Birmingham 7th September 2016.
Concert review by Mike Gates
Interview/Thoughts by Colette DeGiovanni
Photos by Andy Jeffs
Having grown up with the music of singer/songwriter Roy Harper, it felt like a special occasion to be present at the first of his recent concerts celebrating the folkster’s 75th birthday. During a remarkable career packed with incredible highs and difficult lows, he has to date released 32 albums spanning 5 decades, a large part of which being almost permanently on the road. Considered by many of his peers and an extremely loyal fan base as one of the most eloquent, gifted, and sometimes outspoken songwriters the UK has ever produced, it still seems incredible to think that his classic albums like “Stormcock”, “Flat Baroque and Berserk”, “Lifemask” et al, remain as unheard, undiscovered musical gems to many people. Record company fall-outs, idiosyncrasies, fate, whatever the reasons may be, he remains unheard of to some, whilst being a cult hero to others. One thing’s for sure though; Harper has always stayed true to himself and produced music that is beautiful, inspirational, honest, emotive and intelligent. I remember going to see him perform at The Red Lion Folk Club in the 80’s, at a time when he was going through a very difficult period, and his performance was just as passionate then as it had been at his height of popularity throughout the early to mid 70’s. Even in the 90’s I can remember seeing him at a gig where he wasn’t happy with the fact that the seating at the venue had been set up too far away from the stage, so just one song into his set he invited the audience to leave their seats, move the chairs out of the way and to come and sit and chill on and around the stage for a more intimate experience. Having done this he then said “Come on then, let’s enjoy the gig together. Get your spliffs out, light up and pass them round, we won’t get asked back here again but let’s have a good time while I play you some music.”
And so it was with much anticipation that I went to see Harper perform at Symphony Hall in Birmingham on 7th September. The last time I had seen him play a show was around 3 years ago at Colston Hall in Bristol. That was a gig that left me thinking that would be the last time I saw him play live, as he seemed a tad frail and distracted. He ended the gig by saying to the audience “Thank you. It’s been a great life, enjoy yours.” It really did feel like an emotional goodbye. Happily I was wrong. In the lush surroundings of Symphony Hall he successfully put on a performance that left the crowd smiling from ear to ear. Not just with the memories they were taking home, but with the fact that Harper appeared once more to be strong, witty, and enjoying the occasion. More to the point perhaps, his voice was back. It’s strength, power and unparalleled beauty once more singing out for all to hear. The set-up for this gig was similar to that of a few years ago when he toured to promote his excellent return to form on the album “Man and Myth”. The string and brass ensemble led by Fiona Bruce made a stunning contribution to Harper’s songs, the arrangements here at Symphony Hall coming to life in such an incredible auditorium. Some of the tunes on the night also featured Bill Shanley on guitar and Beth Symmons on double bass, both adding a fresh spark and impetus to Harper’s tunes. The original David Bedford scores for strings and brass were taken on by Fiona Bruce initially for the Man and Myth album and tour, following Bedford’s untimely death in 2011. Fiona Bruce says “I knew what a close relationship Roy and David had shared, and what significant and enduring music they had created together. I spent days listening to the original 70’s recordings and reading the fragments of scores passed on to me, before I was able to translate his arrangements with the respect they deserve.” And what an incredible job she did; the resulting arrangements helping make this concert truly a night to remember.
