Progressive Rock Group Barclay James Harvest Celebrate Their First Half Century
On two CDs and a companion DVD, The 50th Anniversary Concert captures a 2018 performance that celebrated the half-century recording career of England’s Barclay James Harvest. The group emerged from the prog-rock movement that also yielded outfits like Genesis, Yes, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
The band are credited here as John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest, and Lees earns his top billing not only because he cofounded the group and has written much of their material; he is also the only member of this current aggregation who comes from the original lineup. (Another original member continues to lead a separate act called Barclay James Harvest featuring Les Holroyd.) Rounding out Lees’s current band are guitarist Craig Fletcher and percussionist Kevin Whitehead, who joined in 1998, and keyboardist Jez Smith, who signed on in 2009.
On The 50th Anniversary Concert, which clocks in at nearly two and a half hours, the quartet do a good job of recreating the original group’s sound, which has often been compared to that of the Moody Blues because of its strong melodies, lyrical bent, and heavy use of mellotron and synthesizers. (Evidencing a self-deprecating sense of humor, Barclay James Harvest once recorded a number called “Poor Man’s Moody Blues.”) The 19 selections—one of which is a six-song acoustic medley—include the folky “Early Morning,” their 1968 debut single, as well as fan favorites like “She Said,” “Child of the Universe,” “Medicine Man,” and Lees’s anthemic “Hymn.” Some of the material—whose influences range from classical music to the Beatles—now sounds dated and histrionic; but there’s no denying the appeal of the melodies and vocal work on such standouts as the nearly nine-minute “Mockingbird,” an ethereal, multi-part rock and folk excursion that dates from 1971.
Barclay James Harvest never caught on in the States the way they did in Europe, but their musicianship has long been on a par with that of similarly styled British groups that did. If you want to get acquainted with their work, The 50th Anniversary Concert is a good a place to start.
Amy McCarley, MECO. Amy McCarley has worked as a contractor for NASA, whose Space Shuttle program acronym for Main Engine Cut Off inspired the title of this third album, her first since 2014. With any luck, the record should propel McCarley into the big time at least as quickly as a NASA rocket launches a capsule into space. It combines mainstream accessibility with the sort of authenticity and depth you’d associate with artists like Lucinda Williams. (Guitarist Kenny Vaughan, who coproduced, has toured with Williams.) McCarley’s instantly likable vocals convey a large personality and prove equally suited to bluesy ballads like “High Wire” and upbeat country rockers such as “Never Can Tell,” where Marty Stuart guests on mandolin. McCarley wrote all of the 10 selections, half of them in collaboration with veteran country singer/songwriter Pat Alger, and they’re uniformly lilting, emotional, and memorable.
Dennis Quaid & the Sharks, Out of the Box. Though actor Dennis Quaid has been making music for many years, this is his first album. Pass it by if you’re looking for introspective lyrics and folky melodies, but if it’s a rock ’n’ roll party you’re after, you’ve come to the right place. The band is hot, and Quaid—whose sound and style remind me of David Johansen (aka Buster Poindexter)—contributes likable vocals on infectious originals such as “After the Fall.” Also here are covers of four rock classics: the Doors’ “L.A. Woman” and “Riders on the Storm,” Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” and Larry Williams’s “Slow Down.” Quaid and his band don’t present any of these gems in a particularly fresh light but their high-energy versions are nevertheless compelling.
Pierce Pettis, Father’s Son. Twin strengths are apparent throughout this moving album, Pierce Pettis’s first in almost 10 years: his skill as a songwriter; and his gravelly, intimate vocals, which somewhat recall Jesse Winchester. Many of the lyrics seem autobiographical, including those for “Wouldn’t Change It for the World” and “The Adventures of Me (and This Old Guitar).” Other standouts include “Mr. Zeldman,” about the “one and only Jew” in the singer’s hometown, “who wore long sleeves to keep an ugly thing from view”; “More,” which Pettis cowrote, about how there’s more than this earthly life; and two well-selected covers, Winchester’s “A Showman’s Life” and Mark Heard’s “Look Over Your Shoulder.”
John Kilzer, Scars. John Kilzer has been a singer/songwriter for decades: he recorded two albums that Geffen released in 1988 and 1991; issued a minor-label CD in 2011; and has seen his compositions interpreted by artists such as Rosanne Cash (“707,” “Green, Yellow, and Red”). But there are a lot of missing years on his musical resume, during which he earned a Ph.D. in religious studies, taught English literature at Memphis State, and also dealt with a period of addiction and recovery. All that varied experience is reflected in Scars, a heartfelt collection of 11 original tunes that one hopes will meet with enough success to keep Kilzer more focused on music in the years ahead. Though a few tracks suffer from prosaic melodies or lyrical platitudes, the lion’s share of the program profits from gritty, soulful vocals and musically and lyrically strong compositions. Among the highlights: “Memphis Town,” a portrait of the singer’s home base; the organ-spiced “Rope the Moon”; and the affecting title cut, about learning to appreciate everything you’ve been through and the attendant “scars.”
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.