Beyond the Pale
Some thoughts from Howard Christie
Howard Christie writes to BtP (May 2003):
Just some thoughts on my weekend in NY with PH ...
I actually live in Berea, Ohio (near Cleveland) which is 470 miles or a seven-hour car-ride from New York City. Fortunately however, my daughter Amy teaches Third Grade in Washington Heights which is in the northern end of Manhattan, so I had a place to stay and Amy was happy to go with me. She went down to the Bottom Line to get two tickets for the first show on Friday night (my wife couldn't go due to graduation at the college she teaches at) though this was just a backup, since I assumed more shows might be set up and hopefully in Cleveland or even Detroit. Well that didn't happen, so it was off to NYC on Thursday right after work, stayed overnight in Pennsylvania and arrived mid day in NYC (with a nice chance to visit my daughter's Third Grade class and see her girls' soccer team before we went to the show). Should mention I am of course a longtime Procol Harum fan, though the first time I saw them was post-Trower with David Ball playing. Saw them a few times in the 70s usually in Detroit, MI and then not again until the Prodigal tour in the 90s in Cleveland when they played on a barge on the lakefront in about 50 degrees F in front of very few people. Last year I got a chance to see Gary with the Rhythm Kings at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame which was a great show ... they are much more fun live than comes across on the CDs by the way. So, big fan ... and I was pretty geared up for the NYC shows, feeling this might be the last US hurrah for Procol
I had been to NYC several times but never to the Bottom Line. It has been around forever and been the scene of many legendary performers. It is located on W 4th street on the lower West side of NY near New York University. Small club (maybe 500) with walls and ceilings all in black and these large black pillars going up the middle of the club, including two of them on the stage. There are long rectangular tables in front of the stage with several circular tables in middle of the room and more rectangular tables around and behind them. The circular tables were reserved. Seating is general admission, but they let handfuls of people in at a time and seaters find you a spot depending upon the size of the party so they can fill in the holes. They are all pretty much good seats however. Some limited standing also at the sides. They serve drinks and basic bar food while the early arrivers sit and wait for the show. For the most part the sound was great.
Overheard and Seen
Only celeb sighting while in NY was John Lithgow leaving Barnes and Nobles bookstore. Near my daughter's apartment they were filming a movie with Matthew Broderick and Julianne Moore but no sightings. While we were standing in line Matthew Fisher and his wife came out and crossed the street to go into the Dojo restaurant ... Matt wearing jeans jacket and trousers. At the show I was sure a guy sitting at one of the circular tables was Keith Reid but I knew I was wrong when Keith Reid did indeed show up and sat with this guy (had to be related!). No one really approached him much. Also saw Mrs Brooker and Mrs Fisher (after they came back from dinner about 7:10 pm) at another circular table. I think other wives were there, in fact Geoff Whitehorn mentioned that his wife and daughter were there, but I have never seen them to recognize them. I kept looking for the comedian Richard Lewis. I thought he might make it since he appears to be such a Procol Harum fan (in the audience at Edmonton II, and had Grand Hotel tour programme in his living-room in People magazine article) and presumably a NY guy, but never saw him. Audience was lots like me, middle-aged guys with less hair and more stomach than we would like. Seemed like a few more women at the Sunday show. You could hear lots of Procol discussion about being happy to get a chance to see them finally. Guy sitting next to me had never seen them and picked up on them late and was pretty excited. Guy waiting outside for a chance at a standing-room ticket was saying he had been waiting thirty years for a chance to see them again, and he had not heard they were in town until the last minute (apparently needs a computer) and was a little ticked, but at least he was getting in for the Sunday show.
I had only had tickets for the Friday first show at 7:30 and was a little worried because I knew they had been doing 20+ song shows with intermissions, and felt that would not be possible on Friday with two shows: and that was the case ... so the Friday show was a little disappointing, but for that reason only. My daughter actually suggested we come back Sunday night and as we left the show Friday I stopped at the box office and got Sunday tickets also, as did a guy behind me. So Sunday we got the whole show which really capped my weekend. Seeing both shows was great because we really got a mix of songs. The lists of course are posted but it was nice to get Shine on Brightly on Friday and then Quite Rightly So on Sunday. Samson appeared on Friday only but on Sunday ... wow! The set lists were put on the stage and I was pretty excited to see Bringing Home the Bacon and Whaling Stories in the first half list with Quite Rightly So. Whisky Train and Repent Walpurgis rounded out a nice group of the older stuff. The Sunday second half typed setlist also included For Licorice John and Conquistador, but neither was done. I really like Licorice so was disappointed especially for that omission, but we had gotten Conquistador on Friday night. Of the new stuff , unfortunately, This World is Rich made it to neither show but The Emperor's New Clothes appeared Sunday and happily also An Old English Dream. Pretty much the other songs were done both nights as the lists mention. Our other Sunday night bonus was 'Twas Teatime at the Circus done in great spirit and very much appreciated by the crowd.