Harper worked his way through the first set in his own inimitable style. A mixture of classic tunes and meandering in-between chat. It was great to see him in good humour, despite a slightly inauspicious start where he began singing the wrong words to the wrong song. He took it all in his stride though, with some lovely banter from the audience just adding to the warmth of the occasion. The delicately beautiful 70’s tune “Commune” was followed up with a tender rendition of the more recently penned “January Man”, the lyrics being so poignant as a reminder of the fact that we all still have a big heart as we get older, even if at times we look back longingly on younger days gone by. As Harper then began the chords to another “Valentine” piece, the gorgeous “I’ll see you again”, he broke one of his guitar strings. Guitarist Bill Shanley appeared from the shadows of the stage to take Harper’s guitar and fit a new string. And so Harper switched to a different guitar, one with open tuning, and treated the audience to a stunning rendition of the classic “South Africa”. It was such a pleasure to hear this tune performed in all its crowning glory. Superb string arrangements mixed seemingly effortlessly with Harper’s glorious guitar playing, all played out beautifully with some very clever and subtle work by the man at the controls of the sound desk. The timeless “Don’t You Grieve” was given an almost rockabilly makeover with addition of Symmons’ slap-style double bass playing, alongside Shanley’s slide guitar. And then , for me, came the highlight of the first set, the incredible “Hors D’ouvres”. I think the last time I heard Harper perform this “Stormcock” classic was in the late 80’s alongside Jimmy Page at London’s Covent Garden. With Shanley’s atmospheric guitar adding substance and depth, Harper sang his way through this lengthy tour-de-force with a passion and power I hadn’t heard from the singer in a long time. A magnificent end to the first set.
After a short break the second set began with Harper saying he had ‘claimed back this song’ as he went on to sing with characteristic eloquence “North Country”. Many waters have passed under the bridge since Harper first sang this tune, and as much as I love some of the versions played by other artists, most notably Bob Dylan, Harper’s fingerpicking style and soulful approach to this tune has always made it what it is. “I’ll see you again” then did get played- without any broken strings this time. Before attending the concert, there were certain tunes in my mind that I hoped Harper would perform. One of my all-time personal favourites and another originally penned for the “Valentine” album, is the sublime “12 Hours of Sunset”. Tonight’s performance of this tune was the best I had ever heard it. The strings and brass truly came into their own here, the arrangements successfully blending romanticism with a slight unease to create a quite incredible spine-tingling atmosphere. Harper’s voice was stunning; still after all these years bringing a tear to my eye with its emotive strength and beauty. It was also good to hear the old Roy Harper anti-establishment fire in the belly with a thunderous rendition of “Hangman”. Great to see and hear the songsmith taking no prisoners even at the evergreen age of 75. The Harper songbook was in full flow now, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in the audience completely mesmerised as he went into yet another old favourite “Hallucinating Light”. Once again his vocals were so bang on the money, one couldn’t help feel anything but admiration and respect that this great songwriter could still put on a performance like this. And there was still time for yet more vintage Harper as the second set was drawn to a close with the ever popular “Me and My Woman”. Strings and brass danced in time with Harper’s voice whilst the additional guitar and bass added subtle variation to this oft played masterpiece. The crowd roared its approval with a sincere warmth and generosity. As befitting most Roy Harper concerts, some things might not have gone quite to plan, and as the master musician was about to leave the stage (before inevitably returning for a well deserved encore), his wife Tracy came onto the stage to whisper something into his ear – presumably that he was running well behind time, as Harper then sat back down on his chair to perform one final song. No surprises here, and we certainly wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, as together with the rousing strings and brass, the majestic magnificence of “When an old cricketer leaves the crease” was a fitting and poignant end to a wonderful concert.
It took a while for the end of concert applause to die down. But when it did, Harper gave very gracious credit to the musicians on stage with him, before smiling and announcing “Well that was a good rehearsal.” And it was good to hear him add “Hopefully I’ll see you again soon.”
Roy Harper and Colette DeGiovanni
Colette DeGiovanni: It was an immense pleasure and privilege for me to spend the day in the company of Roy Harper. I was present during the Symphony Hall sound-check, enjoyed a pre-gig coffee and chat with him, and went back to meet him for a drink after the show. I began by asking him how and why he ended up living in Ireland.
Roy Harper: I initially went there in part due to the fact that I was being really unfairly taxed as the Inland Revenue hadn’t recalculated my earnings and were still taxing me as though I was still earning what I had been in the 70’s. So I went to Ireland for what I thought would be a temporary solution but I haven’t been able to return since! I wanted to be in the countryside and by the sea, but not too far from an airport, so we ended up in Clonakilty.
Colette DeGiovanni: You brought your support act (Ye Vagabonds) for tonight over from Ireland, is that right?
Roy Harper: Yes, they’re from Dublin. I was introduced to their music by Bill (Shannon) and I loved what they were doing. It reminded me of the energy and spirit of the folk scene around the time I started out. I was busking in Europe when I was young, so I decided to bring them with me for this tour.
