As the house lights dim in the spacious De La Warr Pavilion auditorium, an air of hushed expectancy falls upon the room. The stage, bedecked with a surprisingly vast array of instruments, slowly fills with musicians. The crowd remain quiet. It’s only when Roy Harper casually walks in from stage right that the room seems no longer able to contain itself; he receives something not far off a standing ovation before he’s even picked up his guitar. This is, perhaps, understandable; Harper’s position as something of a British folk institution has been earned through a five decade career that’s seen him put out more albums than most could even keep track of. Despite his significant reputation he’s far from the exclusive centre of attention during tonight’s performance. His band – a sprawling seven piece, not counting their leader – largely remain in the background across the set, preferring to add textural accompaniment rather than draw attention away from Harper’s voice and lyrics. Even so, their presence is felt on every single song of the set, and their impact on the tonality and mood of the show is undeniable and, at times, profound.
Opening with ‘Hors D’oeuvres’ from 1970’s ‘Stormcock’, the mood of the evening is immediately set; it’s a lengthy song only extended on stage. Verse-heavy and broodingly moody, it’s a song that exists firmly in the early ’70s post-Dylan zeitgeist of intellectual lyricism, but one written with all the individuality needed to mark it out as the work of a unique voice. The ten minute-plus performance is, of course, reflective of the studio source material that Harper draws from. His albums are full to bursting point with epics as engrossing as they are rambling, so it stands to reason that his live show would be too. Nowhere is this more obvious than on ‘McGoohan’s Blues’, an eighteen-minute mega-epic from 1969’s ‘Folkjokeopus’ that, in live performance, is stretched out to the twenty minute plus mark. It’s testament to Harper’s ability as a songwriter that the performance remains genuinely engaging; large portions of the song are performed practically solo, with only the most subtle of accenting from his band. When they do eventually kick into a higher gear, it’s done with the professionalism of a thoroughly well-rehearsed group.
The fact that the band so rarely need to really push themselves speaks volumes for the enduring quality of Harper as a performer. His voice has aged excellently; he still commands a strong presence as a singer and delivers his lines with the assurity of someone genuinely comfortable in front of an audience. His guitar playing isn’t as dexterous as it once was – which is perhaps part of the reason why he now employs such a large group – but it still remains solid enough to carry the songs along well. That aura of quiet confidence goes a long way to making his performance at the De La Warr Pavilion as engaging as it is, but it does go rather too far at a few points. On stage banter is cryptic and extended; the audience seem receptive but a greater sense of focus between songs would have been welcome at points. One genuinely touching moment of on-stage chatter comes right at the end of the evening; he walks to the front of the stage, microphone in hand, and addresses the audience with the personal touch of one-to-one dialogue. A clearly heartfelt thanks is given to the audience for their attendance but, more importantly than that, he also speaks of how much he’s loved his life. It’s a moment that’s preceded by an equally affecting performance of a newly-penned piece – one of a small handful performed that night. It’s a hymn of gratitude to something larger than any one individual and might well contain some of the most clear-eyed and emotive lyrics Harper’s ever created. It’s also beautifully performed, with a sing-song finger-picking part that chimes alongside the melodic vocal performance.
Those final few minutes of the show are reflective of a certain generosity across the performance. First and foremost, it’s an amply lengthy evening; split over two sets with a twenty minute interval, the show ends up covering the best part of two hours. Although Harper has clearly been working on new material, he keeps the expectations and desires of his doggedly-faithful long-time audience in mind. The vast majority of the setlist is comprised of firm fan favourites, mostly from the ’70s. Prior to the encore, the main set is rounded off with an affecting performance of ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease’, a powerful, slow-burning ballad beloved by John Peel and many others besides. Meanwhile, the rollicking ‘Don’t You Grieve’ – opener from 1970 offering ‘Flat Baroque And Berserk’ – marks a well-received picking up of the pace earlier on in the set. When Harper does perform less famous, more recent material – such as the mesmerising ‘Time Is Temporary’ from 2013’s ‘Man & Myth’ – it fits in so well with the vintage material that the transition is practically seamless.
Ultimately, then, Roy Harper offers something powerfully convincing in live performance even to this day. At times the set might ramble a little, but what’s a few stray minutes when the music is so imbued with sheer humanity and heart? His band complement the songs with a grace and subtlety entirely befitting of his erudite and intelligent lyricism. Harper’s performance, meanwhile, may no longer dazzle with show-off guitar flourishes and acrobatic yelps, but his ability to present his material with emotion and nuance is as strong now as it’s ever been.