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Barclay James  Harvest - Barclay James Harvest Live CD (album) cover


Barclay James Harvest


Crossover Prog

4.40 | 101 ratings

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5 stars Take some good melodic songs - add a strong dose of 70s Symphonic Prog - mix with some excellent inventive guitar playing - and drench it great swathes of luscious Mellotron. It doesn't come much better than this.

In the mid/late 60s a bunch of lads in the Oldham area of England were playing mainly R&B covers in local bands. Four of them joined forces as Barclay James Harvest to become part of the first wave of Prog, complete with their own symphony orchestra! Sadly, they only ever remained in the second division, mostly due a series of misfortunes and wrong decisions. By the time they found fame (in the 80s in continental Europe) they had long left Prog behind, but this album is squarely from the mid 70s before they began to change their direction.

'Live' was recorded over 2 successive nights in late June 1974 in Liverpool and London (Drury Lane) on the Island Mobile. It is quite clear that 2 tracks (Negative Earth and Paper Wings) have slightly different sonic qualities to the rest of the album, which tends to suggest that all but those two were recorded at one of the gigs. Whatever. The sound is good and clear, but dynamically it is a little suppressed which bathes the album in a warm analogue glow: an impression enhanced by the warmth and prominence of the Mellotron and lovely rounded mellow tones of Lees' lead guitar. Instrument separation is excellent - you can hear every input by all 4 members - but placement is a little primitive: John Lees lead guitar is on extreme left; Woolly's Mellotron takes centre stage (I certainly won't quibble with that); while Les's guitar & bass (he played a twin neck 6-string & bass) comes from extreme right. The 2 rogue tracks (Negative Earth & Paper Wings) have a slightly more brittle quality, and the stereo placement is different - strangely, Holroyd and Lees moved to the centre! It's not really a problem, though, and the only real annoyance is the timbre of the snare. It all adds character, and it's kinda nice to hear the hi-hats resonating in sympathy to the bass from time to time.

None of these performances are anything less than excellent: I could pick any one of them and argue about how brilliant it is. As performers, they had reached a peak at this time - both Lees on guitar and Wolstenholme on keys, especially Mellotron, were extremely inventive. They had become masters of their instruments but had not yet reached that level of absolute slick professionalism whereby all the little rough edges had been completely ironed out. Compare this to 'Live Tapes' from 1978: a much slicker production, but it doesn't have the heart and soul of the 1974 band.

Some tracks really come alive here, like Crazy City, For No-One (".... everyone's a loner till he needs a helping hand ...."), She Said and After The Day. There is however, a 'crowning glory' - the first 2 tracks (side 1 of the vinyl 2LP set) are nothing short of sensational: the 2-part Summer Soldier becomes a tour-deforce in the live environment and it seamlessly segues into a stonking rendition of Medicine Man, here transformed from a short and sweet orchestrated piece into a heavywieght rocker with extensive improvisation mostly from Woolly. I had heard of BJH for some time before 1974 but my first real exposure to their music was when I saw them on this tour (Norwich, Norfolk, St Andrew's Hall, 2nd row a little to right of centre) so the first things I heard were these 2 songs. They made such a lasting impression on me such that Summer Soldier was the first thing I tried to play on guitar!

This album neatly sums up the first stage of their career, a stage when they were at their most creative, and at their most Progressive. The next few years would see a slicker approach and an ever inceasing AOR element creep into their music at the expense of the progressive, which ultimately led to Woolly leaving at the end of the decade. But that's another story. Other reviewers have suggested this is their best album, and I wouldn't really argue against that view - any issues with the sound are minor. Certainly, it helps to affirm that Woolly was one of the original masters of the Mellotron.

Joolz | 5/5 |


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