There simply are no other rock bands quite like Procol Harum, which explains how they have maintained an incredible staying power of 36-plus years. No other band has the same flavor – and once tasted, it becomes a craving.
Five-piece band rosters comprising a pianist, organist, guitarist, bassist and drummer are not that hard to find. It's what Procol Harum does with that line-up that makes them unique, bringing a cornucopia of influences from the blues, hard rock, classical and traditional sources to their musical bounty. Add a behind-the-scenes poet (Keith Reid) who contributes the words to Procol Harum songs and you have a very artful and satisfying complex mixture of sound and composition.
It's no surprise then that they can manage to sell out the 400-500 seating capacity of the Theater of the Living Arts on South Street in Philadelphia without significant media publicity or fanfare. Thanks to a well crafted, fan-produced, web site (www.procolharum.com) providing daily updates of tours, concert reviews, and band information, the Philadelphia followers knew of the event in advance.
Following the release of The Well's On Fire, their first compact disc of new material since 1991, Procol Harum seemed poised to attract a new audience, and reward the long-term fans who have followed their movements since 1967.
Throughout the many personnel changes over those years, two constants have remained: Gary Brooker (pianist, vocalist) writes the music to Keith Reid's lyrics.
Original member Matthew Fisher (Hammond organ) has been back with the band since 1991. Geoff Whitehorn (guitar), Matt Pegg (bass), and Mark Brzezicki (drums) have been playing together with Brooker and Fisher for ten years. It would be difficult to find a tighter-sounding band. They are well-rehearsed, and obviously enjoying themselves, keeping time with each other throughout the quick and sudden changes in tempo and cadence that are a trademark of the Procol Harum sound.
The twenty-one songs performed showcased the versatility of their back catalog as well as spotlighting nine of the new compositions.
The concert opened with The VIP Room, a blues-tinged request for a luxurious dying place that allowed each member to loosen up and show their musical chops, especially the slide guitar work of Geoff Whitehorn. Whitehorn, a huge bear of a man with arms like anvils, established immediately that he was not worried about comparisons to Robin Trower, Procol Harum's distinctive original guitarist.
On the second song, Pandora's Box, Whitehorn sustained the guitar tones, hanging in throughout the choppy rhythm, and bending notes similar to Trower's early work with the band, but without copying him. He put his own signature on the older material, and really established his proficiency with solos on the newer songs.
Gary Brooker's voice is as strong as ever, maintaining that rhythm and blues roadhouse style that he is noted for. Close your eyes for a moment and hear snatches of Ray Charles in his soulful singing. He looked very regal, sitting at his piano bench with slicked-back, rich white hair and a tightly cropped goatee, wearing a silk suit over a black glitter undershirt and dress shoes. Brooker was definitely the bandleader and spokesman, punctuating the song introductions with some humorous banter.
After thanking the Philadelphia crowd for the warm welcome, he complimented himself and the band members on their memory: "We even remembered what town we're in tonight. The drugs must be working."
Brooker and Fisher take position at opposite ends of the stage with plenty of room in-between for Whitehorn and Pegg to maneuver within. Fisher's Hammond organ sits atop the stage like some piece of antique Victorian furniture, with carved wooden legs and cross braces with a huge Leslie cabinet/tower sitting alongside in the same matching finish/varnish. Could this be the original equipment from Fisher's early days with the band? That would explain how he has maintained that distinctive keyboard sound, like a choirmaster gone mad and taking the captivated churchgoers in a completely new direction with his organ flourishes.
The fourth song of the performance, the classic Grand Hotel, equally captivated the Philadelphia audience. This song captures the essence of Procol Harum, a tour de force that reveals their influences in a musical pastiche that incorporates classical and traditional music. Woven into the pattern are a Sousa-like march, Italian arpeggio guitar, and quick snatches of calypso while some roadhouse piano blues rolls in and out of the mix when not competing with the Beethoven-like piano trills and tones. Despite this unlikely combination, it works to great effect. As this is going on, the organ, bass and drums pound out a rhythm that fades in and out, getting louder and faster as the song progresses, like a merry-go-round whose brakes have failed. The music seems to be ascending, adding layer after layer, until bursting with climax. Whew!
