I wouldn't profess to being a scholar of all things Procol, but I have a decent working knowledge of the band and their works, my interest rekindled by last year's Bridgewater Hall Concert with full orchestra. That gig will go down as one of my all time greatest, it was the first time I'd seen the band since 1976 at the FreeTrade Hall in Manchester, and the performance was simply magnificent.
So to Bramhall, Cheshire, which is a fairly affluent suburb of Stockport. The Marquee was enormous; the weather, good; the setting, leafy; the audience, middle aged and not short of a bob or two (£5 for a strip of raffle tickets!).
The trouble is that the audience were there for the event rather than for Procol Harum; they also wanted to boogie, as witnessed by the reaction to Nine Below Zero's last two numbers and the majority of Ruby Turner's set. The dance floor just in front of the stage was packed with ageing groovers: at this point I turned to my wife, who knows little of Procol, and said with worry, "You can't really dance to Procol Harum". It was one of those "I only know A Whiter Shade of Pale" gigs, so the audience reaction was relatively muted. To my disgust there was a lot of talking through the set, but, being realistic, I suppose it is inevitable if you don't know the songs, which through their sophistcation and excellence aren't always immediately accessible.
This is not to say that the band went down badly: the reaction was warm, which I think owes a lot to Gary Brooker's personality as well as to the music.
So, on to the show. I can't remember the full set list, but I will do my best. They opened with Bringing Home the Bacon, they also did: Pandora's Box, Typewriter Torment, Fires (Which Burnt Brightly), Seem to have the Blues, A Salty Dog, She Wandered Through the Garden Fence, Homburg, Beyond the Pale, As Strong as Samson, Grand Hotel, a Matthew Fisher instrumental, not Repent Walpurgis: sorry can't remember the title [Separation], but Gary Brooker described it as a chill-out. They finished with AWSoP, with much checking of watches.
The show was licensed to finish at midnight, and it was quarter past twelve, and apparently the police had already been alerted. No encore therefore, although there was demand. Gary actually got the words wrong to AWSoP, singing "I forced her to agree" from the additional verse, he corrected himself, although I was probably the only one to notice [sic!]. Also, on Grand Hotel, he sang "Manchester girls love to fight" instead of French girls: 'Stockport girls' would have been more appropriate given the venue, and frankly, more accurate given my experience.
Overall, the gig was fairly low key. Gary Brooker is experienced enough to know the nature of the audience, and didn't take things too seriously; Mr Whitehorn particularly seemed to enjoy himself. Ultimately, Procol Harum's songs are fantastic, Procol Harum are fantastic and it would be a crime if their music were to disappear. My final impression was this: if just one member of the audience got into the band through this performance it would have been worth it.
I think the band put in a stirring performance under unusual circumstances. It was a strange audience – the Cheshire scene in a huge marquee at a Rugby Club! – and the show ran late. Nine Below Zero and Ruby Turner did fairly good sets, but they both deliberately overran, which, with a midnight curfew, was unprofessional – and to me unforgivable.
The evening dragged on until Procol Harum appeared. Their set seemed suitably tailored to the audience who were in the mood to dance, and songs like Brinigng Home the Bacon, Seem to have the Blues, and Beyond the Pale went down particularly well. As the band has such a large repertoire, I wouldn't have blamed them if they had ditched Homburg and maybe even Grand Hotel (one of my faves) for something more up-tempo like Kaleidoscope and Conquistador.
Judging by reactions, the audience really enjoyed the band, although I suspect that many had never heard them before. Thanks for venturing North again, guys, and I hope you'll stray this way again.