Roy Harper @ Manchester's Bridgewater Hall

Roy Harper @ Manchester's Bridgewater Hall

One of Manchester’s famous sons, Rusholme born Roy Harper, returns to the Bridgewater Hall as part of a short tour to celebrate his 75th birthday.  Words: Anthony Firmin, Photos: Mike Ainscoe

It has been a long and bumpy road for Roy Harper since his first release, Sophisticated Beggar way back in 1966, with his controversial views about religion, war and life in general he has resolutely remained uncommercial (with the exception of Work Of Heart but we will bypass that) and the release of Man And Myth in 2013 shows he is still producing work to rival any of that in his stunning back catalogue.

These are different days for Harper, the 80’s and 90’s were less kind to him as he fell out of favour playing the likes of Poynton Community Centre back in ’84.  His last visit to Manchester at the same venue two years ago was unforgettable complete with string section to embellish his songs.

Tonight’s show opens with Irish duo Ye Vagabonds who play their slightly more modern interpretation of Celtic folk music.  The songs and sounds are solid and are enjoyed by those who made it past the foyer bars and into the hall but it is not my cup of tea nor that of quite a few others judging by the number of empty seats.

After a brief intermission Roy Harper enters the stage to a standing ovation, which he is clearly taken aback by and after some brief banter with the audience (par for the course at one of Mr Harpers shows) he launches into Commune.  The five piece string section which he refers to as his orchestra lifted the piece to another level as it does with January Man and I’ll See You Again which followed.

These songs are not your regular staple, they are works of art, delicate and intricate stories, depictions of life itself which show that Roy is an artist and not an entertainer although he can be entertaining raconteur between the songs.

Another Day is simply sublime followed by South Africa which Roy describes as “a song of love and hope instead of one of hate” – it was written during the time of apartheid.  For Don’t You Grieve he is joined by friend, guitarist and neighbour Bill Shanley as well as double bass player Beth Simmons and together they create a jazzy groove to backfill the song perfectly, and rounding out the first set was Hors D’ouvres with Bill adding subtle textures to the song although I am not sure his solo worked quite so well.

The break is short as Roy is overrunning, as he often does, it is all the chit chat don’t you know.  And when he restarts it is with the bright and breezy Bob Dylan cover North Country followed by Twelve Hours Of Sunsets.  Probably a little too close to home, the theme of miscarriages of justice is covered in Hangman, a song dating from his collaboration Jimmy Page and features Bill Shanley on slide guitar – a perfect foil to Roy’s playing and singing as it slices like a knife though the song.

One of the guitars that Roy plays is now 50 years old but is nothing compared to Fiona Brice’s 200 years old “fiddle”.  Ms Brice, who also plays with Placebo, is responsible for re-scoring all the string and brass arrangements which she had to create by ear following the death of original string arranger David Bedford back in 2011, a quite remarkable feat and a task extraordinarily well done as the orchestra works perfectly within the confines of Roy’s music.

Halucinating Light is wonderful but without a doubt the highlight for me is Me And My Woman; the strings and brass arrangements embellish it perfectly, it is simply majestic and the perfect way to end the second set along with another standing ovation.  The last song, the encore, although he never leaves the stage, is probably his best known piece, When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease, is not just about cricket but of longing for a time past, with a brass arrangement that gives you goosebumps.  It is clear that he is humbled by the reception he has been given and says he will try and return.

Although his voice is an octave lower now and he fluffed a few notes here and there it didn’t matter, it is still a truly wonderful experience attending a performance by Roy Harper.  One ponders as to whether this is the last time he will tour as, for all intents and purposes, he is now retired, and if he doesn’t return to perform in his home town again then this is a remarkable and memorable way for us to say farewell and thanks.

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