Sunday night was the last gig of an extensive UK tour for Nick Harper but it was the first one that I've been able to get to. The main focus for this tour has been the life-changing experiences Nick had in 2007 as part of the LoveHopeStrength foundation's bid to get in the Guinness Book of Records for performing the world's highest gig. As Nick proudly announced, they should all be in the book next year so he can finally stop trying to cram baked beans up his nostrils to beat the seemingly unassailable existing record of 32, which appears to have been his other, failed, world record attempt.
The Everest project was all in aid of cancer charities and aimed to raise money to help the Nepal Cancer Relief Society in Katmandu. Nick got involved because his mother died of cancer and indeed the telephone call inviting him to participate came at a very coincidental time, it being his mother's birthday and while Nick was in the garden in view of his mother’s grave. The expedition has clearly affected Nick deeply and given him a fresh outlook on some of the absurdities of modern life. I'm a veteran of Nick Harper gigs, having started seeing him play in the very early days of his solo career at folk clubs in London, and I've seen him grow as a performer both in confidence and ability. He has a wonderful ability to blend the totally serious with the utterly absurd, switching in a heartbeat from the deeply heartfelt (songs such as Imaginary Friend, written for his mother, and the wonderful new song "38") to the wonderfully silly (Eric Idle's wonderful "The Galaxy Song"). A night out seeing Nick play makes you run the gamut of emotions, but the abiding impression is of warmness, a feeling that as a whole there is still hope for the human race yet. You leave feeling that you've regained some sort of perspective on life and have remembered the things that really matter. What I noticed this time around is that Nick seems to be a changed man after the expedition, and I think it will form the source of inspiration for his songwriting for a long time to come.
It's a little hard to describe to people what to expect from a Nick Harper gig. After all, how can one man and one acoustic guitar really be so much different and, dare I say it, better than most if not all other acts on the circuit? Well, for starters, you can easily see who the guitar players in the audience are. They're the ones whose jaws have dropped in the first 10 seconds or so, and in the next 10 seconds will be mouthing expletives. Nick has a completely self taught guitar technique and has a percussive approach that lends itself very well to the one man band style. Augmented with a range of subtle amplified effects, the gorgeous sounding Lowden guitar with special banjo-style tuning pegs (for pitch bending during a song) and heavy strings that are tuned lower than standard can produce a remarkable full sound. Nick also has a remarkable picking/strumming ability, accurately finger picking one moment and performing incredibly fast yet accurate rhythm guitar the next. Then, take a man with the vocal range of Jeff Buckley and the power to match, and you will start to realise that this is not your typical acoustic singer songwriter.
On Sunday Nick was at the peak of his powers, and played to an attentive audience in the Junction 2. I feel that the audience can sometimes make or break a gig; this time round the applause was enthusiastic, the laughs were genuine, and the heckling was pretty much nonexistent. It gave us all the change to really lose ourselves in the music. It was all great, but highlights for me were "38", "Real Life", "Love Is Music" (including a wonderful Jeff Buckley snippet, not to mention the Led Zep), "By My Rocket Comes Fire" and "Imaginary Friend". I continue to be amazed that Nick hasn't broken into the "big time". Why on earth has he not been on programmes like Jools Holland? I don't know. But if he is able to make a living with his gigs and records, then long may it continue. I for one will be listening. I hope you will be too.