Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel @ Under The Bridge 20 Jan 2017
Unusually for a “veteran” artist, Steve Harley’s last hometown appearance in “foggy Londinium”- which, due to the distinct lack of information provided by the venue in question, I only managed to catch half of – wasn’t that long ago. In fact, it was less than two months back, his stark, solemn reading of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ having been freshly inserted into the set that very week as a tribute to his recently-departed idol.
However, though tonight’s capacity crowd are treated to an equally heartfelt rendition of said tune, the gig itself is a whole different set-up. It’s the full electric band rather than the acoustic trio: they take the stage at the comparatively reasonable time of 8pm: and, thanks to the exemplary organisational skills of both venue and promoter, everybody (a few stragglers aside) knows this. Hooray for professionalism!! Not that I’m surprised by the contrast, mind you: since first witnessing the Rebel live in 1989 at Birmingham Hippodrome, almost every “face to face” (to paraphrase his live album) encounter has differed from its predecessor, and, though the highlight thus far has to be 2014’s Albert Hall show (first two albums in full, choir, orchestra, original conductor etc) tonight still runs it very close on several occasions.
Not least of all because whilst that performance may have been about spectacle, and the acoustic shows about intimacy, tonight is about interface: still very much “a closer look” (a compilation title this time) at Deptford’s best-known son, but from a far more “rock’n’roll” viewpoint than the one proffered by November’s unquestionably mellower performances. Which in turn may also be why, at irregular intervals, numerous back-shots of the bowler-hatted, fur-coated, cheekboned, mascara’d androgyne of yore decorate the screens, flanking the grizzle-bearded, tweed-suited, silver-haired minstrel of today. The best of both worlds? No, that’s by Van Halen. ‘The Best Years Of Our Lives’, then? Maybe, though sadly, that’s not in the set…
Although he’s never been blessed with a technically perfect “singing” voice, Harley’s distinctly British sprechgesang remains every bit as charismatically engaging as that of his contemporaries Bowie and Ferry: more importantly, he’s definitely “on it” tonight, giving not 70 or 80, but 110 percent. Thus, if he fluffs the lyrics to three songs, what the fuck, he did that on Top Of The Pops in ‘75: indeed, it’s an essential part of what he describes in superlative white soul number ‘Understand’ (which, as I’m not expecting it, results in my first dose of dewy-eyed goosepimples) as his “schtick”, and if you don’t like it, you’re probably not a real fan. Of course, as with any artist unfortunate enough to be associated with one “iconic” song (sure, he had several other hits, but I’ll wager most “normal” people have forgotten) he’s always bound to attract the odd ticket-buyer that does fall into that category: yet if they’re here, they certainly don’t make a nuisance of themselves, even during an admittedly well-overlong anecdote about meeting his other hero, Bob Dylan, and I’m willing to wager that come chuck-out-time, they’ll be converts anyway.
Having already heard the aforementioned schpiel in November, I was well prepared for it: though I would still have preferred a song in that 10 minutes (a sentiment shared, I’m willing to bet, by several others) a much shorter recollection of his tenure as Bowie’s replacement at the legendary Beckenham Arts Lab (“I’m a New Cross boy, but I can mix with Bromley and Beckenham people…they’re not that bad”) makes up for it by managing to be more entertaining and more illuminating in a mere 3. In any case, he soon gets his just desserts in the form of two slightly bedrunken milfs, who insist on joining our beleaguered troubadour onstage for some impromptu “backing vocals” (sic) during ‘All In A Life’s Work’: though Harley takes this invasion in good part without the slightest ruffling of a feather, people jabbering on phones in the front rows earlier on get understandably shorter shrift (“ ‘ave some bloody consideration, I’m workin’ up ‘ere!!”, he reproachfully intones after the opening duo of ‘Here Comes The Sun’ and ‘Judy Teen’) and quite rightly too.
