REVIEW: Roy Harper at Colston Hall, 4/5, by Robin Askew
ONE of the more peculiar unwritten laws of rock is that by surviving long enough, you are destined to be branded an elder statesman, living legend or a national treasure. The revisionist reverence with which Roy Harper's re-emergence is being treated must come as quite a surprise to the old boy (72 this year).
Leaf back through the music press of the 1970s and you will find that few were more reviled during the punk era than Harper. Perceived as the ultimate hippy, he was ridiculed mercilessly for giving the kiss of life to a sheep (an incident he denies).
It did not help that his post-1980 output was patchy at best. But Harper's music has been kept alive by proggers (Anathema, The Tea Party) and hip nu-folkies (Joanna Newsom, Jonathan Wilson) alike. And the rapturous reception given to his excellent new album Man And Myth means he is finally getting a taste of commercial and critical success.
After a short support set by acolyte Jonathan Wilson, Harper strolled on and launched into a searing solo acoustic rendition of Highway Blues from 1973's Lifemask album. His voice was strong and filled with emotion, and he was as genial and discursive as ever. Indeed, it was not long before he was regaling us with an anecdote about a producer who used to expose himself in the studio. Harper was joined by Wilson – on guitar, mandolin, percussion and whatever else came to hand – plus a seven-strong string and brass ensemble he dubs the David Bedford Players in honour of the late composer who devised the original arrangements.
Most of Man And Myth received an airing, including January Man which Harper describes as his favourite song from the album. He said: "It is about a 70-year-old man who falls in love with a 25-year-old woman – and she looks right through him." Memory, aging, and the shadow of the Grim Reaper are the dominant themes.
But it would not be a Harper show without a couple of epics. From the new album, we had Heaven Is Here – his idiosyncratic retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. And what could be a more terrible warning than that of the dangers of looking back? A ferocious Me And My Woman from Stormcock also received a rapturous reception. After the encore (When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease, naturally), Harper seemed moved by our enthusiasm but insisted that this was the end of his performing career.
With a cheery wave goodbye he said: "I would love to do this again but I am not going to. Have a nice life."