Martin Harley is probably Woking’s third most famous guitar player. Whist Paul Weller is almost certainly taking top billing (though primarily as a result of his singer/songwriter credentials) and Rick Parfitt certainly knew how to bang out a chord, it’s Harley who takes the ‘guitar virtuoso’ spot in this list. Born in Cardiff, (his family moved to Woking when Harley was a small child), his blend of blues/country/roots/folk/Americana frequently wrapped in the most creamy slide guitar you’ll ever hear has seen him perform as a solo artist, as head of the Martin Harley Band and more recently as part of a duo with double bassist Daniel Kimbro.
Tonight, he’s filled Islington’s stunning Union Chapel as head of a three piece that sees drummer Harry Harding (Yola Carter and William the Conquerer) on his left and award-winning Australian bassist Rex Horan (Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Laura Marling) on his right.
It’s fitting that these two brilliant musicians flank Harley as they performed with him on his most recent release, the album Roll With The Punches, tracks of which were previewed tonight. It’s a record that features a more electric sound than much of Harley’s previous work.
The band took to the stage shortly before nine and flew through a seventeen song setlist that encompassed tunes from every facet of Harley’s illustrious career. Hotel Lonely (a cut from the new record that exemplifies its grittier tone) opened proceedings and was followed by Drumrolls For Somersaults from the Martin Harley Band album of the same name.
These two songs were performed bipedal but it didn’t take long for Harley’s chair and Weissenborn lap slide guitar to occupy centre stage: “I’ve been sitting down so long to play, I don’t know what the bottom half of my body is for – at least not on stage anyway”.
Harley’s mastery of the instrument was clear and the slide sounded fantastic echoing around the walls of this epic venue. He could probably do a turn as a stand up too; his humour drier than the strictly no alcohol (unless you’re in the band) policy inside the Union Chapel auditorium. “Let’s take things down in the joy stakes a bit” was Harley’s strictly deadpan introduction to the really quite bleak Blues In My Window.
I had to smile when he introduced the band too. Drummer Harry Harding was clean shaven whilst Harley sported a trimmed beard under his fedora; but stage right, Rex Horan’s whiskers were so prolific that he was in danger of trapping them under his bass. “What you’re seeing here is the evolution of facial hair”.
It wasn’t only Horan’s beard that impressed. His playing was sublime culminating in a fine solo in Money Don’t Matter. Whilst much of the music was poignant solo guitar there was plenty of time for some up-tempo numbers too. Love in the afternoon was a super quick shuffle and twang from the Harley Telecaster. The nature of the church environs meant that everyone remained resolutely glued to the pews but you can bet there was a lot of dancing from the kneecap down.
If Tears Were Pennies (another from the new record) offered a more menacing twang from the Tele and an extended instrumental with great interplay between Harley and Horan and some fantastic drumming from Harding too. This was about as loud as the band had been all evening.
Unfortunately, I arrived too late to see the performance from support artist Anna Pancaldi, though I only heard good things being spoken during the interval. I did get to see Pancaldi perform Brother with the band though shortly before the main set closed. She has a talent that is certainly deserving of a dedicated trip another time.
The band came out for the first of two encores in reconfigured form with Harley playing acoustic guitar and Harding adopting the Telecaster from behind the kit. It turned out he’s not only an excellent drummer. Winter Coat followed. All three musicians sang delicate harmony vocals with breaks towards the end of the song that were filled with total and absolute silence from the assembly. If only all audiences were as knowledgeable and respectful as the Martin Harley crowd. It was a joy to behold.
The show closed out with Muddy Waters’ I Can’t Be Satisfied. The smiles and associated conversations that filed out between the benches indicated this was not a problem for the people here tonight.
Martin Harley’s UK tour continues through October concluding in Oxford on 19/10. Tickets for all shows are available from Martin’s website at: www.martinharley.com/tour
Martin Harley: Blues In The Chapel: review and photography by Simon Reed. Simon has his own music photography website at www.musicalpictures.co.uk.