Thankfully, though, by the time drummer Stuart Elliott thrusts into the strutting glam of Psychomodo, the turbulent folk-prog of an extended ‘Sling It’ and the loping Noel Coward-meets-Peter Tosh groove of ‘Mr Raffles’, all such distractions have been quashed once and for all. Don’t be fooled for a moment, though, into thinking the set is entirely reliant on the safety of old favourites: indeed, while his peers may baulk at the inclusion of several lesser-known, slower-paced numbers during a first half, Harley makes comparatively few bones about such things, thrusting the relatively recent ‘Journey’s End’ (accompanied by touching backdrops of his 90-year old dad holding his grandson) into the melee a mere three songs in, and repeating the trick twice more with ‘A Friend For Life’ (recently covered by Rod Stewart) and the moody, evocative ‘Coast Of Amalfi’.
What’s more, he gets away with it: admittedly, this is partially due to the crystal-clear accentuations of the in-house PA, but it’s also because they’re good songs, straddling the boundary between folk, melodic drive-time rock and otherworldly mysticism in the manner we’ve now come to not only expect but relish. Granted, certain sections of them, particularly the first-named, do bear a slight sonic resemblance to ’70s-era Chris De Burgh: however, to those more conversant with rock history, that’ll be less surprising, as though it may be hard to believe now, old CdeB was a respectably decent artist back then as well. Moreover, as a singer-songwriter cast (much like Steve himself) in the Dylan/Harrison mould, he shared not only influences and audiences, but a producer (Alan Parsons) and even an official fan magazine editor with SE14’s finest: his mid-’80s reinvention as a writer of vomit-inducing MOR pap would soon put paid to such things, but to those who truly “know their stuff”, it makes perfect sense.
Hearing ‘The Lighthouse’ again, and, more importantly, witnessing the rapturous response to its opening chords, is in many ways a chilling reminder of my own age: can it really be 28 years since I first saw it as a then-still-unreleased newie at that Birmingham show? For that very same reason, however, I feel I must temper my praise with perhaps my only quibble (OK, two if you include the Dylan) of the evening: namely, that while I also first saw ‘Star For A Week’ (eventually released on 1993’s Yes You Can album, but also featured on 1991’s Come Back All Is Forgiven in-concert video) performed around this same period, Harley claims tonight that the “real life” incident on which it was allegedly based (a lad called Dino holding up Norfolk post-offices with a shotgun) occurred fifteen years ago as a response to the early days of Big Brother!! So, er, what’s going on here, Steve? Did it happen twice? I know you’re not senile, and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t try currying favour with the “non-fans” in the room by dropping in mainstream-culture reference points, so does that infer that it didn’t actually happen at all? Having cited the lyric as a superior example of “storytelling” for over two decades now, I’d be rather disappointed if that were the case…
Nonetheless, I’ll forgive him- even though there’s no room tonight for my all-time favourite ‘Tumbling Down’ nor indeed its arm-waving a cappella crowd chorus. The three-pronged finale of ‘Love’s A Prima Donna’, ‘Sebastian’ and ‘Make Me Smile’, on the other hand, is as inevitable as death and taxes- only a lot more enjoyable for audience and band alike, with multi-instrumentalist Barry Wickens in particular relishing the opportunity to display his fluid chops on both acoustic guitar and violin. Sadly, when one hears the sentence “there was a time when we used to pretend to leave, stand in the wings and then make you wait five minutes before coming back, but at my age I can’t be bothered” , one also knows that enjoyment is drawing to a close…
Just how can two and a half hours (three including the interval) have passed already? More to the point, how can a man approaching 66, with a lifelong mobility impairment, stand up there that long and make it look so effortless, holding our attention in a manner most twenty-something bands would struggle to do for 30 minutes? Maybe it’s because to Harley- like his cousins Ray and Dave Davies, and several others who’ve risen, fallen and re-emerged unscathed- it’s neither a job nor a chore, but what he does and what he loves. And, though he half-jokingly confesses that the untimely deaths of many friends and heroes throughout 2016 have resulted in him “checking his pulse” more frequently of late, it’s probably something he’ll always do. Or, to borrow a line from his (sadly unaired tonight) magnum opus ‘Death Trip’, it’s “one good reason to remain”.