Colette DeGiovanni: I’m really interested in your songwriting process and how it feels to perform songs that you wrote decades ago. Are you able to still feel connected to those songs?
Roy Harper: Most of my songs start with a tear. I guess this is a metaphor for a deep emotional connection to something. And sometimes that emotional connection will result in a physical tear. All of my songs begin with an idea and a tear and they grow from there. It could be just an idea, a musical phrase, a title, a line which could end up going anywhere in the song, and then the song grows outwards from there. When I perform songs from years ago, I return to that initial tear emotionally and inevitably this sometimes gets mixed in with the tears of something that’s happening now.
Colette DeGiovanni: And what creates the tears of ‘now’?
Roy Harper: Nature and Love!
Colette DeGiovanni: And so the songs of yesterday are still relevant today.
Roy Harper: Songs live independently and once you send them out into the world they inspire and influence people in ways we can’t comprehend. They have a completely new life of their own after their initial birth.
Colette DeGiovanni: One very old song I’d like to talk about is “All you need is” from the album “Come out fighting Genghis Smith”. There are many things I have taken from this song and personally it has always been very important to me. What did it mean to you at the time?
Roy Harper: I wrote the song as a response to The Beatles song “All you need is love”, as I felt it was a bit vacuumous at the time. But actually I feel that my own effort ended up being quite vacuumous also, on account of my age when I wrote it. I’d certainly have much more to say on the subject now. I still love the song though, it played influence on my life and so it went on to live in a new way and format.
Colette DeGiovanni: When writing songs myself, I have difficulty finding clarity when I have lots of unfinished work…
Roy Harper: Well it might just be that it’s their time to sit on the shelf for a while! I’ve had lots of songs that have sat on the shelf, sometimes for twenty years! But then when I take them off the shelf in a flash of inspiration one day, they have a fresh perspective and renewed vigour that was needed to see them through to a finished piece of work. It’s always important though to keep a shelf for songs that you are working on now, which is constantly being loaded with ideas. Thoughts and ideas that inspire and nourish you despite how ever many shelves there might be in the annals of your mind. Don’t ever let creativity starve.
Roy Harper with his partner Tracy
‘Inspirational Thoughts’ by Colette DeGiovanni:
Meeting Roy was a wonderful experience for me. He wrote a songbook with all the lyrics of his songs spanning his career that contained notes, personal photographs and references and contexts. All of this was spurred on by his wife Tracy. She is such a wonderful, strong, loving, outgoing yet laid-back and whimsical character! It’s not hard to see why Roy is so devoted to her. They share such a visibly warm and affectionate energy between them. She brings out the best in him through her support and by the inspiration of her character. They are very much a team and I couldn’t help thinking how this influences how incredibly on top of his game he is for a man of his age. As an example, at the sound-check he was totally with it in respect of getting the sound right. His ears are still sharp and he negotiated with the sound guys to make sure he got exactly the sound he wanted. His EQ skills were amazing. He could hear exactly which k wasn’t right in the mix and kept insisting on them changing it. And by darn he was right! When they took some of the bass off the vocals it sounded tones better but was so subtle that I was really impressed that he’d picked it out, right down to distinguishing the very frequency that was muddying the sound. I found it totally inspiring to watch a man 75 years of age at work, remembering all those guitar parts, lyrics etc., and pulling it off so well. I gained so much respect for him as a performer and technician as well as the songwriting genius he is. After the gig I was also struck by what incredibly nice people Roy and Tracy are, without any pretension. There was a very ordinary working class woman who had been a fan of Roy’s since 1972 who had come to the green room after the show on her own. They made her feel so welcome, like a friend and treated her on a level with utmost respect that was so kind and thoughtful. And finally, I have to share this with you: When Roy and I were talking about songwriting and about old ideas that get left on the shelf, he paused, and then he gave me a page of his lyrics that had never been used, for me to start a new song with. So this will go on a new shelf, a DeGiovanni/Harper composition that will hopefully be finished before twenty years pass on the shelf!