Barclay James Harvest – Baby James Harvest: Album Review

Barclay James Harvest’s album Baby James Harvest receives the positive re-evaluation it rightly deserves in this new box set.

Release date:  Available now

Label: Esoteric Recordings/Cherry Red Records

Format: 4 CD and Blu-ray Box Set

As the accompanying excellent booklet for this new box set of Barclay James Harvest’s Baby James Harvest album sets out, 1972 was a challenging year for the band, with commercial success seemingly eluding them. At that time, the album Baby James Harvest (the band’s fourth album) was viewed as much weaker than the preceding albums. This still feels a singularly unfair judgement, particularly in the context of the fresh light shone on the album, by the new stereo and surround sound 5.1 mixes by Stephen W Tayler, which are at the core of this box set.

Barclay James Harvest consisted of John Lees, vocals and guitar, Les Holroyd, vocals and bass guitar, Woolly Wolstenholme, vocals and keyboards, and Mel Pritchard, drums and percussion. Woolly Wolstenholme and Mel Pritchard are sadly no longer with us, but the legacy of the band lives on in John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest and Barclay James Harvest Featuring Les Holroyd. Barclay James Harvest could produce wonderfully epic songs, enveloped in musically insightful arrangements, that often utilised a full orchestra. They are undoubtedly pioneers in this ambitious strand of merging classical and progressive music, which is fully in evidence here, on the closing track from the album Moonwater, and the BBC Radio One In Concert performance from November 1972, also included in this box set, where the band are accompanied by the Barclay James Harvest Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martyn Ford. 

This box set does full justice to the Baby James Harvest album, with new mixes of the album, and the addition of the already mentioned superb live concert recording, together with a range of bonus tracks, including single A and B sides, alternative, demo and BBC session versions, and a gem of a previously undiscovered track, Sweet Faced Jane (more of this later). All of this spread over four CDs and one Blu Ray disc.

CD one and CD two offer the album remaster and a new stereo mix respectively. We will focus here on Stephen W Tayler’s new stereo mix, on CD two, which in particular brings to life Mel Pritchard’s very accomplished and inventive drumming, which previously felt to be perhaps a little buried in the mix. The soundstage in the new mix also provides more space and separation for all the individual instruments, such that for example, Les Holroyd’s gifted bass playing is given a new crispness.

Crazy (Over You) the opening track, really highlights Mel Pritchard’s fantastic drumming. The juxtaposition of an inventive bass drum-led rhythmic pattern, with stunning drum fills, and subtle cymbal work, lifts a great song to a sublime level. Les Holroyd’s bass lines are firm and angular and lead at different points in the song. John Lees’ guitar work and solo have a characteristic tremolo sustain and striking melodic tone, and Woolly Wolstenholme’s mellotron provides an elegance and widescreen soundstage. A simply perfect opening track.

Delph Town Morn follows, featuring a thirteen-piece brass section from the Syd Lawrence Orchestra. The Syd Lawrence Orchestra were led by trumpet player and arranger Syd Lawrence. Well known to television and concert audiences they were very respected performers of big band swing and dance music. The song has some great rhythmic acoustic guitar playing and swinging bass lines that merge magically with the atmospheric brass arrangement by Brian Day, who also conducted. A stirring saxophone solo leads the song’s coda, flying in and out of the mix. A musical triumph that really speaks to the band’s musical imagination and ambition on this album.

Summer Soldier begins with the sound of the chimes of Big Ben accompanying chaotic battle sounds. The song is a despairing lament on the cyclical nature of war and the broken lives it leaves behind. The instrumental break has some pacy drumming and a very evocative wah-wah guitar solo, as the song evolves into a soaring anthemic piece, where the mellotron and ascending guitar figure create a sorrowful ambiance very much in keeping with the narrative of the song, that ends with the more hopeful words:

“My shield’s my love, my cause is peace.

Faith be sure I shall not retreat” 

The fourth track is the quirky Thank You, which as described in the box set booklet, was a thank you to many of the people who supported the band during this difficult period. They all get a name check over a very engaging band rhythm and blues workout, which also features an on-fire John Lees guitar solo. The Blu-ray disc also contains a promotional video for the song, that was shown on the Old Grey Whistle Test in January 1973, introduced of course by Bob Harris, where the band quite endearingly mime to the song.