The group was in various stages of dress. Matt and Matthew both wore suits without ties both nights. Geoff and Mark stuck to jeans and tee-shirts for r'n'r comfort. On Sunday Gary came on in beret (or is it a Tam?) and a shirt that would be hard to describe so I won't. The one thing that comes across is that these guys seem to like each other and enjoy playing the songs. For those of us on this side of the ocean who do not get to see them and meet them it was great to see, up close, five friendly, talented musicians
Gary is a funny guy and always with some level of bemusement and tongue-in-cheek. In the older days it was often hard to hear what he was saying and those larger halls did not lend themselves to "patter" much, but a small place like the Bottom Line was perfect. Gary had us laughing both nights and never once used the same material. You started to look forward to the breaks to see what he was going to say next. In intro for Wall Street Blues talking about money woes, he mentioned he was somewhat shocked in that he "paid 5o dollars for breakfast". After playing a couple of new tunes, he mentioned they were going back to the archives for the next one. Predictably a huge cheer came up and Gary facetiously said to Mark "Yeh, play the old shit." He introduced The Signature saying the world had been waiting thirty years for Matthew Fisher's next piece of "Goth rock". After the prolonged statue poses following Shadow Boxed, he noted that was about the extent of their production numbers. Some one of course asked for In Held ... and he actually started it, intoning "In the darkness of the night ... " and stopped suddenly and said "If we did that one, we'd miss the last 'bus ... " but then did 'Twas Teatime anyway and we were pacified. Geoff just seems to love what he is doing and is always smiling . He kind of has a "biker" look to him but seems like the nicest person who is ready to always go with the flow. Pretty intense when he's into a solo. Matt Pegg seems much younger than the rest of them, but blissfully "basses" away with some music likely written before he was born.(As a sidenote, Fairport Convention with Matt's dad on bass was announced as coming to the Bottom Line soon). Couldn't see Mark very well but lots of energy coming from there. On A Salty Dog on Sunday after "we fired the gun", he hit the drum extra hard I guess and feathers actually flew into the air. I don't know what that was, but it seemed he had broken a drumkit or something and Matt Pegg was cracking up. The others didn't see it, but next song Gary joked that it was the demise of the seagull. Matthew seems uncomfortable on stage, but he is fun to watch, often playing with eyes closed and fingers flying or those little open handed stabs he makes at the keyboard.
As mentioned between the two shows, my daughter and I saw a great selection of Procol Harum songs. I should say that I like the new CD and have been playing it a lot, but again, those of us in the USA do not get the access you lucky folk in Europe have so in our limited chances, we should be forgiven if we are more thrilled to hear the "old shit" ... doesn't mean we don't like the new stuff. On Sunday we sat right in front of Matthew Fisher, my daughter leaning on the stage, and we had great views of everything except Mark. Sound was great for the most part, though Geoff's solos were often a little difficult to make out. Gary's voice is really something. Am I the only one who thinks he is better live than on the CDs? Recorded he has a slightly rough edge, but live that completely disappears and his voice is strong, clear and very clean sounding. I remember this also at the Rhythm Kings show when his voice was absolutely astounding on some of those old songs. On Sunday he was able to even hit the Salty Dog note ... the part where he draws out "made land" and goes right into "aaand a Salty Dog" ... excellent! Especially Sunday Gary was really into it, bouncing on his chair, his grey hair flying out of control when he took the beret off. Highlights for me were The Signature both times for the individual playing on the organ by Matthew Fisher and then Gary's small piano interlude and then the power of the whole piece coming together. Simple Sister was fun both times for having the "middle bit" which it seemed they never played in the past. Beyond the Pale, with Gary's broken German, is very strong. I'm not a big fan of Grand Hotel (the song) but it won me over both nights again with its power. My daughter enjoyed Pandora's Box and was humming that after the show. She started to recognize songs that she had been subjected to on the car cassette player on trips in her youth. Similarly it was great to hear Shine On/Quite Rightly, both wonderful songs with lovely organ pieces. Whisky Train always seems a little different in the "Whitehorn" era than on Home, but I like the difference and it just flies. Gary graciously thanked Robin Trower and Keith Reid for that one. At the end Gary came out front and noted the anniversary of Whiter Shade and also that it was the anniversary of the last Procol USA show in its first incarnation. He joked that they hadn't realized at the time, but after getting home had decided "Well I guess that's it isn't it?". A farewell tour without the farewell
The Grand Finale
Sorry for the "rambling on", but I had a great weekend, worth the 1,000 mile roundtrip. It was especially nice to share this for the first time with my daughter who also enjoyed herself and knows firsthand what dad has been talking about for over thirty years. Music surely doesn't mean as much to us now as it did back then, but the beauty of music is that it lasts and does not wear out. I have enjoyed Procol Harum for over three decades and still do and I think we all thank Gary, Matthew and all the members of Procol Harum for hours and hours of pleasure. If this is the last USA appearance I'm sad, but happy I was there. Thanks so much to the website folks for making this possible..
PS I also get to see The Strawbs next week but only have to drive 50 miles for that one: so, pretty nice week for this old rock and roll fan.