For much of a career that began on the London folk scene in the mid-1960s, singer/songwriter and guitarist Roy Harper
has been an underground cult figure and symbol of the counterculture, playing the length and breadth of England to fiercely loyal fans. Harper's best gigs have the intimacy of a confessional, the passion of a Speaker's Corner harangue and the madcap insights of a surrealist comedianand that's just the banter between songs. Harper's love songs invite bittersweet tears and his unbridled sonic assaults on acoustic guitar leave audiences reeling.
This live CD/DVD recording from London's Metropolis Studios in April, 2011 will be familiar fare to longtime Harper fans, with seven of the twelve cuts appearing on Harper's first live recording, the seminal Flashes from the Archives of Oblivion
(Harvest, 1974). "Frozen Moment," from the Harper/Jimmy Page
collaboration, Whatever Happened to Jugula?
(Beggar's Banquet, 1985), and "Pinches of Salt," from Descendants of Smith
(EMI, 1988), are the only tracks from the 1980s and there are no songs from Harper's three recordings in the 1990s. In fact, bar the title track from Harper's most recent studio recording, The Green Man
(Science Fiction, 2000), the set list could have come from a 1988 gig.
Recorded in front of an invited audience of 120 people, there's a more relaxed feel about Harper's performance than in some of his more charged live sets. That said, on eternal Harper staples like the raging anti-war anthem "One Man Rock 'n' Roll Band," "Highway Blues" and "Me and My Woman," Harper's intensity serves to recall a review by Melody Maker
's Chris Welsh of a typical Harper gig: "He blew my head off."
It's a set list which, for one night at least, mostly leaves the covers on Harper's more politically oriented compositions. Harper's songs have addressed apartheid ("South Africa"), British colonialism ("All Ireland") capital punishment ("Hangman") and the Iraq war ("The Death of God"). Religion has been an endless target for Harper's barbs, though it's almost unthinkable today to imagine anyone penning a song entitled "The Black Cloud of Islam," as Harper did on Once
(Awareness Records, 1990), just a year after the fatwa on British writer Salman Rushdie.
Perhaps Harper has simply been a little too
underground to really ruffle the establishment's feathers because, ironically, the greatest storm in a teacup he ever caused was with a song deriding service station food, "Watford Gap," from Bullinamingvase
(Harvest, 1977). Maybe at 70 he has mellowed a little, but there have always been two sides to Harper: the purveyor of bone-shuddering riffs wrapped in quasi psychedelic reverb; and the poet of love and loss.
It's the latter Harper that is best represented here, and his renditions of "Hallucinating Light" and the quintessentially English "When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease" from HQ
(Harvest Records, 1975) are soul-touching. In a 2007 All About Jazz interview
, drummer Bill Bruford
who played on HQ
(arguably Harper's best)described Harper as "a little slice of magic," words that, listening to these two haunting numbers, have the ring of truth. Harper's greatest ode to love, "Another Day," never fails to move as the quietly spilled tears of the man in the second row (on the concert DVD) attest. "Commune" is a beautiful illustration of Harper's unique guitar voice and the music's perfect symmetry with the poetry of his lyrics:
"But somewhere out there with her heart in my care
And her prayers in the breezes that caught them
She sits like the earth as I fly to her arms
Like the showering yellows of autumn
And love is no torment, for we'll give when we can
And we'll live for the moment
When you are my woman and I am your man."
The well-shot DVD of the concert features the same songs as the CD but has the added bonus of preserving Harper's between-song musings. Harper's shared thoughts have been known in the past to take more rambling digressions than one of comedian Ronnie Corbett's jokes, but here he is attuned and lucid and his introductions, like picture frames, set off the compositions quite gracefully. A sixteen-minute, post-concert interview with Harper sheds a little more light on the man and his artistry, and will strike a chord with those fans who recall evenings with Harper in the Putney Half Moon or hundreds of other smoke-filled venues around England; it's these stories that are missing from the CD.
This beautifully recorded CD/DVD will serve as a fine introduction for newcomers to Harper's music, and a worthwhile (if somewhat nostalgic) document of one of the great singer/songwriters in his 70th year. The good news for older Harper fans is that a new studio album, Man and Myth
, is due for autumn release. Karl Dallas, in an earlier Melody Maker
review of Harper observed: ..."what he does isn't always pretty, it isn't always enjoyable, but by God his work is impossible to ignore." What was true then, in 1970, is true today.