Back in January, I had just booked our family holiday, when the news broke that Procol would be playing at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon on 25 May. The Fairfield Halls! I grew up in Croydon, and Procol playing in my old hometown was absolutely unmissable. But I had just booked etc. etc. … and the final day of the holiday was the 25th … I pondered and debated and argued and then, two seconds later, made up my mind. Wild Horses figured heavily in the decision. And boy, what a night! It was the perfect end to a good break. Leaving my poor wife to unpack everything as well as cajole two small boys into bed, I selflessly made the supreme sacrifice and forced myself on to the motorway. Croydon here I come!
Tim Rose [pictured right] kicked off the night at 8 o’ clock. As Procol were not due on until 9 o’clock, I could have arrived an hour later and missed nothing, but courtesy demanded that Mr Rose be given the honour of a strong audience, so I was in my seat by 7.55. As this is a Procol website, and not a Tim Rose website, it would be inappropriate for me to comment here on his half-hour slot, so I will say nothing. In the words of the Wordsmith, you may draw your own conclusions.
The opening number was (no surprises) Bringing Home The Bacon, which rocked along beautifully. As soon as it had finished, another familiar rhythm started up and I settled down to enjoy Shine On Brightly. But I was wrong. To my surprise and delight, it turned out to be Piggy Pig Pig, with Matthew’s Hammond soaring over the rising opening chords. Sadly I cannot be more specific or detailed, as I am relying on an ageing memory to tell me what happened two nights ago. When I went to Manchester, I took copious notes, but found that this interfered with my listening (and watching). I’m afraid that on this occasion I put my own pleasures before the good of the greater company, and took no notes other than the running order.
Piggy Pig Pig was followed by Pandora’s Box, and everyone is having a great time. Geoff, who always seems to be having his own private party, was matched by Matt, who was also in very good form and humour. The fourth song was a big surprise: Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone). It was sheer bliss to hear this played live – indeed, many of the tracks were ones I had never before heard live, whether in the flesh or on a live recording. There then followed Harlequin: new material to my ears.
Throughout the evening, Gary was on exceptionally good form with his wit and humour, despite the fact that he had a bad throat. Homburg came next and was followed by The King of Hearts, beautifully rendered by the band, Matthew keeping us in suspense as he played the closing notes , until a nod to the rest of the group brought the number to its close. As Strong as Samson followed this, everything played tightly and confidently, despite the fact that Gary’s throat must have initiated some programme changes. The band then brought us Seem to have the Blues (Most all of the Time) and belted it out as the rocker that it is.
At this point, Gary started to introduce something – I know not what; perhaps he didn’t know either – and he suddenly said, on impulse "Imagine". I’m sure this was impromptu, but it was then as if, inspired by his own wit, the Commander then thought ‘Yeah – why not?’ and started to play and sing it, albeit with the wrong opening line! Before you knew where you were, the rest of the band had joined in, and everything ran as though it were planned, up to the chorus, where Gary stopped and said "I didn’t think it’d get that far!" Neither did many of us, but it had, and so the band continued through the chorus. Gary then assured us that that had not been on the programme for the evening, but who was complaining? What a bonus!
Gary then asked if there were ‘any requests’. Several songs were shouted out from the audience, but Gary said something about a song with the word ‘Christmas’ in it. "Aha," I thought, "it’s going to be A Christmas Camel!", and got all excited. Wrong again! Gary had said ‘in the song’, not ‘in the title.’ The next item was, of course, Wizard Man – perhaps not, in my opinion, one of the best tracks on Something Magic but, somehow, played live, it was transformed into a great rocker, and was thoroughly enjoyable.
And then came another moment of bliss for me: A Rum Tale – one of my all-time favourites. So many of these songs were ones that I had never heard Matthew play on, and this one was a joy to hear. Mark was given the honour of introducing a track from the first album, only to be flagged down by Gary (I said he was on good form!) who questioned the tempo as too fast. Apparently it was the right speed, however, and Gary muttered to himself that presumably the drummer should know the correct speed. It sounded as though we were going to go belting into Repent Walpurgis at a speed totally unsuitable to that beautiful piece. But maybe it was a set-up job: two tracks on that album share the same drum opening, and we were led into She Wandered Through the Garden Fence. Sadly, Matthew was inaudible to me on that delightful two-octave diatonic run that he plays (after ‘without further argument’). However, he made up for this by playing the ‘Trumpet Voluntary’ bit (as I call it) nice and clearly.
There were times during the evening when I could hear Geoff, Matt and Mark, but neither Gary nor Matthew, and I wondered whether this was the price I paid for sitting directly in front of the guitar amp., but there were equally other times when Matthew proved that his right foot was very well aware of the location of the swell pedal, as he was perfectly capable of soaring over everyone else! Sadly, perhaps Gary was the least audible, pianistically, throughout, although he was always clear on the quieter parts. Vocally, no one could blame him for a slightly quieter performance: there were one or two times when he almost narrated for a moment, rather than sang, but such was the nature of the occasion that it did not matter at all. And suddenly we were into Whaling Stories. Absolutely beautiful. Perfectly delivered, this was the first song to bring a standing ovation, and deservedly so.
Gary then told us how a simple change of name had fooled the record company into thinking that a certain old song was a new one, and we were treated to Monsieur R. Monde. Following this, Gary said that they would play Matthew’s ‘Opus Minus 1’ and started to fiddle with the controls on his Roland. Looking up to inform us that he had the London Symphony Orchestra somewhere inside, he rapped on the top of the keyboard and started playing. Lush chords of piano and strings came pouring out, and while I was still trying to work out what was coming next, Matthew joined him on the Hammond and we were into … Separation! I was totally blown away. It was gorgeous. There was even an opportunity for Geoff to solo over the main theme, and the whole thing was unspeakably moving. What an experience! It was worth being present just for that one piece alone.
All too soon it was over, and the band brought us another song I did not recognise: Ten Thousand Souls. One line of the chorus referred to an English churchyard, and I kept thinking it might be Stoke Poges but, of course, that is an instrumental: I was just being greedy! The next number may well have been in homage to a great website; certainly one of the webmasters was sitting right in the front row. Beyond The Pale is a terrific song and it thundered across as a great barnstormer.
The final song was a three-verse version of AWSoP, the middle one being the ‘shore-leave’ verse. Procol Harum had done us proud. What a killer evening! The only interval of the evening had been between Tim Rose and Procol – half-an-hour after the show started, and Procol had played for almost two hours without a break, song after song after song. This was exceptionally good value for money, but there was no way that we were leaving without an encore. First we clapped, then we clapped and stamped, then we settled down into a long slow clap: it seemed to go on even longer than the ovation at Manchester.
At last, the band returned, and Gary sat down and said that it was good to see so many people here tonight. Then he started to say "This next song is for all those who aren't here ..." This was greeted with laughter. But then he added "... because they are watching us from above ... Aha ... you're not laughing now, are you?!!" Continuing, the Commander said that as his throat was bad, he needed some help from the audience, so would we all join in with the words on this one, and sing along? Cue Mark on drums, and it was … Repent Walpurgis! Stunning as ever, this number never loses its appeal and we loved it. There was a tiny hiccup on the piano during the ‘Ave Maria’ section but, again, who cares?? Geoff gave us some amazing guitar-work during this piece (one of his earlier solos had been so good and so fast that he earned a separate ovation mid-song) and the whole number brought a wonderful evening to a fitting halt. This was definitely an occasion to remember. Procol had given unstintingly of their very best and we were privileged to have been present at a truly great concert.
Procol Harum concerts in 2002: index page