Although both have their roots firmly in the folk scene of the 1960s, Nick Harper and Robin Williamson could not be more different.
I’ve never liked the term “folk-singer” when talking about Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Al Stewart, John Martyn et al. The name folk-singer always conjures up images of earnest, often bearded, young men wearing thick sweaters their mum knitted with a finger in their ears. I’d hate being thought of or called “a folky”. I prefer the term singer-songwriter but there is no noun to describe devotees of such music.
With singer-songwriters it is very often the case that the emphasis falls heavily on the songwriter bit with the singing bit coming a poor second; of course there are exceptions.
I was one of the inner-circle at the famous Les Cousins in Soho’s Greek Street more years ago than I care to admit to. It was there that I met Roy Harper. In fact, I was the first person he spoke to there when he arrived from Blackpool having come down on an over-night bus. He turned up at Cousins at the end of a weekend all-nighter and I knew him quite well over the next couple of years. So, it was out of a sense of curiosity more than anything that I went along to see his son Nick playing at the Music Week promoted by Buzz Buzz Buzz at the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham last night.
Well, the first thing I must say is that he is the exception that proves the singer-songwriter rule. Nick Harper is an incredible singer – by any standard. He could have fronted a rock band, no problem. He is also an amazing and original guitarist with an instrument that seems to have been specially made to suit his style and technique. And, if all that was not enough he writes powerful and emotional songs as well.
Although he was a friend, I was never a great fan of Roy Harper. I found him too droney and introverted. Nick could not be more different. He is a charismatic and entertaining performer who soon builds a rapport with his audience. I was entertained and very impressed, if you ever get the chance to see him or listen to him, do so.
Although he writes a lot of his own material, Robin Williamson is much more the traditional folk-singer, singing old songs about whaling and bygone Scotland. Even the songs he writes are on traditional themes but he also often includes Bob Dylan songs, so his sets are always truly eclectic. Where Nick Harper is bold, loud and aggressive, Robin is quite and gentle. And therein lies his strength and power. Where Nick forces you to sit up and listen making it impossible to relax, Robin lulls you into a sense of well-being and wistfulness.
Robin and his Incredible String Band were the very epitome of British hippydom and could fill the Royal Albert Hall on successive nights with kaftans, joss sticks and beads. Robin is nowhere near the guitarist or singer that Nick is but manages, with his gentle personality and fire-side presentation, to be no less mesmerising and entertaining. I was a little disappointed he hadn’t brought his harp with him but his wife Bina was on hand with an array of other instruments and backing vocals to ensure the evening lacked none of the richness, colour or variety that we had hoped for.
Finally, I must say a word of congratulations to Corin Hayes of the Everyman who is responsible for mounting the four day event. Not only is it hard to find venues that put on singer-songwriter events, it is rarer still to find a festival, albeit a mini one, that brings together such talented performers in the same place at the same time. This was the third Music Week at the Everyman. Whether you saw it or missed it you’ll be wanting to make a note in your diary for Music Week IV this time next year. Michael Hasted