The last time we visited Kid Harpoon at the Union Chapel, he was dressed in an Afghan waistcoat and hippie beads, alone with an acoustic guitar, bemoaning his inability to afford a piano to accompany his set. Looking somewhat like a startled folkish bunny caught in rock’n'roll tour bus headlights, he was a welcome support to Fionn Regan but not all together any more remarkable than your traditional, acoustic strummer.
What has happened in the meantime is nothing short of a miracle. It’s as if someone has taken his delicate folksy genes, spliced them with Frank from Gallows, force-fed him the jaunty punk-pirate riffs of Dirty Pretty Things‘ The Gentry Cove, sent him off to study bluegrass for a few months and spit him out the other end. The result is unexpected and at first shocking but very soon it becomes very, very, welcome.
We should have had an inkling that all was not what we might expect from the support act, Florence and the Machine. Your average warm-up act is not one small girl and a single drum, backed by a larger male drummer, primal screaming dirty bar-room blues from the darkest Deep South swamp at us then bantering with an English accent between songs. More’s the pity. The audience was already studded with indie-pop glitterati and music press, even before Lightspeed Champion joined her for the final number.
She seemed an odd opener for our Kid. Surely with lungs like that, she’d scare the life out of the poor lad?
Little did we need to worry. Out bounced Kid Harpoon looking, from the word go, altogether more animated, energetic and confident than he did a year ago. Dressed in tight trousers, old school vest and (could do better here) a rather unfetching mullet and accompanied by nowt other than an acoustic guitar, he delivered a single number that might have had a place in his previous life, dedicated to his father’s birthday.
Then, joined by a full and very noisy band, all hell let loose. With lyrics The Decemberists would be proud of (check out The Milkmaid: “Here comes the milkmaid/with her firm shoulders/and her attitude of Cesar”) plus instruments that danced between punk guitars and Americana strings – you can never go wrong with a double bass and violin – he launched into a hour of absolute aural delight.
It’s true that there were moments, particularly early on before the strings kicked in, when the band sailed dangerous close to Prog but the prevailing wind usually drew him back at just the right moment. And who could hold a grudge for long against anyone capable of pulling off a punk/bluegrass hybrid of Leonard Cohen‘s First We Take Manhattan, perhaps not by coincidence also a favourite cover version of Fionn Regan’s? Not even REM have ever made it sound this good.
We’re not treated to an encore – he says doesn’t believe in them – but instead to after-party drinks at Nambucas. It’s been a very strange night.