Gig Review by Andrew Lindsay with Photography by John Bentley

“As long as I can skip I will be coming back” were Roy Harper’s closing remarks as he playfully skipped off the stage as if he were a five year old. Heart warming and poignant it was a fitting end to what is billed as ‘The Last Tour: 50 Years of Monumental Classics’.

Roy Harper in concert, Leeds Town Hall, 22-03-19

Explaining on his blog: “Planning life at this stage [Roy will be 78 in June] isn’t that easy, because while I feel quite fit and healthy right now, I might not be in a year’s time. This isn’t morbid. Not in the least. By choosing to tour at this time, I’m ensuring that I can present myself to you on good form… I have included three new songs in the set for THE LAST TOUR. They’re one of the reasons I want to tour. I’d like to make sure that they are played in public at least once. It’ll be great to play them for you. They’re all strong songs, and the next album looks to be heading into a particularly good place. I intend to finish writing this album in the year ahead. I’ll record it as soon as I can”.

Here in this bastion of the Victorian establishment, flanked by Corinthian columns against a backdrop of one Europe’s largest pipe organs, sits Roy Harper and his six piece band. Roy is on good form – his voice and guitar playing undiminished.

The set list has remained constant during this seven date ‘last tour’. Three new songs sit comfortably along nine favourites drawn from 1969 through to Harper’s last recording: 2013’s Man and Myth.

Roy Harper in concert, Leeds Town Hall, 22-03-19

Tonight’s starter is appropriately enough, Hors D’Oeuvres. Social injustice is a theme of much of Harper’s work and this is a tale of Caryl Chessman, found guilty of kidnapping and executed by the State of California after twelve years on death row. A mournful keening falsetto and immaculate guitar playing grace this wordy diatribe that was never “gonna make the charts”. Fleshed out by his top notch band – guitar/banjo (courtesy of the much in demand Bill Shanley), drums, bass and a three-piece horn/string section led by Fiona Brice the music is nigh-on perfect but the lyrics got lost in the mix and were largely inaudible up in the gallery.

All the songs tonight benefit from long and sometimes rambling introductions. Despite one persistent heckler calling for Roy to “get on with it” they provide an enjoyable insight into the songs and his domestic life – Roy is unlikely to be a disciple of Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying. ‘Time is Temporary’, dedicated to his best friend (wife?), showcases Roy’s intricate finger picking guitar work while cowbell, cello, banjo, trumpet and violin explore the spaces in between. More cowbell!

‘Don’t You Grieve’ is a shorter number; an uptempo shuffle that delivers a welcome change of pace but is also the first instance of Roy’s declaration of “brain failure”. It leads into a faltering and almost incomprehensible reminiscence of Rolls Royces, paternosters and childhood days near Blackpool before drifting into ‘Man in the Glass Cage’. This new song returns to the theme of legal injustice and references his own costly three year legal battle to clear his name of historical sexual allegations which left him almost penniless. Harper was acquitted of all charges though the bitter taste still lingers on through the music – the cymbal crashes, foreboding drums and swirling strings conjuring a world gone mad.

Roy Harper in concert, Leeds Town Hall, 22-03-19

The first set closes with a 51 year old song of “16 verses of social comment so if you need a pee go now”. After some musings on old age the band embark on the epic (for which read very long) ‘McGoohan’s Blues’. Inspired by The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s TV series from the late 1960’s, this defiant belligerent rant against bankers, clerics, advertisers, politicians and ticket collectors fell rather flat in the gallery and I was left rather wishing I had heeded Roy’s advice. Plenty of Harper’s devoted audience clearly enjoyed it and he left the stage to rousing applause.

The second set commenced after a thirty minute break and markedly improved. The issues with the sound system were addressed and the opener ‘Another Day’ is just a very good song. It’s a deeply sad story of an old affair, full of regrets on both sides… “I should have had one of your children” and “Oh really dear I can’t see what we fear/Sat here with ourselves in between us”. Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush’s cover version is worth checking out.

The somber mood is lightened by Roy’s rather good attempts at a Yorkshire accent but the timing is wrong and he’s one song too early for this party-piece. He just laughs. Why worry?

Roy Harper in concert, Leeds Town Hall, 22-03-19

He wrote ‘Drawn to the Flames’, almost 40 years ago, “because no one was capable of listening… it was all out of hand and still is”. In this momentous week it could be climate change (Cyclone Idai) or it could be Brexit but Roy wisely refrains from offering any advice other than just to listen. The performance features a notable solo from Ryan Jacob on trumpet. More of this please.

The second new song tonight ‘The Wolf at the Door’ is a cri-de-coeur. Harper describes it as “celestial, cynical, funny and weird” but he could just as easily be describing himself. It is preceded by a tale of a sophisticated beggar who trips spontaneously from a 1959 passport photo, to skinning up and busking on the streets of Marseilles through to Richard the Lionheart and a French war cemetery. Utterly bonkers but very entertaining.

The show closes with the two highlights of the evening. First up is “a real favourite of mine”: ‘When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease’. This haunting elegiac tribute to Geoff Boycott and John Snow left not a dry eye in the house.

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, the sting in the ale.

The song works so well because it is hummable, poignant, direct and universal. John Peel used to love it.

Roy Harper in concert, Leeds Town Hall, 22-03-19

Without leaving the stage Harper encored with his third new song: ‘I Loved My Life’. “You’ve got to reach this kind of age to write this but you don’t have to be this age to sing it… if I never wrote another song then I’d be pleased with this one”. It was a delight and the audience reaction left him grinning from ear to ear.

Roy admitted that this was an evening of ‘brain failures’: forgotten lyrics (mind you there were a helluva lot of lyrics for anyone whatever age to remember), miscued intros and rambling stories. The thing is it didn’t matter. The thousand strong audience openly embraced the slips. Harper certainly did and was well chuffed that tonight was the first night that he remembered all the names of his fellow players.

To paraphrase another truculent troubadour: “We’re glad you are here. We’re glad you are anywhere”. Skip on, Roy.

Setlist: Hors D’Oeuvres; Time Is Temporary; Don’t You Grieve; Man In the Glass Cage; McGoohan’s Blues; Another Day; Drawn to the Flames; The Wolf At the Door; Highway Blues; Hallucinating Light; When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease. Encore: I Loved My Life.

Roy Harper in concert, Leeds Town Hall, 22-03-19

One Response to “Roy Harper at Town Hall, Leeds, UK – 22nd March 2019”

  1. Mick Brookes Says:

    Thanks for the review. We were up in the Gallery and the sound quality on Roy’s guitar(s) and vocals was a real mess in the first half. But it was all sorted out for the second half. It felt as though Andrew wasn’t too familiar with Roy’s performances – part of the charm has been his rambling monologues (there’s a spider crawling up the microphone!)and his rages against the legal system, well before his court cases. All that being said, it was a wonderful night and the new songs were great additions to an already immense catalogue. It’s over 50 years since I first saw him. I’ve loved every perfomance since then and I’d love to see him again. Thanks Roy!

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