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.
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.
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…..
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.