A perfect late summer day welcomed us to London’s vibrant South Bank for the gig at the Royal Festival Hall. The artists’ entrance is hidden away at the back of the building, and backstage has the atmosphere of a library, a studious refuge from the circus of noise issuing forth from the food stalls and street entertainment outside. The walls are lined with framed photos of musical legends from the jazz and classical genres, peering down at you over their glasses in quiet contemplation as you pass. The dressing rooms have upright pianos, heavy soundproof doors, trouser presses, showers and lightbulbs around the mirrors, reminding you that this is a place where world-class classical performance goes down. No pressure then. I bumped into Roy in the corridor, pacing about a bit, trying to settle himself down into the right frame of mind for a big London gig, gearing up for the big fight.
The concert stage at the RFH is both familiar and daunting. I have played there many times, most memorably with Vashti Bunyan when she performed for the first time in thirty-five years. It was so quiet onstage I could hear my heartbeat. I think I could hear hers too. She was terrified. We were all terrified, myself, Adem and Kieren Hebden, trying not to let it show. Despite all this, it went well, which is what you have to remember when you’re in the grip of terror. I was much less nervous for Roy’s gig because we had a few good performances under our belt, but there were still events occurring beyond our control. Unfortunately a family medical emergency meant that our french horn player had to pull out of the gig, so we rehearsed a dep in at soundcheck. Session musicians are amazing creatures. Imagine getting a phone call on Monday morning “Hi mate I can’t make the RFH gig tonight, can you do it? It’s solo. Yeah. Roy Harper. The music will be on the stand. Black casual. Good luck”. We rehearsed the relevant songs until everyone was comfortable, then we scattered off to get fed and watered.
I went to the green room to grab a beer five minutes before the show and encountered Jimmy Page loitering by the crisps. Did I say I wasn’t nervous? Now I was. We took our seats on stage. A violinist colleague once described working with Roy and his music as “herding butterflies”, which is exactly what it feels like, trying to anticipate exactly where his delicate downstroke might fall, and Roy was definitely a bit more nervy than usual at this gig, picking up the wrong guitar at one point, and fluffing a couple of lyrics. It felt a lot more like hard work than Manchester, but the music prevailed and the songs rang out. Roy sang incredibly well. There was perfect rage and venom in “The Hangman”, supported by Bill Shanley on guitar and Beth Symmons on bass. “Cricketer” was particularly beautiful. The audience was mesmerised and the reviews were great.
Planes, trains and automobiles were taken up to a sunny Edinburgh for the final performance on 17th Sept at the beautiful Usher Hall. A more relaxed air flowed through the building, and the onstage sound was warm and welcoming from the minute we started to soundcheck. We were all in celebratory mood because it was the last gig of the run, and Roy was on fine form, having successfully fought off a migraine with a pie. When the time came we took to the stage feeling good. The Usher Hall is the smallest and oldest of the venues, dating from 1914. It has a more intimate, almost theatrical feel, with dark red velvet seats and several tiers of balconies. Roy’s last gig there was in 1969. I wasn’t born yet. My violin was already 250 years old. Time is strange. Or temporary. Or irrelevant.
The hall’s acoustic is fantastic and the hecklers took full advantage of this. “Shut up and play a fucking song” was one of the less charming shouts of the tour. “I will not bow to your pressure, sir”, said Roy, to rapturous applause and much laughter. Then we played a song anyway. Roy shared some personal history with the audience, explaining that he and Tracy got married in Edinburgh fifteen years ago and enjoyed a wonderful honeymoon at The Witchery. “Overpriced” shouted another gruff punter, but warmth and support came from the majority of the crowd, and when we finished with “Cricketer” they stood and cheered for a long time. It was a great night and a fitting close to a very special tour. It has been an honour to perform with such an intelligent, sensitive and witty musician, whose talent enables him to express his poetry and general humanity with an honesty rarely witnessed these days. The ensemble didn’t want the night to end and to prove it we were still drinking and dancing in Harry’s Cellar Bar at 3am. We will go our separate ways for now, but you can catch Roy playing with Bill Shanley at St Lukes in Cork on 29th September, and I hope that some of us will be able to join him onstage again soon.