With the Leeds stop taking place amidst the opulence of the Town Hall, the settings of Roy Harper’s farewell tour could hardly be any grander. However, the veteran singer-songwriter hasn’t swapped his trademark shambolic shenanigans for steely professionalism.
“Must not pontificate,” Harper instructs himself but he is most disinclined to take his own advice. At one point, the 77-year old stops a song for a rambling monologue on the meaning of an unusual word found in the lyrics. Another anecdote treks haphazardly from Harper’s 1966 debut Sophisticated Beggar to sharing Gauloises with a vagrant in Marseille to dangerous driving in the US. But this kind of eccentrically unpredictable goings-on is what the faithful at the sold-out Town Hall expect and want.
It’s lucky that Harper is fantastically entertaining, often hilarious and wonderfully eloquent company. Backed by a six-piece band featuring brass and strings, the music (when there is time for it: although the set is very generously portioned, only 12 songs get an airing) is strong too, once the rustiness and odd stumble into lumpy rock dynamics in the first half are resolved.
Not that Harper is letting us off easily with a set of his most readily digestible cuts. “This next one has 16 verses of social commentary. If you need to pee, go now”, Harper advises before the rarely played folk-protest mammoth McGoohan’s Blues, off 1969’s Folkjokeopus, the album that nailed Harper’s mix of bruised balladry, hippie-era idealism and virulent rants against the evils of the world.
Advertised as an evening of Harper’s best-loved songs, selections such as this 18-minute sermon are certainly fit for scaring off casual observers. But we’re much amongst devotees here: in lieu of mainstream success despite an immense talent and vocal support from the likes of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, Harper has managed to cultivate a dedicated cult following that is now – after some lean years – sufficiently sizable to fill tonight’s sizable venue, with the attentive crowd hanging on to Harper’s every word, even the somewhat confusing ones.
It’s not all hard going, however: we also get a driven take on folk-rock classic Highway Blues and a sparse and affecting Another Day. There are startlingly powerful takes on Hallucinating Light – sounding very much like a lost folk-rock landmark – and Harper’s best-loved song, the melancholy masterpiece When The Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease, with the song’s theme of the unstoppable passage of time given extra pathos by the odd crack in Harper’s age-weathered voice.
Although this tour has been pitched as Harper’s farewell after a long career that has packed more unexpected twists and turns than one of his anecdotes, it seems he’s already having second thoughts. As the enthusiastic applause finally dies down at the end of the evening, Harper states that he’ll continue to perform for as long as he can still skip – and then exits the stage doing precisely that.
That the evening’s most moving moment arrives courtesy of the stunningly beautiful, brand new set-closer I Loved My Time Here suggests Harper still has plenty of tales left to share.