Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale 

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Procol Harum in New York, May 2003

Mirek Plodzik from Poland


Mirek Plodzik, one of the most tireless Procol fans for bringing the band's activities into the media spotlight, kindly sends BtP (May 2003) his report on a journey to hear Procol in America. This appeared in his native Polish at the ONET website

Our faithful correspondent, Mirek, queues outside The Bottom Line in his Procol regalia

European promotion tour of the new album by Procol Harum The Wells' on Fire ceased in March. At the beginning of May this legendary formation headed for the United States for a series of concerts. They gave in total eight successful performances in front of the audience who longed for the contact with creators of symphonic rock. After great shows in Montreal, Cambridge, Alexandria and Philadelphia which weren't given for author to be seen Gary Brooker's band came to the cultural capital of the world [sic], New York.

Between 9 and 11 of May four concerts took place, concluding short visit paid by Englishmen in America. And those concerts I had a chance to see.

All the adventure had started at JFK airport when I had short discussion with immigration officer about ... Procol Harum. He noticed my colorful T-shirt promoting the band and shouted with the meaningful smile: 'rock'n'roll'. Nice moment. It was the third time during my travels to English-spoken zone when boarder officials had chatted with me about Procol Harum and had made jokes as if with an old pal. Maybe in the future there will be no need of having passport in that part of the world. No problem that my baggage was lost, such a nice welcome really mattered!

On Friday, at the corner of 4th and Mercer Street, in front of the blue-canopied entry to the famous "The Bottom Line" blues club in Manhattan the line of fans gathered couple hours before concert. At 7:30 and 10:30 pm we were witnesses of two good concerts, which in case of such a well-known band was quite big effort and significant organizational risk.

 

And in fact those two performances despite stage perfection weren't marked with any special flavor. It must have been especially tiresome, since the leader leaving the club 1:30 a.m. was forced by his wife Franky to make for the hotel. "Snatched away" by fans Brooker would have been giving interviews and signing the CDs for whole the night. And for Saturday evening the next concert was scheduled this time in Huntington, Long Island in "Inter-Media Art Center" theatre (IMAC).

Let's come back for a while to the Friday's shows (the day before the band paid a visit to the radio studio "Q104.3" specializing in classic rock where they played three pieces on live).

The contents of those two concerts didn't differ to much from show in Hamburg, which was described in portal lately (see here). Works from the last album were mixed with well-known pieces of Procol Harum back from far past and just those masterpieces got the greatest applause from "ravenous" American audience (the band had played for the last time in United States in 1995). Keith Reid the group's Poet Laureate, who lives presently in Manhattan was present in the club too. Beer was sipped with care to avoid missing any precious note played by musicians. Brooker lavished his voice until last minute (controversial initiative of Mayor Bloomberg refrained the smokers from assailing on artists' vocal cords). Yet those concerts weren't the kind of events, which you would recall for years.

 The different situation was on warm and sunny Saturday.

In a pretty little town of Huntington, located on Long Island Sound bay (the place more of the charm of resort than industrial climate of New York) we headed for the local theatre, which had hosted lot of stars of jazz and rock (eg Jefferson Starship).

Walking the streets of this small town we met leader of Procol Harum with his wife on their way to Indian restaurant for a dinner. It was three hours before concert. Two hours later we enter the theatre through the glass gates, over which the yellow neon was announcing: "PROCOL HARUM, SOLD OUT, SAT MAY 10TH 9PM". Air-conditioned hall with 800 seats and wide stage were the guarantee of a real, exclusive show (among viewers there was Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple). I already had known that in this hall the sound system were to be fabulous. There was also the rumor that all video and photo cameras would be taken away. All these information turned out to be correct and a hope for the fantastic concert came true. Describing it just as a "great concert" would be a misuse and ingratitude. That was something more than great concert! The best I'd ever seen like from dreams, although I couldn't have supposed then that the last concert (on Sunday) would be not worse or even better in some terms.

In IMAC theatre Procol Harum started as usual in this tour with The VIP Room and until the end the sound was fresh and magnificent. Instead of typical closing of the first part of show with As Strong As Samson, the band proposed its great hit Shine on Brightly with beautiful organ solo, which was met with applause, of course. After break next surprise Simple Sister, a hardrock piece from album Broken Barricades (1971). Ovation. After the last note of following song Shadow Boxed the musicians froze for a long while with their instruments on the red-illuminated stage. After this new song again knock out. Quite Rightly So from 1968! Standing ovation. At last The Signature from new album welcome with a really big hand. And then through Conquistador and A Salty Dog straight to the final: the hot blues Whisky Train and all-time hit A Whiter Shade of Pale.

And when the audience didn't mean to leave a venue, the band played yet a great version of Repent Walpurgis it left no place for doubt why they had been called the creator of symphonic rock. I remembered one particular moment of the concert, when Gary Brooker asked the audience for special wish. After that question for more than a minute people shouted out almost half of discography of the group, until somebody proposed wisely: "Play what you want!"

After Saturday success we came back to Greenwich Village, to 4th Street near Washington Square Park and New York University to "The Bottom Line" club. Sunday, lightly drizzling rain. After Friday's success the expectations increased significantly, but the band didn't slacken and gave the show from dreams of every rock fan. Among audience I noticed many faces I had remembered from previous evenings. But there were also new ones, of course. I noticed Keith Reid again. All started as usual: The VIP Room ... Pandora's Box ... Robe of Silk ... Grand Hotel ... Wall Street Blues and Homburg. Old compositions mixed with new ones, multiple standing ovations, the atmosphere of great music treat. Nevertheless, objectively speaking, the sound of the group was different comparing to Friday. And probably it was a matter of some imponderables, or sorrow caused by awareness that it was the concert which concluded the North American Tour. I hadn't seen for a long time before Gary being so witty. I hadn't heard him singing The Blink of an Eye so enchantingly. The dramatic and rock-sounded presentation of Whaling Stories from album Home (1970) became for me a datum for the future comparisons. As for surprises the band presented Bringing Home the Bacon, splendidly played Robert's Box and second part of the suite In Held 'Twas In I (1968), 'Twas Teatime at the Circus. Fun to all lengths. Compositions from the new album gained glamour in neighborhood of older brothers of theirs. 'The World is rich but it is not mine'... hypnotized us with thrilling voice of Brooker and put the audience in melancholy. And then charming great performance of tragic The Emperor's New Clothes from the new album.

 

A few words about other band members, since it was obviously seen that the whole group forms perfectly harmonious quintet. Geoff Whitehorn, guitar could substitute half the orchestra with his green Gibson and white Fretmasters. And when required he introduced elements of heavy metal. Mark Brzezicki, drums played dynamically on Pearl's set la Phil Collins, and during last two concerts he seemed to refer to his great predecessor, brilliant Procol's drummer: late BJ Wilson. Matt Pegg, bass (son of Jethro Tull's ex-bass Dave) perfectly introduced himself into the great group, bringing in a lot of energy and good portion of throbbing tones. And finally Mathew Fisher to whom happened some mistakes, especially in best-known piece of the group seemed to be more revived than usual, and almost every band in the world could envy his mighty church-like sound.

It came, it passed ... they pulled the rug from under our feet. Time of return and nostalgia came. When I asked Reid in "The Bottom Line" club about future recording plans he answered briefly with a smile: some day. What means yes and no. It is so good that Procol Harum announced next concerts for July, this time in UK and Germany. And in the moments of really deep nostalgia listening of the new album is still left... all of us needing something to believe in to be the best we can.

Translated into English by Darek Olak


Procol Harum concerts in 2003: index page

 


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