Nick Harper – The Duchess, 14/04/09

It’s Easter Monday and time for a family visit to the cinema to see Monsters Vs Aliens in 3-D. The effects were amazing, much better than I remember from the 3-D films in the 80s. It’s a shame,however, that Vue are charging £2 extra per ticket for something which, if the trailers are anything to go by, is about to become the next big thing in film.

Family duties out of the way, it’s time for my fourth visit to The Duchess in eleven days. These days, most of the gigs I go to are pretty much a shot in the dark – local (and not-so-local) bands whose music, if I’m organised, I have only heard on their MySpace pages. Sometimes it works out, other times it doesn’t. But, I have a wide taste and high tolerance level for music, so generally, I have a good time.

Tonight’s gig was slightly different in two ways. Firstly, I was on my own. The rest of the group, presumably, were out at some point over the weekend and it will be worth checking out the link on the right to find out who they saw. Secondly, I relied totally upon the write-up on the Duchess’s what’s-on listing when I decided to attend. Well, that and the fact that Anne-Marie Helder was one of the support acts…

Before I talk about the acts, a few words about The Duchess itself. Normally, it’s your standard small rock venue. Barriers in front of the stage, large standing area for the audience, “chill-out” zones at the back of the main room and in a little, separate side room. Tonight, however, it had been rearranged. The barriers were gone (actually, they were also missing for Jan Akkerman last Monday, but I forgot to mention it) and the odd assortment of chairs, stools, pews and tables had been moved forward. The end result was a more club-like setting and atmosphere and it meant that anybody standing at the bar (I had taken up my usual position – the bar is marble, and is, so far, resisting my efforts to create an elbow rest…) had a perfect view. It’s a pity I forgot my camera… Tonight, the sport of Mostly-spotting was way too easy, with Brian, Livvy and The Judge all in the audience and Andy Smith working the lights. Also in the audience were various members of Freeway/Morpheus Rising.

First on stage was Cy Curnin, vocalist with New Wave band The Fixx but tonight just a man with a guitar and passionate songs. Think Billy Bragg, but with less politics and a posher accent (at least, that’s what sprung to mind as I listened). The songs were catchy enough and appreciated by the audience, but nothing really stuck in my mind. There are tracks available on Cy’s MySpace page but these appear to be full band (or, at least Cy playing multi instruments) so aren’t indicative of tonight’s set. There’s also a podcast which reminded me a lot of one of my uncles, with his thoughts on the planet and economics. A pleasant start but not necessarily a stand-out one.

Next up was Anne-Marie Helder, taking a one-night break from supporting Ultravox and appearing solo in York for the first time. Anne-Marie is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, song-writer, current member of Mostly Autumn and Panic Room and is also working with Chris Johnson on his solo album. A very busy lady. Tonight it was just her, her distinctive voice and a guitar, belting out her own material, most of which has not been released. And this is where tonight’s gig, for me, really started. Cy stood on stage with constant light around him. Anne-Marie arrived in darkness and sang her first song almost a cappella, simply accompanying herself by banging the soundbox of the guitar, with white lights alternately highlighting her from the sides, front and back. After that, it was more traditional guitar-playing and some excellent songs and a pretty good light show. At the risk of turning this entry into something more akin to a fashion-mag, Anne-Marie, apart from being incredibly attractive, has a style all of her own and, tonight, looked stunning in boots, leggings, crushed velvet top and shiny scarf. Sadly the thirty-minute set was over all too quickly.

And so, the great applause, Nick Harper took to the stage. Another musician that I had no previous knowledge of, Nick is the son of Roy Harper (the singer/songwriter, not the DC superhero known variously as Speedy, Arsenal and Red Arrow – I’m sorry, I slipped slightly into geek mode for a second…!) and has turned out to be a pretty damned excellent folk rock performer himself, blending superb guitar-playing and vocals with what can only be described as a caustic wit. “Targets” tonight included Tim and Michelle’s move from Fibbers to The Duchess, “It’s the first time I’ve been here. It’s a nice room. Keep moving up the street and you never know…”; his father (and, presumably, his reputation), “My father told me something the other day. I have a sister. I’m now not the eldest child”; “Most of you know me through my Dad. He might even have sh*gg*d… No.”; and, quite irreverently, Easter, “People tell us that Jesus died for our sins. What they don’t say is, two days later he changed his mind…”

In between these witticisms, Nick treated us to some cracking songs, some with a political bent, others more personal, all accompanied by brilliant guitar-playing. He wandered about the audience and played while standing on two particularly wobbly tables, causing some people to grab for thir drinks and others to steady the table lest he fall off and prematurely end the set. Particularly impressive was the fact that he managed to break and change a string during the “final” song (the incredible and incredibly long Love Is Music) without stopping singing – something which Morpheus Rising guitarist Pete Harwood was incredibly impressed with and may have caused him to retire before Morpheus gets fully off the ground… Unconventional to the last, he also made fun of the traditional “encore” system by announcing “this is where I pretend I have finished,” just before playing Love is Music and then staying on stage for two more songs.

I find that I’m running out of superlatives for this gig. As you can tell, I enjoyed it immensely and will certainly be looking out for Nick again. Highly recommended.

I ended the evening with a reasonably long chat with Anne-Marie Helder, during which we covered whether Panic Room would play York in the future – they hope to; Details of the writing of Firefly, from Panic Room’s debut album – Jonathan Edwards gave it to Anne-Marie as an instrumental and she wrote the words to be about his wife and him returning to her after touring; Her roll in Chris Johnson’s band – Chris asked her to perform on the album but she doesn’t know what is happening with the “band” as an ongoing thing; And how she finds time to fit in all her projects – in a nutshell, it’s not easy. She was incredibly charming, attentive and open, even explaining that she had given up supporting Ultravox at Newcastle City Hall tonight as The Duchess was a prior engagement. A nice end to a very good evening.

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About Ian

Regular gig-goer in York, both to see local and touring bands. Huge music fan, with more CDs than my wife thinks any one person should own. I also collect American comics, read a lot of SF and fantasy and am a season-ticket holder at Leeds United.
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One Response to Nick Harper – The Duchess, 14/04/09

  1. Grae says:

    I have to agree, a great night! I wasn’t sure what to expect (with the exception of Anne-Marie!) and was more than pleased with the whole night.Nick Harpers performance, even without the excellent music, would have ranked as one of the most entertaining I’ve seen in a long time!! I generally don’t like ‘pure’ acoustic nights but this was one not to be missed, and I’d go see any of the acts again without a doubt.

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