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October 23, 2013 5:49 pm
Go ask Syd Barrett, or John Martyn, or Viv Stanshall, or Nick Drake: being dubbed a Great British Eccentric is no guarantee of reward in one’s own lifetime. Roy Harper has struggled around the same thickets of folk, jazz and vaudeville as his peers, and lost decades to record company indifference and financial woe. But he is lucky enough to have achieved the second life of cult rehabilitation while still alive and still able to record. Championed by the young American freak folkies – notably Jonathan Wilson, who opened for and then accompanied him at this concert – an Aeolus-tressed and septuagenarian Harper has recorded a new album, cheekily but not outrageously entitled Man and Myth , and taken again to the road.
After singing “Highway Blues” to clear his tonsils, Harper settled down to play new songs. “Time Is Temporary”, with a string quintet pizzicato, was a “pre-Raphaelite dream”. Then there was “Heaven Is Here”, in the spirit of his epic-length 1970s pomp: a 15-minute narrative that started with the voyage of the Argo, then – with Wilson flicking bouzouki-like mandolin around the edges – focused down on Orpheus (Harper singing “Eurydice” spread across nine syllables) and finally into philosophical speculation about “false prophets” that was, as he admitted proudly, “totally Roy”.
“January Man” – “about being 70 and falling in love with a 25-year-old woman. As you do” – came wrapped up in the album’s loveliest melody. “I said things I didn’t mean to,” he sang conversationally, “but of course” – here, a semaphored shrug – “I did.” The sexual politics here were, if anything, less alarming than those on the songs from the 1970s. Either “Me and My Woman”, with its baroque brass flourishes, or the free-spirited excuses of “Another Day”, might single-handedly have prompted the dungaree-clad feminism of the 1980s. “Twelve Hours of Sunset” prompted a musing about how many of the audience had been conceived in aeroplane lavatories.
He ended, as of course he had to, with “When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease”, using the game as an elegiac metonymy for England, the brass mournful as a colliery band as he sang of the ghostly “12th man at silly mid on”. He felt the song keenly. “I would hope to see you again,” he told the audience, “but it’s in the balance.” But on the contrary: although he mangled the odd lyric, his voice was strong enough to suggest that his second innings has only just begun.
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