Rick Harper at Twice-Told Coffeehouse

By Robert L. Penick

In February, much of Louisville missed out on what I believe to have been a seminal event: Singer/songwriter Rick Harper playing a solo acoustic show actually two sets of his original music in Louisville for the first time. Harper, who has played bass and sung harmony for Billy Swan, The Kingston Trio, Jerry Reed and Mickey Clark, had not presented his work live since his South Florida band, Breathers, in the late 80's.

I bought his 25-song CD Rickenharper some months ago and immediately became a fan. His introspective, literate country/folk/pop melange struck me as ideal: he can lay down the country ballad as well as Steve Earle, stays in the ring with Paul McCartney in the pop category and can jerk at your heartstrings while avoiding the turgidity of the late, great Harry Chapin. For wit and emotional insight, put him in the shoebox with John Prine.

After a rave-up review of Rickenharper by The Courier Journal's Paul Curry, a kudo from WFPK's Dan Reed, and lots of airplay, I expected the Twice-Told Coffeehouse to be packed, so I got there an hour early. By show time I was wired on coffee and the room was only half full. Rick nonchalantly ripped into his set with "When You Were," then followed it with "I Bring Her Down" and a version of "Ca$h Poor" even more pumped-up than the original. The sweet, bouncy pop of "Girl In The Nuthouse" brought laughter and applause from the audience, as did "Took A Wrong Turn," a request of mine that, unfortunately, is not on the CD, but from an earlier record.

Throughout his set, Rick engaged his audience in conversation, resulting in an intimate atmosphere. By the time he launched into his paean to growing old, "Almost Forty," we were in his living room. Songs passed over us like dreams we'd had. Rick took a break and sat down to chat. Hearing from my table-mate that he'd worked a ten-hour day before coming to the gig, I offered him a coffee. He declined. I gunned down three cappucinos and vibrated when he retook the stage.

By now, the room looked like a who's who of Louisville music, with Tim Krekel, Bill Ede, and members or former members of The Mudcats, Another Mule and Red Beans and Rice. Also, Naughty Nancy, queen of the pole at the Green Light Lounge before her unfortunate car/train accident, showed up.

Rick began an inspired second set, with "Every Night I Hold You." Springing into "Brand New Favorite Song," Rick showed us what catchy, thoughtful lyrics are all about. By the time he hit "Coffee Table," the now-capacity audience was clapping along. The fascinating, creepy "Rffr Mn" was tarnished, however, by a tableful of refugees from the Toy Tiger who talked over the music. Dutifully trooping through "Touch You In Places," "I Know What It Is," and "Too Much Effort," Rick ignored the big-haired table-mongers and provided me with the most memorable musical moment since Don McLean sang Buddy Holly's "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" without a P.A. at the Macauley Theatre in 1978.

Rick Harper's CD, Rickenharper, is available at Underground Sounds, and Ear X-tacy Records.