STEVE Harley is a consummate master of his profession. Over the past 50 years and a bit, he’s written some of the finest music you would ever wish to hear – and then delivered it with a clarity, passion and meaning few others can achieve. Heartfelt. Occasionally, heart breaking. Mind blowing. Intense. Poetic.
Hits such as Make Me Smile have been covered worldwide, used in television adverts and made him a small fortune along the way. He deserves every penny. Harley is a genius. A scintillating genius.
Although time marches on, Harley 2023 is as captivating to watch live as he was in 1974 when his band Cockney Rebel had their first UK hit – Judy Teen – and Top of The Pops became a regular gig.
Despite the fact that he is now in his early 70s, Harley’s passion has not dimmed a volt. It burns brightly like Sirius in the night sky. He pours his heart and soul into every song. It’s both exhausting and exhilarating to watch.
An individual who demands of himself and those around him, but in so doing triumphs. Someone who still worries whether he will get an audience turning up to listen to his music. Maybe it’s that worry that drives him ever forward.
His second show of a three-night stint at Pizza Express Live in London’s Holborn (he’s also back in May) was a masterclass in musicianship as he and his acoustic band treated the sell-out audience to a mix of old hits and new interpretations of songs made famous by others (songs that form the basis of his latest album: Uncovered).
He was thrillingly received – even the order to finish all food before he came on stage and keep cameras firmly in pockets didn’t diminish the audience’s ardour for the cockney rebel (Harley wants nothing to come between his music and those who have paid to see him).
As the show progressed, Harley sprinkled a few memories on top of the music that drew smiles from the audience. For example, going back stage to say hello to Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) and encouraging him to sing live How Can I Tell You (That I Love You), something he went on to do in subsequent concerts. And the morning (in a cornfield) he came up with a third verse for Compared With You (the day his Dad’s body was interred) – more than 40 years after he had written the song. ‘I just wish I could have sung it with my Dad there,’ he said.
Indeed, emotion bubbled to the surface on more than one occasion, none more so than when he dedicated Compared With You to two recently departed friends: musical colleagues Kuma Harada and Alan Darby. He was also moved to discover that his grandson was in the audience.
Yet it was the music that defined the night. Kicking off with Star For A Week, Harley delivered a string of numbers from his back book: Only You (about a fan from ‘up north’ who still comes to his concerts ‘dancing like a fire’); Lay Me Down; All Men Are Hungry: and a moving Journey’s End (written for his son, also in the audience).
Yet there was more, with interpretations of classic songs made famous by Bowie (Absolute Beginners); Longpigs and Crispin Hunt (Lost Myself); McCartney (I’ve Just Seen A Face) – and a rattling good version of the Rolling Stones’ Out Of Time which got the audience shaking their bits and singing along like a backing choir.
The night finished with a sumptuous A Friend For Life; a splendid Mr Soft (infused with the violin of Barry Wickens) – ‘Capaldi on steroids’; Tumbling Down (infused with the sound of Harley’s harmonica); Sebastian (lifted by the mesmerising guitar of Dave Delarre); and of course the finale – Make Me Smile: a song that had the audience up off their feet and enthusiastically joining in the chorus. Alongside Wickens and Delarre was the outstanding Oli Hayhurst on double bass.
Steve Harley is a national treasure. Embrace him. A few tickets are left for his shows at Pizza Express Live in Holborn at the end of May. Grab one while you can – the shows are bound to be sell outs.
If you love live music, the shows will make you smile, that’s for sure.
Finally, a big shout out for Pizza Express Live. It continues to support live music to the hilt and its staff are superb. The fact that its Holborn venue is one of Harley’s favourites speaks volumes about how bloody good it is.