Published on May 9th, 2018 | by Nigel Cartner0
John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest @ RNCM, Manchester 06/05/2018
Fifty and Not Out
Perhaps I’m not the most qualified person to review Barclay James Harvest on their 50th anniversary gig at the Royal Northern College of Music, and I say this when looking around at the audience to see that, for a change, I am definitely in the lowest age range bracket, and this at the grand old age of 36. However, I feel compelled to do so because their music has meant so much in my life, from early childhood years (thanks Mum and Dad), right through to using their music to help me through many of life’s adult problems.
There is no denying the talent that surrounds this tantalising Prog band from Oldham, and strangely that is recognised more in parts of Europe, like Germany, Switzerland, and France more than the UK. In fact, they are just as idyllic as The Beatles and Pink Floyd in these parts! That gives you some idea to how highly rated they are, and that is by no means exaggerated. It’s a baffling conundrum as to why consistent commercial success eluded them in the UK. With fellow Prog bands like Genesis and Yes being such household names, there seems to be no logical reason why BJH couldn’t follow suit in their homeland.
Tonight’s show, was as vocalist and bassist Craig Fletcher puts it to ever present member, John Lees, ‘your birthday,’ and something a little unique was arranged to commemorate the landmark. The sophisticated, all-seated setting in RNCM theatre added a tinge of class and prestige to the event. Over the course of three and half hours (in two parts), we were treated to a history of BJH’s mesmeric musical journey. The added use of visual aspects being portrayed on the screen behind them aided the music’s meaning, which mainly consisted of old live performance footage, and occasionally some of John Lees’ home movies that he took when writing in Portugal in 1982.
It was a journey of nostalgia with many memorable moments throughout the night. Craig Fletcher, who’s been with the band since 1998, helps more with vocals, and provides comedy with his quick witted northern humour between tracks. John Lees fills in the gaps, telling us stories of the past, including details around their famous Berlin gig, which attracted 180,000 people, and how certain songs came about.
But despite this being a celebration, there was an air of sadness about it too, brought on by the visual aspect to the performance, which showed footage of both Stuart ‘Woolly’ Wolstenholme and Mel Pritchard, who are sadly not with us anymore. The images of these legends heightened the emotional aspect to the show. The most heartfelt moment came when John Lees talks fondly of the former, whom he dedicates ‘On Leave’ to, a recent track written after his tragic suicide in 2010, which he admits is something he still can’t quite get over.
The set consisted of a mixture of classics and forgotten gems, ranging from the first self-titled album, right up to the most recent album of 2013. As ever, the band perform at an exceptionally high and professionally level, where John Lees’ distinctive guitar sound in full flow is still as compelling now than ever before. Songs that fans haven’t heard in years are played, and an outstanding, acoustic driven medley to begin act two with, which comprises of a series of songs from down the years, is wonderfully constructed and finishes to rapturous applause.
Of course, the well-known classics make an appearance, with the likes of ‘Child of the Universe’, ‘Iron Maiden’, ‘Crazy City’, ‘Taking Some Time On’, ‘Medicine Man’ and ‘Mockingbird’ being personal highlights of the night to name but a few of a long distinguished list. Many classics don’t make an appearance, showing just how many exceptional songs BJH have in their locker for a three and a half hour set, including the full album’s worth of ‘Eyes of the Universe’, which are tracks that are rarely played live in the modern line-up. One song that does elude us, much to my own disappointment, is the full version of ‘For No One’, which in my opinion is one of the most epic songs ever written and a personal all-time favourite that includes all bands.
They save their most famous best. With everyone on their feet clapping, the mighty and poignant ‘Hymn’ is the fitting finale that brings the curtain down to a fantastic evening. As the band depart, Craig Fletcher jokes, ‘Here’s to another fifty years.’ Although as a live act that’s quite impossible, their music should certainly live on for that long.
The evening just proved yet again why the BJH are so successful in parts of Europe, and again begs the question why this wasn’t reciprocated in their native land. They are quite possibly the UK’s most underrated band, and if you’re reading this and haven’t had the pleasure of delving into their catalogue, then you are in for a treat that’s sure to expand your mind and outlook, and discover a sometimes forgotten legendary act from our musical heritage.