Roy Harper’s 70th birthday celebrations at the Royal Festival Hall had all the ingredients for a memorable party. There was laughter, there were tears and there were special guests, including Joanna Newsom and – cue wild rapture from the assembled ranks of folk-rock devotees – Jimmy Page.
The show opened with Harper sitting alone with his acoustic guitar. Silver hair and beard gave him the kindly look of a bishop on the liberal wing of the Church of England. His speaking voice was sonorous, reassuring. But then he began to sing and a very different Harper came into focus. His voice rose and fell in emotional agitation while lyrics depicted a sensual life of appetite and desire. The illusion of Anglican reasonableness crumbled and something more Dionysian emerged in its place.
Harper, born 19 days after Bob Dylan, is an English relic of the hippy folk scene that hazily filtered traditional music into the brave new world of acid, psychedelic rock and free love. It all seemed a very long time ago when he dedicated his version of “Girl from the North Country” to two recently fallen comrades from those days, the guitarist Bert Jansch and the composer David Bedford. Yet the passage of time hasn’t done a Dylan on Harper’s performing skills. There was the odd bum note, as during a complex passage of guitar fingerpicking on “Me and My Woman”, but on the whole he was in fine form. His vocals, in particular, were remarkable, bringing drama and focus to his sprawling, fluid songs.
He was joined by a string and horn section for much of the set, playing arrangements composed by Bedford. His son Nick played guitar on a couple of tracks while Joanna Newsom came on for “Another Day”, singing her part in the sweetly sublime style of Kate Bush.
Harper, who looked close to tears in his duet with Newsom, almost cracked up with laughter while playing “The Same Old Rock” with his old friend and collaborator Jimmy Page – possibly at the preposterously exhilarating sight of Page in full flight, wringing rolling bluesy riffs from an acoustic guitar. Surely some way can be found of harnessing Page’s talents away from chimerical fantasies of another Zeppelin reunion? Tonight, at any rate, he was the icing on a very tasty birthday cake.