Procol Harum

the Pale 

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"No Stops Left Unpulled"
at this MBE (Medal-Bearing Event)

Charlie Allison at the Union Chapel, Islington, 12 December 2003


Another memorable night a really great gig to round off a signal day for Gary, who had received his MBE from Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace in the morning in the company of fellow rockers Gerry Marsden (also an MBE for charity work) and Mick Jagger, who was knighted (by the way Gary wouldn't say what the Prince had said to him in that brief intimate moment he joked that he'd asked how the gig had gone in Zurich!).

The Union Chapel, a massive brick edifice with more than a hint of structural decay, still functions as a church, but has an enlightened view to fund-raising by permitting rock concerts even running a bar and tolerating the Palers parking their pint glasses on the pews!

However there was a suitably austere and smoky ambience. We noted a few Procol artefacts, clues perhaps to the chosen repertoire for the evening? A foot-high George Bush figure, a white mouse (or rat) with a long tail on the piano, some Christmas figures and a fat old Buddha at least that one was easy to figure out. Above the drums was the pulpit and high above that a massive, floodlit rose window. There were also half a dozen cameras, fed to a waiting OB scanner-van parked outside this concert was to be videoed for a future a DVD release and more crew than usual were scurrying around making the necessary adjustments to lighting and sound. It was difficult to count the crowd, but maybe 600700 were downstairs or aloft in the gallery as the Band took the stage at eight.

We soon noticed something unusual, which was to make this a uniquely special event Gary was proudly wearing his MBE medal, pinned to his jacket lapel. A crescendo of clapping broke out, a few cheers, everyone at the front standing and a few 'We are not worthy' gestures ... a magic moment. Gary was beaming with pride and we noticed Geoff Whitehorn was applauding the Commander along with the rest of us.

Reverence restored, a carefully restructured instrumental snatch from The Emperor's New Clothes the so-called Underture preceded a familiar staccato introduction to Shine on Brightly first by Gary on piano, then Geoff and we were immediately off at full pace and volume. Pandora's Box was great with Matthew to the fore in an even better ending.

Let me just pause for a moment. All night the Band looked happy and were on top form. There seemed to be an end-of-tour party spirit and I thought they really gelled, playing with less reserve than seen on the Copenhagen DVD. Matthew was smiling and at his most animated my new pal Mike Masterton (a London-based Scot) had positioned himself stage-right best to see his hero and thought Matthew was the bee's-knees tonight. Mark was superb and inventive never 'playing safe' in the slightest. Matt had acquired a jaunty Tyrolean hat (we were half-expecting yodelling instead of backing vocals!) and gave out a solid and inventive bottom-end. Geoff was that wonderful, lovable guitar genius and perfect showman, especially to his many Paler friends in the "front stalls". Meanwhile the newly-anointed Gary sang and played piano as well as he ever has, and possibly ever will.

Gary then looked back on the recent World Cup win by the England Rugby team a reality where previously it had only been a dream a perfect introduction for An Old English Dream which is has more strident "stops" live and a longer, more cutting contribution by Geoff on his guitar.

Gary acknowledged what a very special day it had been in a very special year cue Geoff playing God Save the Queen, with all the band joining in Gary had said what a lovely house the Queen has then we segued into Grand Hotel, again a five-star rendering with two red rosettes for the mock-operatic backing vocals (Geoff and Matt trying to look like two innocent choir-boys!)

Gary feigned surprise that there was a running order. "Oh we've got a list!" (found under the piano) but Geoff insisted "It's your day Gary, you can do what you want!" so donning a Homburg to great cheers he said he would do "one of the old ones".

My personal high spot of the evening followed with the church's acoustic and ambience perfect for the organ intro to Quite Rightly So, which when you thought it couldn't get any better than this did, with a fantastic closing guitar solo. Everyone up on their feet, big cheers.

Gary then asked if the pews were hard (yes they were) and invited us all to remain standing while they played 'the one with Christmas in the words' a rousing Wizard Man followed coo coo coo [not Still There'll be More, chiz chiz {Ed}]. Then straight on with the distinctive start to a magnificent Simple Sister.

A short comic interlude ensued when Gary asked for requests Palers are not daft and didn't rise to the bait, but one American guy shouted out for Devil Came from Kansas to be met with "Oh he's been following us around for about five weeks. And it's in E flat, (isn't it?) and they abolished E flat long ago."

Gary then called for recognition for Matthew who brought a wonderful rich churchy sound to Weisselklenzenacht. Gary has studiously expunged any hint of Can't Help Falling in Love and Geoff came storming and wailing in a great live performance.

Time for a beer (with Richard Solley), where I noticed a film-crew guy doing video vox-pops, "Why did you come to see Procol Harum?" but they didn't ask us.

The second half got off to a rocking start with Shadow Boxed with the band playing statues at the end then after Gary "paying homage" to the webmeisters, we heard a lively Beyond the Pale.

"We need to know The Question" said Gary cryptically with indeed dark cryptic musical undertones his piano and singing were wonderful here and the guitar-organ interplay has become a concert highlight too. Talk of the "Procol pension" preceded Wall Street Blues, a song which has also improved in the live setting.

A reflective moment considering "how good life is ... but for some who are not living ..." and there followed a stunningly atmospheric This World is Rich, a haunting plea from a deprived African continent.

Gary then took time to ask for a hand for Keith and his brilliant enigmatic words, which has sustained Procol Harum all these years. It was sad how some words had never changed cue As Strong As Samson, (new version) with a huge chunk of I Can See Clearly Now woven in to great effect.

Gary asked one guy where he was from. "Hackney" came the reply. "Hackney mmm I thought that was a skin condition!"

There followed a real treat Every Dog Will Have His Day, somehow just right for a London gig. A howl! Then, in brilliant counterpoint, peace and beauty with A Salty Dog a moving virtuoso performance indeed perfection a standing ovation all round.

The set closed with a rousing, swinging Conquistador, with some dancing in the gallery and a huge cheering and prolonged clapping at the end.

The encore brought us the contemporary concert-favourite VIP Room, with Geoff sliding to good effect; then Whisky Train with Gary's bluesey introduction and a very well-structured drum solo by Mark. We then sang along to Good Captain Clack before a three-verse A Whiter Shade of Pale brought proceedings to a close ... well, except for a rendition of the traditional Rugby anthem Swing Low Sweet Chariot, complete with added organ and some unrepeatable hand gestures all round.

A great night and a fitting way to round off Gary Brooker's special day. As he had himself said earlier, "No stops will be left unpulled tonight" How right he was! It was all just superb.

Postscript a celebration curry with the band followed, with brief speeches by all band members and several toasts. No doubt you will recieve a full report in due course, but it was an occasion full of love, respect and optimism for the future.

(thanks, Charlie!)


Procol Harum concerts in 2003: index page

 Charlie reviews the DVD of the same event


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