22nd December 2019
Playing his second consecutive night at Nell’s Jazz & Blues, Steve Harley was a riot – Cockney Rebellious to the core, with a backing band to whip up guaranteed disorder, of either the individual, inner and emotional sort, or disorder of the collective kind, inciting the masses – a ‘rabble of rowdy rebels’ to nick a phrase from The Life of Brian. Whether the palm of his hand clutched the neck of a guitar, a harmonica, or cradled the entire audience’s rapt attention, he was the orchestrator of a truly festive gathering. Time-honoured songs and a raffish raconteur’s stories held equal sway. Man, it was hard not to laugh out loud.
He could believe the size of the crowd (he’d sold the previous night out too), and seemed confident that no one had fooled them into coming. But the scale of their reaction seemed genuinely humbling at times. For all the seated swagger, playing the role of the crafty, cocky Cockney, it was an evening of the most genial, modest self-confidence imaginable. The banter of youth remains one of his major superpowers, but he boasted and blustered for fun, our fun as much as his, knowing that we were in on the joke: a knowing self-deprecation that implied, “Just throw me out if I get obscene/ But that’s the way that I’ve always been.”
Opening with a post-winter solstice rendition of Here Comes The Sun brought immediate illumination. Judy Teen, Sling It! Mr Raffles and Mr Soft added dynamic momentum to the set – lurching, plummeting, swirling fairground fun delivered with diamond-geezer gusto. For a man declaring himself perennially “in search of silence,” he wasn’t finding it here.
In less heady, more steady and tender moments, he talked separately about his son, his grandchildren, his father and his wife. Journey’s End (A Father’s Promise) took on an extra poignancy when he spoke of his own father’s recent death. He spoke fondly of dear departed mentors and mates in Mickie Most and Marc Bolan. (Love) Compared With You gave us a taste of the new album, due out in February, with its new third verse, written in tribute to Mrs Harley. We almost found out what he’d bought her for Christmas, before he curtailed that runaway anecdote just in time. No spoilers, Mrs H. Merry Christmas to you.
If there wasn’t already enough musical and, let’s face it, beery intoxication in the room, the combination of Best Years of Our Lives and Sebastian heightened emotions further. The latter ended the pre-encore set in all its theatrical melodrama. The former became an extended jam, with improv solos on lead guitar from Paul Cuddeford, plaintive violin from Barry Wickens and appropriately (for the venue) jazzy piano from James Lascelles leaving many of us with the challenge of peeling ourselves off the ceiling by the end. Both songs bore testament to the excellent sound engineering that the venue possesses.
As we were having a party, the two-song encore was very much like a good old after-hours lock-in. Tumbling Down was the biggest audience singalong moment of the night, almost leaving Steve in a state of ‘Oh dear, look what we’ve done to Nells Jazz & Blues, Blues, Blues’, as the song’s refrain refrained from refraining long after he stopped singing it. Viagra anthem and ‘strong and stable’ staple, (Come Up and See Me) Make Me Smile had everyone standing, crying out “Oooh” in pleasant unison and reaching a most memorable and gratifying conclusion.
We’ll remember the time. What a time. Man, it was mean.