Julian Cope, Royal Festival Hall, London

Hopping around in space
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The Independent Culture

"Great gig, eh?" says the chap next to me at the bar, his eyes wide and glassily ecstatic as he hoists his foaming beaker. I could be wrong, but you know what? I think he may be on drugs.

If so, he has come to the right place. The Festival Hall looks as though it has been taken over by the psychedelic tribes of Europe, come to exult in the lysergic Sturm und Drang of Julian Cope's hard-core, shamanic heavy rock. Cope is about as determinedly out of step with mainstream pop mores as it's possible to get: his albums are available only through his website; and for much of the past few years, he has been busy with his second volume of megalithic scholarship, dealing with the prehistoric monuments of Europe.

A long-haired hippie type, Cope is in big, clumpy motorcycle boots, black bondage strides and bumflap, grey T-shirt, dark glasses and black leather hat, intermittently strumming at a Flying V and posing like crazy at the edge of the stage. Few front men straddle the roles of old-school strutting rock star and chummy man o' the people as well as Cope. He's the best communicator I've seen on stage in ages, his banter simultaneously playing up to his image and mildly debunking it, an engaging presence with the wit and timing of a stand-up comedian.

His music has a similarly heroic/self-deprecating duality about it, rooted as it is in the unreconstructed excesses of Seventies heavy rock, topped off with a dollop of speed-metal licks courtesy of the lead guitarist, Doggen, whose scary yellow make-up and fluorescent pink, yellow and black outfit makes him look like a mutant Bertie Bassett, of Liquorice Allsorts fame. At its best, it has an 18-wheeler momentum that sounds like Neu! played by Lynyrd Skynyrd and fronted by Jim Morrison. But there's always a genial undertow of Spinal Tap absurdity about things, particularly during "Necropolis", when Cope straps on an electric 12-string and his right-hand man, Donald Ross Skinner, picks up the yellow, double-necked guitar that has been leaning against an amplifier: it's as if they're deliberately trying to employ the two most needlessly over-the-top guitars ever built, in the one song.

Cope's performance is in two sets, separated by a slot from the support band Comets on Fire. When he returns, he seems... distracted might be the word. Staggering around the stage, climbing up to the balcony, or just gazing vacantly at the audience, he's off on his own little planet. Between songs, he drawls: "Yeaaahhh!" exultantly. I could be wrong, but you know what? I think he may be on drugs.

My suspicions are confirmed when, only a few minutes into the set, he starts asking his roadie, "How are we for time?", then, sitting on the stage's edge, enquires of his band, "What's the next song? I can't even... speak!" Realising the state he's in, he apologises for his "momentary lapse of professionalism", which gets a big laugh, before explaining that he's "just entered into a new, psychedelically informed period", starting on New Year's Day.

Somehow, he makes it through a set comprising, in roughly equal parts, old faves such as "Reward" and "Spacehopper" and tracks from the new Citizen Cain'd album. The show climaxes with a lengthy "Reynard the Fox", Cope going walkabout through the audience before returning to the stage for a bout of ritual scarification, clambering atop his extendable mic-stand and rocking precariously back and forth, 10 feet in the air, as a howling, juddering noise swirls about the hall. A suitably shamanic conclusion to an evening of atavistic rock ritual.

And you have to love a rock star whose parting shot, after several minutes' standing ovation, is "Peace! Peace! Peace!... and Education!"

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