a real creativity and vigour. He even maintains his tradition of working with some amazing lead guitarists – Jimmy Page, Dave Gilmour and Chris Spedding amongst them – by adding Pete Townsend to the roster.

Fire, flow and drive from one of the real greats - who I last saw on 6 July 1975 at Blackpool FC's ground, touring the wonderful HQ album with Kevin Coyne and Steeleye Span sharing the bill. I feel old now, even if Roy doesn't.

Fighting for listening time with Roy just now is Bill Callahan's latest, Dream River. It took me a while to get Bill - my daughter was a huge Smog fan but I was rather dismissive, in that annoyingly superior paternal sort of way. 2009's Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle was the turning point for me. I still sometimes think he pushes too hard in avoiding normal song structures and seeking to sound conversational, but then I tune in properly to what he's doing and it really works.

The first track on the new album, 'Sing', is a fine case in point – beautifully textured violin and electric guitar against emotional-when-you're-least-expecting-it vocal delivery, in classic Callahan style:

The only words I've said today are beer and thank you

Beer... Thank you... Beer... Thank you

In contrast, I'm finding Cloud Control's long-awaited second album, Dream Cave, pretty disappointing so far. I loved the lift and life and West Coast echoes of 2010's Bliss Release and wasn't expecting the poppier approach of its successor. There's an odd disco sound at times and most of the songs just haven't grabbed me yet. Of course it's not their fault that they haven't met my particular expectations. I'll keep trying, because their harmonies and musicianship clearly haven't gone away, and 'Moon Rabbit' at least has something about it... Watch this space for further updates.

Final quick plaudits for a couple of rather different record labels:

  • well done to Music On Vinyl for a vinyl re-release of Daniel Lanois's lovely second solo album, For The Beauty Of Wynona. A well-pressed, heavyweight version in its striking original sleeve, which I think was censored in North America first time round. This is one of those early nineties albums released when the CD format had conquered most of the western world and just a few vinyl copies trickled out in Germany which now fetch silly prices on eBay. A good honest repress has to be the sensible alternative;
  • and congratulations yet again to the splendid Art Is Hard for another aesthetic triumph. They chose to mark Cassette Store Day (yes, I know, just go with it...) with a twin-tape retrospective compilation, Bleed In Gold, packed in a golden tobacco tin and limited to 100 numbered copies. Collectable or what? And it features another appearance for Gum's wondrous Cherryade. Well done, chaps: my copy is definitely not for sale.