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Review of: Barclay James Harvest, live in Den Haag, Congresgebouw 28 May 1981

Setlist: Rock’n’roll lady, Capricorn, The song (they love to sing), Death of a city, Berlin, How do you feel now, Back to the wall, Nova Lepidoptera, Crazy city, Suicide?, Echoes and shadows, Sperratus, Love on the line, In memory of the martyrs, Life is for living, Poor man’s moody blues, Highway for fools, Play to the world, Hymn.

The first time I heard of Barclay James Harvest was in 1975, when their single “Titles” hit the Dutch charts (they even appeared on Toppop, the Dutch equivalent to Top of the Pops, as favourite of the week). I quite liked that song, but it wasn’t until 1980 when I really got to know their albums. And what albums! The more I listened to their back catalogue, the more I realised they were a very unique, and very underestimated band. This was a band that focused as much on harmony and atmosphere as on composition and technical ability. Although all their albums were quite different from each other productionwise, what connected them were the compositions of the three main writers, John Lees, Les Holroyd and Woolly Wolstenholme. Unfortunately, Woolly had just left before I became a fan. The album Eyes of the Universe was their latest release, which was much more electronic than its predecessors, and actually quite heavy. By the time their next album was released, Turn of the tide, I had become a loyal fan, and very much looked forward to seeing them live.

BJH gig poster 1981

The first occasion to see them in concert was on 28 May 1981, in The Hague, on the first leg of their massive European tour. As coverage of the activities of BJH in the Dutch media was almost non-existent, I hardly knew what to expect. I had seen some photographs in German magazines of previous tours, and their concerts seemed very atmospheric. So with lots of anticipation I went to the Congresgebouw with my brother.
As we arrived rather early, we went for a walk around the concert hall while the soundcheck was going on. When we passed the bus, someone wearing dark glasses was getting off, and we thought it was a roady, as the band had to be on stage (or so we thought). The guy stopped for a second when we passed and looked at us, as if expecting something from us, but as we didn’t react, he more or less shrugged his shoulders and went inside. Only then I realised it was John Lees… Since it appears to be John’s hobby to have a completely different appearance with every tour, he certainly had me fooled, as I hadn’t recognised him in time. Sh*t! Not a very good start…. Luckily Mel followed John not long after that, and he gave us a signed postcard for consolation.

Signed BJH card

It was the first time for me to be inside the Congresgebouw, which is a great concert hall. The acoustics were said to be tremendous there, so worthy of a BJH gig. It was almost sold out, and we had rather good seats, not close to the stage, but more or less in the centre of the hall, so what more could we want? I wondered a bit about the ceiling above the stage. There was this strange construction, and I couldn’t clearly see what it was. They were long laths, or something like that. Could they be attached for better acoustics? But their shape was rather odd. Anyhow, no time to wonder about it anymore, as the show started right on time.

The opening song, Rock’n’roll lady, was my brother’s favourite, and Capricorn and The Song were among my favourites from Eyes of the universe, so the start couldn’t have been better. Great sound, nice lighting, good atmosphere. Death of a city, the next in line, was to me one of the best songs from Turn of the Tide. I was (and still am) very fond of those ‘dark’ songs by John. I guess Turn of the Tide was much of a transition album for the band. It has a much more open and commercial sound than their previous albums, but also still many reminiscences of their older material. In that respect it was the last album from their post-Woolly area to have fully convinced me. Most of their later albums, though very good, never really got to me that much anymore.

With the first classic song of the set, Berlin, it became clear that this was going to be a spectacular gig in terms of audiovisuals as well. Not only did they use back projection as well (with Nova Lepidoptera a huge moon landscape was projected), but I finally realised what that construction on the ceiling was: it was part of the light show. Indeed a huge hydraulic construction which could be moved in many ways, and even get the shape of a butterfly…..

BJH live in The Hague 1981

I had expected a lot from this gig, but I was completely mindblown by what I experienced. This was such a professional band, with great feeling for combining music and stage design. There was a good mix of old and new songs (I never expected to hear songs like Crazy City or Suicide?) as well as heavy and delicate songs (Sperratus was superb, as was In Memory of the Martyrs). It was obvious that the audience was, like me, very very impressed. When it was time for the encores, everybody was standing on their chairs shouting (much to the dismay of the staff of the Congresgebouw, who walked down the rows with small flashlights, asking everybody to please stand on the floor, not on the chairs….).

Although it was my first BJH gig, it was no surprise to hear them end with Play to the world and Hymn, which seemed to me the most logical encores as well. Play to the world is such a great ending to Eyes of the universe, and Hymn being their prototypical song, can only be used at the beginning or at the end.

I was rather overwhelmed with all the impressions I got during this concert, and I still look back at it as one of the best concerts I have ever attended. Not that I needed confirmation from the press, but the gig even got a very positive review in a leading music magazine, which had always been rather negative about the band. Because of this great gig, I went to see BJH on the second leg of this tour in Dortmund in April 1982, but that was a bit too massive for me. The band had reached megastar status in Germany, and easily sold out gigs in the Westfalenhalle. In my humble opinion BJH never really was a band for these big halls. Venues like the Congresgebouw do much more justice to their sound and show.

Luckily, BJH came to the Netherlands a few more times in the years that followed. And although these gigs were not in the Congresgebouw anymore, they only strengthened my conviction that they were one of the best live bands around.

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Review of: Woolly Wolstenholme / Maestoso, live at the Mean Fiddler, London, 12 May 2004

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)

Woolly Wolstenholme

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….

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