Procol returns to Philly after 7 year hiatus
The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the ‘standing ovation’ phenomenon where audiences go wild at a seemingly workaday performance because people want to feel as though, having shelled out all that money for tickets, they got what they paid for. And after all these years (and all the years of life experience that Procol Harum fans have), one learns just how very easy it is to be "mediocre" and still get away with it.
That having been said, it was not without trepidation that I awaited seeing the one band whose music has been so near to my heart for more than 35 years, since before I first saw them at Philadelphia’s original Electric Factory at 21st and Arch Streets (before His Honor Frank Rizzo had it shut down).
I shouldn’t have worried. Brooker, Fisher, Whitehorn, Brzezicki and Pegg were in great form, and the standing ovations – and there were several – were well earned.
It amazed me in 1991 how Brooker’s voice hadn’t aged. Brooker explained (last night) that he’d had a ‘throat job’ thanks to Geoff Whitehorn’s speech therapist wife, that and plenty of booze and tobacco. ("Don’t try it yourself," he cautioned.) Now, twelve years later, he still sounds as clear as ever – precisely the same voice I’ve heard all these years. It’s nice that some things just don’t change. Of course, The Well’s On Fire had encouraged me in this regard – but then again, studio magic makes even Madonna sound like she’s a musician, but I digress.
The band opened with VIP Room, and thereafter into Pandora’s Box, as the audience – mostly longtime Procol fans – slowly warmed to the band. After seeing so many overproduced stage-type performances (Barenaked Ladies comes to mind), it was actually refreshing to see a black scrim, five musicians and occasional fog – and otherwise just have the music and a few spotlights serve to highlight the proceedings. Next came Robe of Silk which sounds amazingly like it could have been on the original Home LP, and Grand Hotel, during which the room started to come to life. Then Gary explained that the band was touring because their pensions had tanked, leading into, naturally, Wall Street Blues, following which the crowd was primed (and a few impatient souls repeatedly pleaded for Whisky Train).
The standby Homburg followed, Robert’s Box, Fellow Travellers, and Strong as Samson closed out the set, with the last feeling decidedly updated by the current rhythm section of Pegg and Brzezicki.
After a break, the band opened with Simple Sister which was, well, probably all by itself worth the show. It’s really not fair to say that "Whitehorn does Trower," (as one audience member yelled out). Whitehorn does Whitehorn – and does so with aplomb, including showing the remarkable ability to use his guitar to substitute for instruments such as horns and a string section without any noticeable change in the feel (or scoring) of the music. The band then played two from the new CD, Shadow Boxed and So Far Behind, the latter with a poke at rap music, then broke into Piggy Pig Pig.
It always amazes me which songs I prefer on a recording, versus which songs make that transition to the live stage. I have never been a huge fan of Piggy Pig Pig – but this live version is, well, awesome.
After a few more, the band plugged the web site, "We have absolutely nothing to do with it ...", and played another one I would never have imagined live, For Liquorice John. Hearing those two chords at the end at a live show was incredible (I think the TLA may still be vibrating). An Old English Dream and Weisselklenzelnacht closed out renditions from the new CD, to cries of "Matthew! Matthew!" (I admit to being a huge Matthew Fisher fan – I have his LPs, too) and, at last, Whisky Train rewarded those patient souls to close the second set, bringing folks to their feet for the third (or fourth?) time.
A Salty Dog and A Whiter Shade of Pale followed in tandem for encores, and when the lights came up, everyone had the same dreamy smile on their faces.
Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another decade to see our band in Philly.
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