BJH Live metropolis as reviewed in PhantomTollboothThe Moody Blues will always be a poor man’s Barclay James Harvest to me.

Label: Salvo
Time: 11 tracks / 75 minutes (+5-minute interview on DVD)

“People say it’s boring, playing the old songs,” comments John Lees in the short interview on the DVD part of this classic rock performance, adding, “But I’m quite proud of those songs; they stand up to close scrutiny.”

Too right, they do. Any tracks that can keep the listener enjoying them, singing along and – most importantly – really feeling the words and solos decades after they were first released, are surely great songs. This collection includes classics like “Child of the Universe,” the still-gritty “Medicine Man” and “Summer Soldier.” As you would expect with the Barclay James Harvest (BJH) discography, every track is worth its place.

Not that everything is old. This set débuts “Ancient Waves,” a previously unperformed song about the Iraq war. Some songs have also evolved over their lifetimes, such as “Mockingbird,” which is probably over double its original length at eight minutes.

One surprise was Lees’s own singing. On the DVD, he looks tense and moves very little, reading some lyrics and reminding me of the ageing BBC football commentator John Motson in both looks and manner. Yet listen to the same performance on the CD and you hear plenty of passion in both the guitar solos and vocals. The “Mockingbird” solo is fairly staccato before the bit that sounds like Steve Hackett in “Musical Box,” but there are still ringing notes that exude emotion. His desire to give these songs a maximum airing comes across.

However, age has made inroads into that now-smokier voice and for a couple of tracks, bass player Craig Fletcher takes the vocal duties. Looking like he might be Lees’s son, his youth keeps the band fresh. In a similar way, Jez Smith has taken the role of the original BJH keyboard player, the late Woolly Wolstenholme, and plays it true to his spirit. After all, apart from those John Lees vocals, the mellotron sound is what gives the band its sonic identity.

Hence the track “Poor Man’s Moody Blues,” which took its title from the partly-deserved jibe about the impression that BJH often leaves. That track is at the heart of this set, sounding as lush and majestic as ever. If it is a pastiche of “Nights in White Satin,” I’m not complaining.

This set displays the way that they are one of the most spiritual bands outside of the Christian field:  there is much about the need for peace; ”Summer Soldier” name-checks the command to love your neighbour; “After the Day” refers to the multi-coloured cross; and the perennial set-closer “Hymn” covers Jesus’ birth, life and ascension.

If classic rock and prog were football, huge bands like Yes, ELP and Genesis would be the Manchester Uniteds and Arsenals. The likes of Barclay James Harvest would be the Spurs; not quite as ambitious and all-consuming, but nearly always in contention and renowned for their entertaining play.

With Smith’s keyboards doing full justice to Woolly Wolstenholme’s legacy, a magnificent set-list and a sense that we may never see this (now semi-retired) band in a similar way again, Live at Metropolis Studios is one that BJH fans – and any others who love mellow rock with a heart and craft – will enjoy.


Derek Walker

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