Steve Harley – The Lemon Tree – 03/03/11
Another school night gig, another rushed supper, another gargantuan effort to get home from work, showered and changed and through to Aberdeen in under an hour. Whew! Rock ‘n’ roll?
Myself and Mrs Johnny have been long time Steve Harley fans but had never seen him play live before so the opportunity to catch him doing an acoustic set up close and personal at the Lemon Tree wasn’t going to pass me by. Tickets had been procured good and early and had been a gold-star engaging Valentine’s Day gift some weeks before. Sorted.
After the usual mad dash to get through from Peterhead in a timely manner, we arrived at the seemingly deserted Lemon Tree foyer to be told that this evening’s performance wasn’t to be an all-standing show as originally thought. Rather there was temporary theatre style seating in place and, as we had arrived late (around 8.30!), we would probably need to head right up the back.
Still Burning had requested I text him with the stage times once I got into the venue. He had a prior engagement but hoped to get down in time to take pictures of the main event. However, on entering the Lemon Tree hall, Mr Harley and his associates were already onstage and a quick shufty around the room confirmed that we would indeed need to head up the back, all seats on the dance floor being taken, and seemingly most of those on the upper tiers too. However, we found a reasonable vantage point at the foot of the first stairs that no-one seemed to object to so set up camp there for the remainder of the evening.
The seating arrangement seemed odd from the outset, giving the evening a somewhat formal feeling that wouldn’t really disappear throughout the night. The gig had been billed as an acoustic set but Steve was accompanied by a keyboard player with a rack of synths, pianos and even a melodica, as well as a fiddle player who, on occasion, joined the main man on secondary acoustic guitar. As I said, they were already in full swing when we found our spot in the hall, playing a song I wasn’t familiar with. However, launching next into Best Years Of Our Lives, a personal favourite of mine, it was immediately apparent that the songs didn’t suffer at all from not having the normal big band backing them up and instead, lent themselves rather well to this stripped down approach.
The Lemon Tree was unbelievably warm so we dumped our coats straightaway and I made my way to the bar only to be told they wouldn’t be serving drinks until the intermission! Yet more formality to the evening.
Steve chatted quite a lot between songs for most of the night, sometimes funny, but sometimes I was thinking “Just get on with the tunes min!” I don’t think he’s really a natural raconteur although Mrs Johnny wasn’t complaining. She loves his clipped southern tones and thinks he’s got a lovely voice. Maybe because she’s London born herself. I have to agree though that when he lets loose on the songs, there’s really no-one who sounds like him. Truly unique.
We are treated to quite a cross-section of classy material spanning his time with Cockney Rebel and also his solo work right up to current album, Stranger Comes To Town. The songs he plays from that record tonight are very good. This Old Man, written (inadvertently he claims) about Harley’s father, is particularly striking. The words show a deftness of touch that ensure you find the sentiments at once familiar and affecting without the song ever descending into sentimental schmaltz.
Judy Teen provides a bouncy counterpoint to the ballads and it’s executed in fine style. Steve tried to engage the crowd in providing backing vocals for the “She made us happy!” line in the chorus but to be honest, with a couple of exceptions, the response is pretty half-hearted. I suspect the formal seating arrangements contributed to that. However, the applause between songs is certainly full-bodied with the crowd firmly onside.
I’m pretty chuffed that we get a couple of tunes tonight off my favourite Cockney Rebel album, Timeless Flight. I had read somewhere (I think) that Harley was never happy with the album. However, we got treated to Red Is A Mean, Mean Colour and the wonderful All Men Are Hungry – particularly well-played – so I could have gone home happy there and then, but of course there was more to come.
After a short break during which we managed to finally get a drink from the by now mobbed bar, the band resumed their positions and gave us the second half of their set. Of course, it was peppered with the “Hits” even more than the first set. The two Mister songs, Mr Soft and Mr Raffles (Man, It Was Mean) were despatched, the former delightfully bouncy even with the stripped down arrangement, the latter prompting Steve to conduct the crowd in another sing-along. Thankfully, this time there’s a bit more oomph about the attempt, probably due in no small part to the half time drinks.
I was struck by how well the violin fits into the Harley compositions so naturally and really makes them special and unique. I normally find the instrument, regardless if it’s played by kids at the school concert or by maestros in the Albert Hall, just so damn grating I can’t listen to it. However, tonight Barry Wickens has it sounding truly smooth and sexy even. I’m not the only one who thinks so as, at one point in the set, a particularly frantic and dextrous spell of soloing draws a standing ovation from the crowd. “He’s good isn’t he?” quips Harley, adding “Not that good!” as the applause shows no sign of abating.
The familiar tinkling piano intro lets us know Sebastian is about to be unleashed. It’s a powerful enough song on record but I’m shocked at just how BIG the trio manage to make it sound this evening. They draw out the closing instrumental half for ages, the pounding chords rising and rising in intensity till the song reaches its conclusion. It’s immense and a tremendously dramatic end to the set.
Of course, we know that there’s one big tune still to be aired tonight so it doesn’t take long before Steve and his band mates are back onstage and ready to go. No matter how many times (and it must run into the thousands) I hear Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) – to give it its full and proper title – all it takes is to reach that first Wapapapapapapa backing vocal and I’m sucked in, singing along for all I’m worth. It’s such a timeless and feelgood song and of course, the whole Lemon Tree joins in. Steve encourages everyone to get to their feet, “It is a rock concert after all”, and a few folks eventually comply and give us a cringe worthy display of dad-dancing amongst the chairs. I shouldn’t knock them really, but I can’t help thinking the seating was a bad idea and that the atmosphere would have been so much better had the crowd been on their feet from the outset. None the less, the extended workout at the end featuring yet more call-and-response vocals from the crowd, finally got everyone going and I think both band and audience would have finished the night happy.
We scooted off home straight afterwards but I think Steve and the other guys were chatting to fans at the CD stall as we made our exit. I was knackered the following day at work (two gigs in three days on a work week is getting a bit hard) but thought that, despite the strange LT set-up, it was a great performance by a real talent. As the song says, “He made us happy!”
New York Johnny
Picture by Andy Thorn.
Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel Website