Set list: The Bells, THE BELLS!; Deceivers All; Has To Be A Reason; In Search Of England; Explorers; The Iron Maiden; The Sunday Bells; Souk; Poor Wages; The Poet/After The Day; The Will To Fly; A Prospect Of Whitby; Blood and Bones; Harbour; Early Morning; Too Much, Too Loud, Too Late; Carpet; Deceivers All (encore)
Trying to follow the musical path of Woolly Wolstenholme, widely known and appreciated as the original keyboard maestro with Barclay James Harvest, is like browsing a manual for traffic signs. In the past 37 years he shifted from narrow British country roads to four lane German highways only to end up in dead end streets in Wales. But in 2004 we find him back in full gear again, exploring new avenues of fame, fortune and folly. His truck is heavily loaded with fresh musical ideas, thought provoking lyrics, wit, talented musicians, and devils he keeps as pets from the past, including, what else, a mellotron!
The first stop where everything was unloaded for a public presentation was The Mean Fiddler on Charing Cross Road, in the heart of London, on 12 May 2004. This public appearance of Woolly with his reformed band Maestoso coincided with the presentation of his new studio album, One Drop in a Dry World, released by Eclectic Discs. The fact that the album was released under the groupname Maestoso proves how important it is for Woolly to share his musical talent with other musicians. Joining him on stage in the Mean Fiddler were Steve Broomhead (g), Craig Fletcher (b), Jeff Leach (k) and Kim Turner (d). Steve and Kim were both members of the original Maestoso band from the early ’80s, Craig and Jeff were, together with Woolly, guest musicians in one of the incarnations of Barclay James Harvest in the late 90’s, BJH through the eyes of John Lees.
For two reasons, the crowd at the venue (about 200) were already in a cheerful mood by the time Maestoso hit the stage. The supporting act was John Young, who played a decent set as a warming up. Performing solo, he used tapes of his backing band as accompaniment, so those present could get a pretty good idea of the overall character of his music, which is nice, melodic, and sometimes slightly heavy. He was well received, and his critical remarks about the music business were mostly received with applause. The other reason why the crowd was so cheerful was the fact that it was the first ‘flesh meet’ of many participants of the Barclay James Harvest discussion group (http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/bjh/). Fans from all over Europe and even the USA came to London to support Woolly. One by one, they were received with cheers and hugs, which probably provided a funny sight to outsiders.
The gig was exactly what everybody was hoping for: some classic BJH songs mixed with the best songs the new Maestoso has to offer. As the new CD was on sale for the first time at the gig, many new songs were not yet known, but they were unmistakebly Woolly. His keyboard technique and arranging style are unlike most other keyboard players in the symphonic/progressive genre: no twiddly solo’s, but chords changing from sensitive to overwhelming, dominant yet an integral part of the sound. And some fragments of new songs in early mixes had been available from his website (http://www.woollywolstenholme.co.uk/), so on the whole, both old and new songs were greeted with loud cheers and great enthousiasm.
Of the Maestoso songs, five came from the new album One Drop in a Dry World, and another five from Songs from the Black Box album (which was initially released in 1994 and re-released in 2004 in an extended version as ‘Black Box Recovered’). He only played one track from the first Maestoso album, A Prospect of Whitby. It struck me again how much heavier Maestoso songs are compared to those of BJH in the post-Woolly era. While BJH music after 1979 can be characterised as esthetic, pleasantly arranged synthesised AOR songs, many Maestoso songs have that haunting, melancholic, even apocalyptic feel that touch your heart and mind. If there is one theme that connects Woolly’s songs, it is the apocalyps of modern mankind with its consumerism and selfishness.
But despite all this, the real highlights of the gig were some classic BJH songs that could only be done justice by Woolly and no one else. The performance of songs like The Iron Maiden, In Search of England, Poor Wages, Early Morning and above all, The Poet/After The Day challenges any description in words. The Poet/After The Day was, for me, an very emotional moment during the gig. These linked BJH tracks from 1971 have always been very dear to me, and hearing Woolly perform them live in 2004 in an overwhelming, flawless version was something I could never have imagined. Also very special was the (almost religious) community performance of Early Morning, the very first single from BJH from 1968, dedicated to the memory of Mel Pritchard, BJH’s drummer who passed away in February 2004. It is obvious that Woolly still takes much pride in the songs of early BJH, but he is also, more than the other (ex-)BJH members, able to breathe new life into them.
A special word of praise for Woolly’s backing band. Steve Broomhead gave the Maestoso songs his own flair and sound, but he was also able to a large extent to compensate for the absence of John Lees in the BJH songs. Jeff Leach, as the second keyboardist, gave Woolly room to focus on creating thundering chords from his mellotron and Kurzweil or change to acoustic guitar. Craig Fletcher and Kim Turner gave an energetic and enthousiastic push to the whole sound. All in all, it was the gig of the year for me, and now I am playing A Waiting Game until his next gig….