It was great to finally get to see Barclay James Harvest at Lincoln Center Out of Doors this past evening. Now THAT’S one for the bucket list.
Barclay James Harvest got their start in the 70s as an uptight, tunefully deficient jamband, sort of a prototype for My Morning Jacket. Then they morphed into a competent artsy pop band best known for recycling other peoples’ ideas. The music media at the time called them on it; their snarky response was the song Poor Man’s Moody Blues, whose title perfectly captures their appeal. Their cult classic is Suicide, an actually very poignant ballad with a surprise ending. The rest of their material was not up to that level. Random song title: Galadriel. Genuine hobbit-rock!
OK, it wasn’t Barclay James Harvest who headlined last night. It was Jonathan Wilson. He’s a superstar lead guitarist, the best player to hold down that chair in Roger Waters’ band since Jeff Beck’s brief tenure in the group. He also writes artsy pop songs that recycle other peoples’ ideas. His influences are unimpeachable. The Beatles, and John Lennon especially…Pink Floyd, of course…Elliott Smith, all over the place…the Grateful Dead…Hendrix…Crowded House! Big Star! The Move! The Jayhawks, Marty Willson-Piper and Matt Keating, maybe. And also Neil Young and the Allman Brothers.
Wilson is a competent, unpretentious singer, doubles on piano and writes the occasional withering, cynical turn of phrase. His latest album threatens to descend to the level of James Blunt but doesn’t sink quite that far. Onstage, Wilson was a completely different animal, even though he tantalized the crowd by treating them to a grand total of four guitar solos. Each was scintillating; his long, achingly intense, Gilmouresque interlude midway through the set, over the changes to Pink Floyd’s Breathe, was the high point of the night.
His Telecaster player was just as good when he got the chance to cut loose, with a slide or with some stinging Chicago blues (props to Wilson for having the confidence to include a guy with similarly sizzling, eclectic chops in his band). The bassist doubled strangely on synth bass (why not just use a volume pedal?). The keyboardist used seemingly every patch ever invented, from squiggly vintage 70s Moog sounds, to vast washes of string synth, majestic organ and austere electric piano.
They opened with the fuzztone Carnaby Street psych-pop tune Trafalgar Square, elevated above Oasis level with an unexpected, spacy interlude. Over the Midnight came across as the Verve played by good musicians. Likewise, There’s a Light was a more glam Elliott Smith (or Oasis with a better singer covering Elliott Smith). They ended the show auspiciously with a long, vamping art-rock epic featuring one of two cameos by special guest Laaraji on zither and backing vocals.
One song they didn’t play was a sneering waltz from the new album, with its most relevant lyric:
We’ll be sucking, we’ll be fucking
While the other ones are posting
These kids will never rock again
A sign of the times
The opening act drew a few gaggles of awkward New Jersey high school girls, a few of whom had brought along their similarly unsure-looking pretend boyfriends. Years ago, there was a big market for indifferent, vaguely melancholy upper middle class white women who set their diary entries to music. In the years since, the corporate record labels, by their own admission, have lost 90% of their influence. Back in the day, Natalie Merchant used to play Madison Square Garden. The best this girl can do is open a show at Bowery Ballroom. Is that more a function of the death of the record industry, or the decline of the middle class?
Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues out back in Damrosch Park on Aug 2 at 7:30 PM with a high-voltage set by the Nigerian “Queen of Afrobeat” Yemi Alade. Get there early if you want a seat.