Touring with Roy Harper #1: Twelve Hours of Soundcheck

Five string players, three brass players, one guitarist and one Roy Harper gather together for two days of intense rehearsal in a windowless studio near Latimer Road, London.  Twelve hours total to familiarise ourselves with the scores of some of Roy’s most loved songs, and time aside to work out the details of some new arrangements. Most of the musicians have performed these songs before, but for a couple of us – including myself – this is a new challenge.

I am very familiar with Roy’s songs. With a heavy heart, I undertook a commission to recreate the original David Bedford scores by audio transcription following his sudden death in 2011.  I knew what a close relationship Roy and David had shared, and what significant and enduring music they had created together.  I spent days listening to the original 70s recordings and re-reading the fragments of scores passed on to me until I felt that I could identify David’s compositional language, before I was able to translate his arrangements with the respect they deserve. More than once I felt the dots align on the page, which was a rare and beautiful thing. Although maybe it was just very late.  Either way, the scores got done in time for Roy’s 70th Birthday concert at the Royal Festival Hall.  RIP David. I wish we had met, but we have met through the page at least.  I will try not to drop the baton.

Roy & I have continued to work together. In 2013 I contributed new arrangements for “Man & Myth” (Bella Union), hopefully respecting the style and substance of David’s legacy.  Today however I am performing the scores I have written and this will be the first time that Roy and I have actually been onstage together.  I’m in the Violin 1 seat, so I am responsible for directing my fellow musicians through the mostly-tranquil-but-occasionally-turbulent waters of live performance for this UK tour. We are playing in some prestigious classical concert halls (Birmingham Symphony Hall, Manchester Bridgewater Hall, London Royal Festival Hall and Edinburgh’s Usher Hall) and I have definitely lost a few hours’ sleep hoping I don’t fuck up the solos. Yet when we start rehearsing, Roy’s guitar and vocal flow in his unique coherent-yet-contrary motion, decisive and hesitant in all the right places, and I remind myself that this gig is about him, not about me, and the energy starts to move in the right direction.

My colleagues feel the same way, honoured with the task of bringing these scores to life, keen to do them justice, happy to be in a friendly and respectful musical environment. As cellist Vicky Matthews says, “these are special gigs, they don’t come along very often”. We joke and laugh but work hard to beat the songs into shape. There is a lot of tea and the occasional furrowed brow.  Fingernails are trimmed to the quick, pencils are sharpened, chords are scrutinised and the cobwebs are blown from the baroque passages in “Me and my Woman”. Roy jokes that he observed us for a whole minute and couldn’t catch any of our eyes. Not surprising if you saw the density of notes on the scores in front of us.  At other moments it is the ‘not-playing’ that foils us. I get distracted in “Twelve Hours of Sunset” listening to Bill Shanley’s great guitar playing and then I can’t find my place, I have frozen at 35,000 feet somewhere over the Atlantic leaving my colleagues in limbo, waiting for a cue.   The acoustics in the rehearsal room present some unexpected challenges.  In “Commune” Roy’s capo clings to the wrong fret and dissonance runs amok.  In “January Man” he trips over the words.. but that’s what rehearsals are for.  We chase away the gremlins.

Roy showed us his beautiful acoustic guitar from 1966 which bears a personal inscription from its maker, John Bailey.  This is the very instrument you can hear on all of Roy’s early recordings, and it celebrates its 50th birthday on this tour. Some people don’t make it that far. Most music careers die a death way before. You don’t get this kind of history on YouTube.  Further evidence, should we need it, that we are involved in a special and significant happening.

We work our way through the setlist as the clock ticks.   Beth Symmons (Double bass), Bill and Roy stay behind for some extra homework and the rest of us make our way home.  We’ll all meet up in Birmingham for soundcheck on Wednesday 7th Sept.  Hopefully some of you will be there too.

Words by Fiona Brice