Brooker spoke about South Street: "Outside, there's a busy little street. It reminds me of Haight Asbury Street in San Francisco back in the late 60s." He jokingly refers to Keith Reid presently living in a early model Winnebago / Roadmaster, and how the band invested in too many "punk pension funds" and came on hard times: "The only way to see it through the next fifteen years is to keep playing concerts," he says, as the band segues into Wall Street Blues, with Fisher showing off some work from the Booker T & the MGs school of keyboards. Whitehorn plays another solo that showcases his skilled finger work on the guitar strings.
Homburg transports the music back to 1967, and I look through the crowd for anyone under the age of 30. It seems to be a very small percentage. It's great, though, to see the older fans show up to support one of the premier bands of the era. Some hearty requests for Whisky Train resound from enthusiastic fans in the balcony, and continue throughout the evening.
Matt Pegg maintains the pace throughout all of this, revealing his intricate bass stylings without flashiness. He looks unassuming in his short-cropped hair, as he slinks about the stage in a Nehru-type suit and granny glasses.
Whitehorn plays another short but incredible solo during As Strong As Samson, his guitar wailing and weeping out the notes through steady use of the sustain/tremolo bar, as Fisher actually slaps his keyboards with both hands in time to the music.
After a 30-minute break, the band returns with Simple Sister, a rousing favorite. (More screams are heard for Whisky Train"). With this solo by Whitehorn, thoughts of Robin Trower are now forgotten. Despite Brzezicki's steady and proficient drumming, a quick tear is shed for BJ Wilson, whose creative stylings were always showcased by this song.
As Procol Harum begins to play the new Shadow Boxed, they are "cooking" like a boogie band. There is an interesting and dramatic pause at the end of this song, as each member stops abruptly and freezes in motion at the same time, holding the position for several moments. So Far Behind follows, with great use of the wah-wah pedal by Whitehorn as the other members move the music forward and build up to crescendo after crescendo. Piggy Pig Pig, a classic from the Home period, also surges wave-like to its climax.
The Blink Of An Eye with its allusions to the 9/11 tragedy showcases Brooker's strong voice, as well as some intricate cymbal rhythms by Brzezicki.
Brooker takes a moment in introducing Beyond the Pale to acknowledge the fan website of the same name. This song also reveals how tight this version of Procol Harum is, as the music builds and builds with frequent dramatic pauses, layer after layer.
Fisher gets the spotlight on "Weisselklenzenacht (The Signature)" an instrumental featuring wild organ flourishes and stately piano in a flashback to the similarly-themed "Repent Walpurgis" from the first Procol Harum album.
Brooker then begins a roadhouse, blues-like improvised intro with bartender references [part of a Mickey Jupp song in fact] as the band segues into the finale, Whisky Train, as they acknowledge those who have clamored for this song. Brzezicki gets a chance to shine with a drum solo that is as good as the one on Power Failure from Broken Barricades.
During the encore of A Salty Dog Brzezicki plays with exactly the same kind of creative drum drama that BJ Wilson brought to the original. This song sounds better than ever, as the guitar seems to be helping blend the notes together. At one point, Whitehorn makes his guitar sound like a whale calling out in the distance, and mimics the caws of seagulls at the close. It was an incredible performance.
The very last number is the classic A Whiter Shade of Pale, the song that brought initial attention to Procol Harum, here extended beyond the length of the original with an extra verse regarding a mermaid, and a longer organ solo. If you listen closely, you hear some creative guitar fills from Whitehorn, at one time slipping in notes that remind of Otis Redding's classic Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay.
The crowd left the theater very satisfied with the evening's performance. Hopefully, Procol Harum can gain enough recognition on this tour to merit a return visit. It would be wonderful to hear another album of original material from this lineup in the future.
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