Live Music + Gig Reviews

Nick Harper @ Borderline, London

3 December 2005

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Nick Harper. He is the son of weirdy-beardy folk hero Roy Harper, and has been ploughing his furrow of acoustic virtuosity for some 20 years now.

Obviously, he isn’t very famous. He isn’t exactly mainstream. His lyrics and stage talk have always been heavy with socialist exhorting. Tonight he briefed us all at length on the plight of some Liverpool miners (I forget exactly who, what, when and why as did most of the audience – somehow we all knew it was important stuff though) and gave an interesting spiel on worker’s movements throughout British history.

On the musical front, we have something quite remarkable here. There is no one in the history of the world that plays guitar quite like this man. The closest comparison I can arrive at is Richie Havens. Similar to Havens, Harper is all drone-tunings, with his acrobatics up and down the fret board creating a flabbergasting sound and an engrossing sight.

The package is completed by a soaring voice reminiscent of another great songwriting dynasty, the Buckleys. Indeed, his winsome falsettos and incorporation of Grace into his live show should invite followers of Jeff to investigate Nick.

Tonight he was promoting new album Treasure Island, a title inspired by how Britain is full of good people. Much of his set list came from this, but he paid full attention to the breadth of his career, playing The Magnificent G7, The Verse Time Forgot and his own remarkable hybrid of Elvis‘s Guitarman with Led Zeppelin‘s Whole Lotta Love complete with staggering innovation from Mr Effects Pedal.

Two years ago Harper played Fairport Convention‘s Cropredy festival, prompting Fairport singer Simon Nicol to remark in a very unimpressed way that he was ‘quite the showman’. One can’t argue that Harper has a stage presence and charisma that might be at odds with the dour folk of Cropredy, but in the dingy basement that is the Borderline his exuberance is generally very much appreciated.

Tonight he leaped into the crowd, shuffling his way through everyone before climbing onto the bar, wiggling his frame and frantically playing his guitar the whole time before returning to the stage.

Harper’s style of playing is so aggressive that he frequently breaks strings. The audience was stirred to an audible murmur of awe as he re-strung his guitar while maintaining his imperiously loud and high vocals a cappella to keep us entertained while he carried out the repairs.

Sadly, not everyone at the Borderline was fully in tune with Nick. There are, perhaps contrary to my portrait of him, some very quiet and reflective moments in his show. Many chose to natter and laugh in these intermissions, moving Harper to ask them to quieten down for the sake of “the good people here who have come to hear some songs”. Here here.

Harper’s lack of fame means it is unlikely he will ever play venues that would suit him best like Shepherd’s Bush Empire or the Forum. He needs a crowd that are in a venue exclusively to see him and will respect him accordingly.

Two moments stood out above all in the gig. Headless is a deranged fifteen-minute opus of manic playing, shattered strings, Wagnerian vocals and pouring sweat. Into the mix come interpretations of Buckley junior, Blur, Led Zeppelin and others to create a breathtaking performance every live music fan should see.

Secondly, the other side of Harper was evidenced on Blood Song. The fragile beauty of this ode to his family actually did shut up the chattering heathens. He said after playing it “Thanks very much, I like to lose myself every so often. Thanks for helping me relax”. As far as we could in a smoky bar selling absurdly overpriced beer, those of us who believed lost ourselves too.

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More on Nick Harper
Nick Harper @ Borderline, London
Interview: Nick Harper
Nick Harper – Treasure Island
Nick Harper @ Borderline, London