As someone who had previously seen Nick live only once, and that 12 years ago in a field in Suffolk, and having persuaded a friend of mine to accompany me to Cardiff to see this gig on the strength of that performance (and the ravings of my father!), it was with some nervousness that I entered the underground cavern that is Cardiff’s Barfly. The opening act did little to help – a drunk local guy clambered on stage to belt out a few tunes, culminating in an impassioned, if garbled, plea that we should all f***ing use our f***ing votes. Well, quite. The ‘proper’ warm up act were better – they’d have been hard pushed to be worse – but there was nothing really memorable about their music or their words. By the time Nick finally arrived on stage (after a lengthy delay for the previous band’s equipment to be cleared away) it was already 9.20 and I was hoping fervently that the whole trip wouldn’t prove to have been a waste of time. I needn’t have worried. Within thirty seconds of the opening tuning/warm-up/virtuoso display my friend and I turned and nodded at each other: this was Good. And it kept getting better.
I’m afraid I can’t give you a detailed track listing. Nick didn’t appear to have a definite play list in mind. He kept the aficionados at the front happy by responding to almost all of their requests (although, sadly, pleas for Crazy Boy went unheeded). I believe the opening burst eventually became a version of Shadowlands, followed by Imaginary Friend. I recognised Kilty Stone about half way through the set and the Tyger song was one of the few that were announced by name. He tried out a few new tracks on us: one described as "the seven ages of man in three minutes", which was, as you might expect, both brilliantly witty and foot-stompingly good; one (which I think might be called Treasure Island) written as a riposte to all those who say there’s nothing good left in Britain. I’ll be looking out for both of these making their way onto records soon.
I understand it is traditional for a string to be broken at some point during the set. This tradition was kept and we were treated to a recitation of an ode to Wiltshire while he changed it – this, too, was excellent, marred only slightly by the idiots at the back who thought it would be funny to heckle. In fact, the crowd were my only complaint about the gig: why do people pay money to go and see someone perform, let alone a genius like Nick Harper, and then talk loudly through the entire performance? I don’t get it. [you and me both, Alex! - P.]
Sadly, the necessity to make our last bus home meant we had to leave before the end, partway through a medley (which started with Love Is Music and had worked its way into a cover of a Jeff Buckley track by the time we walked out). Conversation on the bus home was somewhat limited to various expressions of "wow". I think it is safe to say that Nick had been on form – and you don’t need me to tell you how good that is. It had been, we both agreed, an awe-inspiring performance and well worth the trip. I won’t be leaving it another 12 years before I next go, that’s for sure.
Now, if anyone can recommend where I should start my CD collection in the meantime, I would be most grateful...