On tour with Roy Harper #2: In the North Country

There is a unique pressure in playing a big hometown gig. Maybe it’s the sense of having something to prove to yourself, to bring something back for the place and people you left behind, or the knowledge that there are family and friends in the audience feeling nervous on your behalf. These gigs have a tendency to be crushingly disappointing or absolutely outstanding.  In my experience, there isn’t much middle ground. For the second gig of this tour we played Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall. Roy was actually born in Moss Side so he was ‘home’ in a sense, and the audience rose to their feet cheering as he walked onstage, which was a great start.


Now, the first gig in Birmingham had us all on our toes. Roy’s G-string broke in the middle of “I’ll See You Again”, and rendered the guitar unplayable, which railroaded the intended setlist, which anyway had turned to paper-mâché as his beer got knocked over in the process of swapping guitars.  This ate up time and we found ourselves up against a curfew we weren’t expecting.  All very unsettling, but Roy pushed on with his inimitably droll and humble humour.   Onstage, any mistake feels like a sudden nosedive. You have to pull hard on the controls to recover from the spin.  Time slows down as your brain works overtime to recalibrate.   Fortunately these unexpected blips are quickly forgiven by the audience, so when Roy apologised for the hiatus someone in the crowd shouted out “You’re in the right place, Roy”.  Warm words from a welcoming and respectful crowd. After a speedy recovery we delivered a good first show. Roy thanked everyone for attending “a rehearsal” and we retired to the green room for a few beers.

Having one show under your belt where things don’t go to plan means you return to the stage better prepared for battle.  In Manchester, Roy was in fine humour, taking out a couple of pissed hecklers with a killer one-liner (“I bet I’ve got more teeth than you”) and pondering on critical issues throughout the set, like “Does crumpet wrinkle?” in reference to Joan Bakewell (OK, maybe you had to be there) .  But this was a serious performance, full of energy and vitality.  Roy’s voice soared with a range and power that belies his years.   Half-way through “Me and My Woman” the performance shifted up to a new gear. I forgot to breathe as the song powered to its close, and was slightly dizzy by the time I put my violin down.  Everyone leapt to their feet for a long standing ovation.    After the energy of that, the poignant reflection of “Cricketer” left Roy in tears, and quite a few of the audience too.    Afterwards there was a great sense of achievement and probably some relief (see ‘promoter’ and ‘manager’).   We spent time talking to friends and fans, and everyone was in agreement, it was a stellar performance.  Much beer was drunk.  It is de rigueur to punish yourself with booze after a great gig.  It keeps you grounded the next day. However, when I am 75 I sincerely hope I too will be smuggling a full pint onto the tourbus at the end of the night…  you earned that one, Roy!

The hangover has subsided and we will regroup on Monday at the mothership of classical venues, the Royal Festival Hall, on London’s South Bank.  Across the river, Roy and I share a love of Soho, both of us having spent formative periods there, albeit several decades apart. I cut my musical teeth gigging in venues like the 12-Bar Club (gone), the Astoria 2 (gone) and The Borderline (still hanging on) whilst at university, and I lived in a bedsit overlooking Frith Street for a while.   Roy considers it to be his spiritual home, and despite the sterile re-developments that are ravaging the artistic heart of the capital, on the right night, the streets between Shaftesbury Avenue and Soho Square still hold some magic.   Let’s hope we can bring some of that spirit to the stage tomorrow.