An independent man

Roy Harper | Errigle Inn, Belfast
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Releasing his 36th album, and still best-known to the world at large as a bloke who once sang on a Pink Floyd record ("Have A Cigar"), who inspired a song on a Led Zeppelin album ("Hats Off To Harper") and who had all sorts of outrageous goings-on attributed to him in the Seventies (all down to an over-zealous publicist, apparently), Roy Harper begins his UK tour in Belfast - truly the mark of an independent man. Indeed, such is Roy's independence that the new album, The Green Man, will only be available directly from himself or his website. Nevertheless, anyone fearing that this integrity might lead to a road marked "oblivion" should be comforted that a big-push compilation is on its way from EMI America, heralding Roy's impressively star-studded 60th birthday concert in June at London's Festival Hall. He ain't heavy, but he certainly has some heavy friends.

Releasing his 36th album, and still best-known to the world at large as a bloke who once sang on a Pink Floyd record ("Have A Cigar"), who inspired a song on a Led Zeppelin album ("Hats Off To Harper") and who had all sorts of outrageous goings-on attributed to him in the Seventies (all down to an over-zealous publicist, apparently), Roy Harper begins his UK tour in Belfast - truly the mark of an independent man. Indeed, such is Roy's independence that the new album, The Green Man, will only be available directly from himself or his website. Nevertheless, anyone fearing that this integrity might lead to a road marked "oblivion" should be comforted that a big-push compilation is on its way from EMI America, heralding Roy's impressively star-studded 60th birthday concert in June at London's Festival Hall. He ain't heavy, but he certainly has some heavy friends.

Tonight, though, it's Roy solo. These days, having not-entirely wittingly come to symbolise the last bastion of the Sixties troubadour ideal - a one-man encapsulation of Tim Buckley's drug-sozzled hedonism and cart-wheeling vocalisations and Nick Drake's pastoral and deeply English fragility - the Roy Harper live experience is a trip to the edge. Young men and hippie chicks, high on something (maybe just enthusiasm), mix expectantly with middle-aged couples and boozy groups of men with moustaches out to relive their youth. From the moment Roy emerges - a quizzical, gentle demeanour only slightly at odds with a facial hair situation borrowed from Colonel Saunders - people start yelling for favourite songs, usually the once-notorious "I Hate The White Man". Roy decides to premiere five songs in a row from the new album. The mischievous war of attrition between performer and audience, a trademark of Roy gigs, has begun. And, as usual, Roy wins - just.

All Roy really wants to do is communicate his songs. Many of them are delicate and exquisitely crafted things (strangely at odds with his audience's behaviour) richly textured with pathos, humour, rage and poignancy - and sometimes all in the one song. New songs such as "Glasto" and "Midnight Sun" concern moments rather than the monumental concepts of earlier works - welcoming little worlds to be entered and left, with Roy as our guide. The response to the débuts of "Rushing Camelot" and "Sexy Woman" suggest classic status is assured, while "No One Left To Vote For" not only struck the populist chord but made one realise, with multiple ironies, that we were all listening to a once-institutionalised madman, who was singing a song to a roomful of weekend loonies about the inexorability of everyone else in modern society going insane.

Roy may not be able to change the world, but he can still challenge the way each individual deals with it and, more than ever, we surely need someone like this to rail against mediocrity, hypocrisy and voyeurism. Once again, hats off to Roy Harper.

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