Apparently there’s an early curfew at Cadogan Hall. We know this because every time bassist Craig Fletcher starts chatting to the audience, John Lees reminds him to crack on. “We’re not supposed to talk too much tonight,” he scolds, “because we’ve got a lot of music to play…”
Lees will be 70 in the new year, but his version of Barclay James Harvest still manage an impressive two-hour set tonight, albeit with a short interval after the first 30 minutes. Lees can come across as slightly curmudgeonly when he is gently reprimanding the always verbose Fletcher, but he can’t resist cracking jokes when the opportunity arises. As Fletcher observes that tonight they are both the support and headline act, Lees replies, “We’ve blown ourselves off,” with a dead straight face.
They open with Science Fiction: Nova Lepidoptera from 1978’s XII, and the set pulls in tracks from across the decades. They pick three cuts from 1971’s Once Again, and two from 2013’s North, with the title track of the latter inspiring another moment of levity from the guitarist as he explains that the song is about their home town. “We’re from a place called Oldham. It’s signposted on the motorway. If you see it, keep going!”
Yet that’s not the impression left by the music with its evocation of a landscape infused with colour and life. Lees’ voice is undeniably thinner than when he was a young man, but Fletcher is always on hand to help with the harmonies.
There are no guitar hero theatrics – whenever Lees takes a solo, his concentration on executing the part is total, his gaze locked on the fretboard. The band are less raucous now. Kevin Whitehead sits behind an impressively expansive blue acrylic drum set, but plays with remarkable restraint – perhaps Lees has had his fill of noisy drummers.
The groovy She Said recalls The Moody Blues and perfectly captures the spirit of the 60s underground, although Lees is apparently not a fan – “This is a really old number,” he says, “and I hate it.” But actually it’s a corker of a tune, complete with a recorder interlude and an excellent jazzy guitar solo. River Of Dreams sees keyboard player Jeremy Smith, the newest member of the band, take the spotlight, channelling Elton John and Billy Joel.
The rockiest song in the set, Cheap The Bullet, is a standout, with Fletcher inviting the audience to “clap, cheer and tear the seats up”. They encore with The Poet, After The Day and Hymn, which earns a standing ovation, although no seats are torn from the floor. Perhaps it’s the early curfew.