Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Live at the Marquee', Bramhall, Cheshire, 22 June 2002

Roland reports for BtP

It had the hallmarks of a Procol dream ... I'm driving a little health-food delivery van across a Rugby field in the suburbs of Manchester at 2 am, with Annie Whitehorn in the passenger seat: strange shouts from the windowless back compartment remind us how much John Grayson and Geoff Whitehorn, lying on their sides on steel shelving, suffer each time I go over a bump. From the lower compartment Geoff shouts directions, though he cannot see out at all, and we miraculously arrive at our hotel. But how to open the back hatch? 'The handle's by the keyhole,' John's incarcerated voice insists (in vain, though he ought to know as it's his van): in fact the lever is artfully hidden in the numberplate housing. Incapacitated with laughter Annie eventually gets the lid up and Geoff is revealed, bundled in foetal position with a light dusting of lentils, and cradling his 'emergency' bottle of Bells: as he slowly uncoils he declares, 'Rock and Roll ... I only do it for the glamour'. You never have a camera when you need it, of course.

The rest of the band save Matthew Fisher, an early departure are still on their way from the Rugby Clubhouse, a barnlike room mysteriously having no bar; but we've stayed there until two in the belief that there's no bar at the hotel either. However the night-staff willingly open the bar when the team return and continue serving until 5 ... broad daylight. I retire at 4, just as Gary is proposing a sing song 'to see how many people we can wake up'; as well as the typical banter and hilarity, they've been remembering their trip down the salt mine on the Katowice trip last weekend: 'one of the best things I've ever done in my life' Mark declares. 'I never knew there was so much art, so much religion, in salt mining,' marvels Gary ... and they all wax enthusiastic about the underground salty Cathedral ... 'That's where we'll play the gig next time'. And, most atypically, they've been discussing tonight's Rugby Club recital, which, from the onstage point of view, they feel has gone very well.

Experience in the audience, however, has been rather mixed. I've got no doubt that the band were in good shape, but it's a funny sort of venue ... three thousand pounds'-worth of huge marquee, carpeted in green, and lined with some diaphanous stuff reminiscent of a thousand parachutes, or the inside of some gigantic crinoline. It's lit in diffuse pinks and greens by floods above the silky layer, and the house lights stay on all through the Procol performance, illuminating the rows and rows of long tables at which slump an exhausted local audience, worn out by an evening's bopping to the workmanlike R and B of Nine Below Zero, and to the screaming exhortations of soul diva Ruby Turner. These were two good, sturdy bands, and their sets went like clockwork: one song ends, the next song starts: and the one intention is to give everyone a Good Time.

But Procol want us to think and feel, and they're coming onstage at 11.10, after a hellishly boring wait in the dry clubhouse, while the previous acts overran their allotted slots, apparently unchecked. They also want to talk to the audience, and they don't just bash through a set set, they choose songs to suit the developing mood of the night. ('Why do you write down the set list?' a fan had asked me in Copenhagen, 'Surely it's the same every night?' Well Procol had had half-a-dozen possible setlists in mind for this evening and none of them was used: Croydon-style, Gary chose songs from the Book of Orchids, another basher when people were dancing, a reflective one if that seemed needful: and he urged Geoff into a second solo (on Seem to have the Blues) when the first one went down well with the faithful at the front ... this was a great moment, since Geoff had already run the gamut of the instrument in his first verse: the second solo took him up beyond 'the dusty end' into a stratospheric world: astonishingly this throwaway song was one of the best of the evening).

So the great bulk of the 1,700 audience listened politely enough, but also talked and made visits to the bar; I saw indifferent people being won over (specially by the final verse climax of A Salty Dog ... real physical effects of excitement and emotion on a first-time Procol audience). So the band acquitted themselves very well, thanks to charm and musicianship, but it really was not an ideal gig for them, and it was a curious conclusion to the 2002 summer tour, which had seen the huge and devoted Polish audience, the heated intensity in Holland, the great devotees' club at Copenhagen, and the polite ultra-receptivity of the Croydon contingent. Gary had been very willing to play second at Bramhall, but the local angle was that the biggest stars should wind up the evening: and so it was.

