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Thursday, October 3, 2013

Barclay James Harvest: Live At High Voltage


1) Nova Lepidoptera; 2) Poor Wages; 3) She Said; 4) Galadriel; 5) Ball And Chain; 6) Mockingbird; 7) Taking Some Time On; 8) Medicine Man; 9) Song For Dying; 10) The Poet; 11) After The Day; 12) Hymn.

Our saga is almost at an end — technically, it has ended, because, other than a couple archival releases from the old days on the BBC, «Barclay James Harvest» was no more after River Of Dreams. In its place, through a simple budding process, two new entities were generated: «John Lees' Barclay James Harvest» and «Barclay James Harvest featuring Les Holroyd» — yes, the only thing better than a Barclay James Harvest are two competing Barclay James Harvests, each of them with its own personal assembly line.

It is beyond my level of endurance to go for a close analysis of Lees' and Holroyd's post-split careers, but just a few words may be in order. Holroyd had always been the «lesser» part of the two, writing relatively fewer hits and generally acting as a «sissy» counterpart to John's «tough­ness» (the distinction is embedded about as firmly as the Lennon/McCartney division line, which is to say not firmly at all, but there is a distinction) — on the other hand, he did take the drummer, Mel Pritchard, with him, so, from an arithmetical point of view, he might have more rights to the name of BJH than his tougher colleague. So far, «Barclay James Harvest featuring Les Holroyd» has had only one studio album out (Revolution Days, 2002: the small bits that I have heard con­firm the predictable suspicion — mostly pathetic adult contemporary with melodies as attractive as a bunch of squished caterpillars), as well as a couple live ones, and I suppose they must be pretty big in Germany, as always, and pretty small everywhere else.

The story of «John Lees' Barclay James Harvest» is marginally more interesting, because, in order to even out the quotas, Lees got back together with Woolly: their first effort, Nexus, re­leased in 1999, mostly consisted of reworkings of old classics, going all the way back to the early days, with a few new ideas thrown in. Also featuring Craig Fletcher on bass and Kevin White­head on drums, the band, from then on, mostly stuck to touring, and did that with modest success until Woolly's suicide in December 2010, caused by mental health problems. He was then re­placed by Jez Smith.

Live At High Voltage is a rather typical example of several live performances that the band has released in the 21st century. Recorded on July 23rd, 2011, at the High Voltage Festival in Lon­don (rather than Berlin!), it was then released as a 2-CD set (which, as a «bonus gift», included a third blank CD on which the buyer was invited to burn some photos and a video interview from the band's own site — is that marketing genius, or what?), with a side aim to act as an honorary  tribute to Woolly: they even performed Woolly's own ʽBall And Chainʼ, which they did not cover onstage while Woolly was alive.

The first thing, of course, that strikes you about the album is that none of the material dates past the late 1970s — and that most of the material (10 songs out of 12!) is from the band's earliest period (1970-72). Usually, this kind of behavior is branded as «turning into a nostalgic oldies act», but in this particular case, the aim is altogether different: for John Lees, who had been crea­tively stagnating over two decades, this is a rebirth — almost like a rejection of all that utter crap, going back to the spring of youth, that sort of thing. Listening to the band crank the volume up on those early tunes was fun to me, and a good reminder that there did really exist a time when Bar­clay James Harvest could lay claim to some depth, creativity, and good taste.

I mean, a Barclay James Harvest live album with no ʽPoor Man's Moody Bluesʼ on it? No ʽLove On The Lineʼ? No ʽLoving Is Easyʼ? No ʽTitlesʼ? Not a single Les Holroyd ballad? Most impor­tantly, no ʽSpud-U-Likeʼ or any traces of the band's existence in the synth-pop era? Bring it on, even if the actual performance is far from perfect: Lees' singing has grown craggy and cranky, the other guys, replacing Woolly, cannot sing expressively at all, the rhythm section does not feel particularly tight, and John seems to have lost a bit of the old «fluidity» in his soloing, as seen best of all on the slightly clumsy phrasing in ʽMedicine Manʼ (arthritis? or just nervous?).

But they do drag out the very first song on the very first BJH album — a fairly good run through ʽTaking Some Time Onʼ, even if, naturally, they cannot properly reproduce the psychedelic over­dub-fest that made the original coda so head-spinningly impressive. They do the entire ʽPoet / After The Dayʼ suite, with a ferocious solo at the end that quite compensates for the imperfection of ʽMedicine Manʼ. They do lots more of that nice early stuff. It's a pretty swell trip «down the old memory lane».

It is not that I am advocating for anyone to rush out and look for it, or any other «John Lees' Bar­clay James Harvest» record — normally, if you want to hear ʽTaking Some Time Onʼ or ʽSong For The Dyingʼ, you should just go back to the original source. The important thing is that this and other live records fulfill a «redemptory» function: it is pretty much John Lees saying to us, "yes, ladies and gentlemen, everything I did past 1979 was fairly crappy, and this here is me trying to undo some of the wrongs I'd done». Well, it seems to be that way — I may be getting it all wrong, but this is the interpretation that I like the most, and since I'm a sucker for happy end­ings, this is just the kind of happy ending I'd been hoping for. Therefore, all's well that ends well; thumbs up to this imperfect, but vivacious and well-meaning live album; and here's hoping that Barclay James Harvest, for a brief while at least, will continue to be remembered for the many beautiful things they'd done in their early years, rather than the numerous crimes against Taste, Queen and Country perpetrated in later ones.

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