One Hundred Thousand Smiles Out, is lyrically a hymn to lost connection, and is a superlative progressive rock ballad. An expressive vocal is supported by a gentle piano refrain, and evocative guitar solos, together with some wonderfully light touch but still complex drum patterns.

It is followed by Moonwater which was recorded by Woolly Wolstenholme with an orchestra at Abbey Road studios. The story of how it came about that only Woolly Wolstenholme was involved in the recording of this piece, is told in the detailed essay to be found in the booklet that comes with the box set. It is a sweeping orchestral score, with beautiful instrument passages led by the string and woodwind sections. The swell of the orchestra is magnificently cinematic and romantic. The poetical lyrics are sung with a fragile and empathic voice completely fitting with the orchestration. An earlier demo recorded at 10cc’s Strawberry Studios, where most of the album was recorded, with the parts that would later be played by an orchestra played on keyboards, is a fascinating insight into the development of the piece. As a composition, and in its performance, the track with orchestra, is without doubt an artistic achievement of some magnitude by Woolly Wolstenholme.

Standout in the A and B sides of singles that came out before and after the album’s release, included as bonus tracks, are Child Of Man and Medicine Man. By turns they show different sides of the band, the former pleasingly close to the sound of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and the latter, a re-recording of a track from the preceding Barclay James Harvest And Other Short Stories album, evidencing the more rockier approach the band could deliver. Both are in new stereo mixes and sound very dynamic and engaging. The real gem amongst the bonus tracks though is Sweet Faced Jane, a lost recording that didn’t make it onto the album, found when putting together the box set. Like Delph Town Morn, it also features the Syd Lawrence Orchestra brass section, and has a very appealing, jaunty feel, punctuated by some precision brass fills. A totally charming and welcome addition.

The live BBC Radio One in Concert recording is present in both mono and stereo versions on CDs three and four. It is very well recorded, and includes some dazzling live performances by the band with the Barclay James Harvest Orchestra, particularly on the absolutely stand out version performed of the classic Mocking Bird from the Once Again album. The introduction to the song is greeted with applause and cheers of recognition by the audience. Alan Black who introduces the band describes on the recording that it is the best performance of the song he has heard. That judgement seems to this reviewer very well founded. The sheer beauty of the song is brought fully to the fore by the heartfelt lead and harmony vocals, and the band’s intense ensemble playing, and of course the incredible orchestra, that adds the most arresting array of musical tones and accents, particularly the brass and string parts. To understand why progressive rock continues to command such a wide base of followers, you can do no better than listen to this amazing live version of Mocking Bird.

Some comments on the 5.1 surround sound mix are necessary to round off this review of a quality box set. Take as an example Crazy (Over You) where the 5.1 mix, is like having the drums and bass being played in the room with you. Every nuance of Mel Pritchard and Les Holroyd’s playing comes through.  Woolly Wolstenholme’s mellotron sets the atmosphere from the rear speakers, and a John Lees guitar solo literally leaps out from the front speakers.

Similarly impressive, Moonwater places Woolly Wolstenholme’s voice nicely in the centre, warmly enveloped by the orchestra. In the instrumental section, the 5.1 mix allows a wonderful separation of the different sections of the orchestra, fully utilising the front, middle, and rear channels to shine a light on the string, woodwind, and brass sections. A deep reverberation to the brass and percussion is aided by the subwoofer channel. A revelatory mix.

Baby James Harvest, as this new box set reveals, is an album that can justly stand with the best records in the Barclay James Harvest catalogue. The creative ambition and passionate and committed performances on the album, which are full of impressive musicianship, shine through in this excellent box set. 

This moreover is a quite excellent package with the aforementioned superb new stereo and 5.1 multichannel mixes, and an excellent live recording and other extra tracks. The accompanying booklet has an in-depth and very informative essay by Keith and Monika Domone, exploring the making of the album and the pressures that were on the band at the time. There is also a poster of the album artwork included and a sturdy slip-in box to house everything.  A must for fans of the band, therefore, and actually a good entry point for anyone new to the band’s music.

barclay james harvest

You can find more information about Barclay James Harvest here: Website

You can find out more about Esoteric Recordings and Cherry Red Records releases here:

Cherry Red Records

Facebook – Cherry Red Records

Esoteric Recordings

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