Sunday, 6 November 2011

The same old rock: Roy Harper at the Royal Festival Hall

The atmosphere in what is ordinarily a classical music venue was raucous and emotionally charged. The English singer-songwriter Roy Harper — a contemporary of long departed figures such as Tim Buckley and Nick Drake — was here for what felt like a valedictory concert. Harper is now 70 but his voice remains in remarkably good shape, accompanied by his distinctive acoustic guitar and a small orchestral ensemble.

Before yesterday’s show Harper had distributed a sheet of paper for the audience, a kind of free programme, that contained John Keat’s poem “To autumn”, written in September 1819, with its “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. Harper’s England is an evocative working landscape yet suffused with bitterness towards the church, landowners and their contemporary equivalents. It is an atheistic vision of joy in life and nature made poignant by the finitude of time.

The sense of occasion grew through the concert as he was joined on stage by his son Nick on second guitar, then by Joanna Newsom, whose luminous voice alternated with Harper for “Another day”, and then finally by former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, who provided cascading arpeggios for “The same old rock”. As Page sauntered on stage I thought of Jorge Luis Borges’s parable “Ragnorök”, where “The Gods” unexpectedly arrive in a lecture hall. Harper kept apologizing during the show for small errors — even starting one verse all over again — but it didn’t matter at all. Like blotched leaves twirling through the autumn air everything seemed just as it should be and there was scarcely a dry eye in the house.

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