Steve Harley Acoustic Trio
Southern Pavilion, Worthing Pier
21st April 2018
Worthing’s Pier’s Southern Pavilion has recently been restored to its Art Deco glory. It feels somewhat like the lounge of a cruise liner, especially as it is laid out cabaret-style with a low-rise stage and clusters of tables and chairs for the visit of Steve Harley tonight. There are no white tuxes, but plenty of black t-shirts.
There’s a mezzanine gallery around the outside of the room, where the green room resides. Steve Harley descends from that upper level, crutch in hand, via a tight-looking spiral staircase. Watching a man in his 60s who is rehabilitating from a recently-broken hip enter a gig in this manner is more nerve-racking than words can possibly describe.
But it doesn’t half make for a splendid release of tension when he settles, centre stage on his necessary perch of a high stool, and launches into Ordinary People. He’s flanked by long-standing Cockney Rebel honchos, Barry Wickens (violin and guitar) and James Lascelles (piano and percussion). Taking full-band songs that the audience knows and most definitely loves, they offer an improvisational take on Harley’s work, using their knowledge of the material and familiarity with each other to let some elements of the performance feel like a joyous jam. It’s the antithesis of Harley’s recent full-band, choir and orchestra performances of Psychomodo and The Human Menagerie that will culminate in their final performances in mid-May.
Harley himself is on bristlingly rebellious form. He is as charming as the spark in his eye, as warm as the timbre of his voice, as irreverent as the edge to his stories and as abrasive as the light stubble that he sports. If he’d have started with an ironic few bars of Chumbawamba (“I get knocked down, but I get up again”) you wouldn’t have been surprised. He’s gone on record in addressing just how much his recent injury has been a challenge, especially the need to cancel gigs for the first time in his career.
“I’m not always this chatty,” he tells us. “This stool gives me the Dave Allen effect.” Yet, the evening is as much about the intimacy of the setting and Harley as a raconteur as it is the deft musicianship. He tells his Bob Dylan story, which is longer than the subsequent song. He insults Worthing in a way that charms its inhabitants. A nameless, cheerless Geordie tax collector sustains another anecdote after they play The Coast Of Amalfi. He is self-deprecating, suggesting that he has been reduced to “The End of the Pier Show” and stating before the encore, “I’d never get in anyone else’s band.”
Yet it’s not all banter. He talks of having put his father into a residential home and of fundraising for breast cancer charities. He talks fondly of his strong family connections in Hove, the places he would play as a child (now a Sainsbury’s car park). He draws our attention to the lyrics of the now even more poignantly named Tumbling Down, and “See the Titanic sail into Brighton” to point out that it was probably in the King Alfred lido, aged three, that he contracted polio.
There are numerous highlights, including the simple poetry of A Friend For Life (“Will you come with me in the certain knowledge/ That the catch is there’s no catch at all”) and the similar unconditional love of Journey’s End. Judy Teen receives an unsurprising ovation (plus the inevitable audience karaoke Tourettes outburst on “She made us HAPPY”), as does Sebastian, which closes the set with something of an apocalyptic acoustic-prog freak-out. The Best Years Of Our Lives elicits a sentimental tear and an overwhelming cheer. On Stranger Comes To Town, he puts his guitar down and gives us a compelling theatrical delivery of “a rebel who has lost his way.”
Very much a man finding his feet again and gaining momentum after an existential shake-up, it is a privilege to get up close and hear him being so personal. Having already made us happy, they finish with Make Me Smile. And then they have to go back up those bloody spiral stairs again.