Of course there were Palers in attendance. Some forgathered at the barbecue outside the back of the marquee, where charm-free veggie-burgers containing real meat were being accidentally sold. On the Procol Harum merchandise stall the wares had arrived shortly before the show, driven up North by John Grayson in the aforesaid health-food delivery van we reckoned we knew almost everybody who bought something in the first hour or so; and most of these hard-core enthusiasts ended up crowded on the little dance floor at the very front, in intimate eye- and ear-contact with the band. Up there the sound was superb: I suspect we were listening mostly to the onstage monitors, and had a lucky mix out front. Some felt that Gary sounded a trifle husky, but I must say that was not my opinion; and he was on sparkling piano form too, with a very exciting outburst during Seem to Have the Blues, and an intricate Grand Hotel interlude (though I do notice that the jokey tango feel, a late-seventies hallmark, is creeping back into that instrumental section.) Mark liked his monitor so much ('so warm, so sensitive') that he said he'd have bought it if he was one of those people mad enough to carry a monitor around with him. Geoff was very pleased with his rig too. But the band had soundchecked (An Old English Dream, Separation, and the Beatles' Come Together) in mid-afternoon almost a day ago and some things had evidently changed for the worse. Matthew suffered in particular: he could hear almost nothing but piano in his monitors, and in A Whiter Shade of Pale could barely hear himself play. Frantic gestures to the sound-desk seemed to produce no improvement, and fans sitting at that midway point in the marquee declared that there was no audible Hammond at times in the early part of the that song. Up front, however, everything sounded exactly as it should have done, and was greatly enjoyed therefore.

Further back down the tent, however, the mix was rather variable. A tent is not an easy place to manage sound in: with its flexible walls and lack of reverb, it is virtually equivalent to playing in open air. The soundcheck had sounded appallingly loud, but the presence of human bodies as always absorbed a lot of that noise: yet the public were constantly shifting: for Ruby Turner's set there was a veritable wall of humanity between the PA and the tables; less so in Procol's case. One sound that did come through with tremendous clarity was Mark Brzezicki's kick drum I've never heard one miked louder and it may be because of the neat focus of the drum sound that his intricate playing made such a powerful impact: for me, he was absolutely man-of-the-match. The drummer's role in Procol Harum is a difficult one: always anxious not to play too loudly, always holding back, Mark nonetheless has his attention absorbed by following Gary with whom a good sight-line is always obligatory. The free-tempo gaps in Beyond the Pale for instance, or the pre-chorus triplets in A Whiter Shade of Pale: the timing of these varies from night to night, at the Commander's whim, and it's Mark's job to 'read' Gary's intentions, and by gesture to convey such moments specially song endings to the rest of the band. It's notable, though, that Matthew's timing attention is keenly focused on Gary as well: this organic music, performed rather than reproduced.

Unusually, at Bramhall Mathew was playing a C3, not a B3. Backline gear was provided by STS, who catered for the Palers' Band in Manchester in 2001: but this was not the same C3 that we'd hired then. That one had broken down, the day before, and a replacement had been brought up from London. STS supremo Pete Dutton was working the desk and was well-aware of the organ problem: in the end he concluded that something, perhaps the Leslie, had gone wrong during the evening. It was a shame for Matthew to end the tour on a personally unsatisfactory note; the only consolation must be that for the fans who had come specially, and were genuinely listening he sounded absolutely as good as usual.

So what did the non-specialist audience make of this band? I didn't hear any particular reactions, good, bad or indifferent. The Rugby-club contingent didn't linger after the show, unlike Procol themselves as mentioned at the start of this brief article. The post-gig camaraderie and good humour were delightful, both at the clubhouse and in the hotel, and it was with great anticipation of further Procol activity, in 2003, that four members of the Clare family bade goodbye to their favourite musicians after breakfast the following morning.

Procol Harum concerts in 2002: index page


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