Stephanie Thorburn writes to BtP
I have enjoyed the privilege of exploring Gary Brooker’s talents in a variety of musical contexts over time. Gary took his place amongst the Rhythm Kings with great facility: undoubtedly he is both as a team player and adept musical force in his own right. My first encounter was at Blenheim Palace during the solstice of ’93 and ’94, a venue for some marvellous ‘back to basics’ spontaneous jam sessions, realised for a handful of the most fortunate ‘faithful’ assembled in a humble marquee. Under the auspices of a pro-celebrity cricket match, a salubrious retreat was born in form of a private no-entourage, VIP tent, where Bill Wyman’s formative ‘Willie and the Poor Boys’ engaged with some familiar ice-breakers, rehearsing through a set with almost the totality of the current ‘No Stilettos’ line-up intact under a soggy polythene cover. These impromptu jam sessions took place at a series of Bunburys pro-celebrity cricket matches, a project now well celebrated, originally masterminded by Eric Clapton and David English MBE, (ex-President of RSO records). As with the ‘No Stiletto’ Christmas shows, the raison d’être was to aid major charities; destination, uninhibited entertainment value.
“What can I do for you?”, Gary mused as I approached him, and likewise, Andy Fairweather Low was equally modest, introducing himself as, “Just a friend of Bill’s”, whilst the incendiary set illuminated the neo-Gothic Palace of Blenheim. The Oxfordshire locals looked on at the gods of rock'n'roll breaking the ice with a set comprising Whiter Shade of Pale, Wide Eyed and Legless ... Hidden from the public gaze, our magnificent seven provided entertainment for the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, with ominous cloud cover stopping any other form of meaningful play. Gary Brooker, Frank Mead, Andy Fairweather Low, Henry Spinetti, Terry Taylor and Bill Wyman had arrived and required a great escape to contain the appreciation of a packed house of celebrities.
As I made my way to Chiddingfold Club, unobtrusive and quintessential, I couldn’t help but harbour a strong sense of familiarity that little had changed by December 2004. Great expectation for a performance can prove tough to live up to, yet I need not have fretted one bit. For a discreet gig on the cusp of Christmas, it was seasonally juxtaposed with my earlier liaisons and surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, the house was on full capacity with local families and Procol Harum disciples. Relevant adjectives to describe aspects of Procol Harum’s somewhat-underrated past might emphasise consistent quality, endearing eccentricity and a spiritual edge of delivery in performances. In this vein and intact with the repertoire of Christmas past and present, Gary, Andy, Henry, Dave, Frank and some truly special apparitions at the strike of midnight entertained the eager crowd with a choice selection of classics.
The hard-working aficionados thus launched into business with Let’s Work Together and Rock House, which contained some quality bass work from Dave Bronze, setting the tone for some thirty classics delivered between the hours of nine through to the witching hour. Especially pleasing was the rousing rendition of Come Together, played apparently on the wishes of Gary rather a set wish list - who then promptly attempting to terminate the number with ‘Let’s scrap it’ on prematurely reaching the chorus. Indeed, I’m not surprised Procol Harum are paralleled to The Band given such rich performances by Gary Brooker, this false start was reminiscent of the fate of the number included in the original Sergeant Pepper the movie. The holy trinity wasn’t far behind with Lay My Burden Down, Will The Circle Be Unbroken and What A Friend We Have In Jesus, enhanced by the vocals of Andy. Henry Spinetti enjoyed a certain country soul appeal from the depths of his demonstration ‘Sonor’ drum kit, ever-relaxed and seemingly in command of the very essence of rhythm, as Mr Brooker sipped at his drink and tinkled adeptly from the piano, a confident Captain of a winning team. The tempo picked up a pace on Brother, Doctor, Sister, Nurse followed by If Paradise Is Half as Nice, where Andy quipped about his age. Frankly with the maintained dexterity of a relative youngster on his instrument, combined with the gift of an increasingly matured vocal, he need not worry. As we ebbed for the interval, there was an outing for the under-celebrated Home Loving, which Gary originally recorded during Clapton’s RSO years, with Bo Diddley’s Can’t Judge A Book (By Looking at the Cover) being a great choice to end with; the Stilettos are after all about depth values and diverse talent.
Anticipation increased as some exclusive guests were beckoned to the stage to launch the second half. ‘My word, don’t the Drifters look authentic and so young’, was my first thought as I saw the velvet vocal legends take to the microphone. Informed that all the present Drifter were born post 1953 at the inception of the band, Rohan Turney, the youngest of these expert second generation Drifters took the lead on Save The Last Dance. With the screaming soprano of Frank Mead in full verse, Vic Bynoe, bass vocalist, sang Stand By Me, up dating the sentiment of these sublime classics to the present day. Under The Boardwalk, If You Don’t Know Me and My Girl were all a joy to behold with plenty of camaraderie offered in exchange for the audience’s attentiveness. This welcome break was followed by the full Shoes line-up, augmented by an industrious roadie re-setting the stage for some continuing splendours.
I Hear You Knocking and Blueberry Hill signalled a cue for Gary’s unpretentious virtuosity to return on top form, letting his fingers indicate to the band and crowd the contents of his Pandora’s box of surprises. His next special guest was to arrive, a suitably versatile talent and in seasonal cheer, guitarist Kristian Bediiako resided for classic versions of Woolly Bully, We Shall Not Be Moved and Hey Joe. Possessing the dexterity of the purple one, it was a high-octane performance that might have intimidated a lesser mortal, unfamiliar with accompanying the full force of the ‘Stilettos’ members live. Frank Mead even reached for the earplugs, not through musical dissatisfaction, but self-preservation as the decibels soared upward.
All I Have To Do Is Dream was a prophetic song as we moved towards an unexpected juncture way beyond closing time in the set. Gary laid tribute to Andy for travelling some distance to attend, as had Henry, arriving from Wales to this well acclaimed Mecca.. ‘Dream, dream’ and indeed Paul Jones who had been playing at a gig in Chichester earlier in the evening had been summonsed by the powers that be to the stage for a twelve midnight jam. Gary, initially unaware of the new arrival, announced the end of the night, whilst the rest of the band, namely Dave and Andy decided on some suitable curtain closers before beating a retreat. This was no time for quitting as a relentless series of stormers howled, rocked and rolled. Evergreen in every context, Paul Jones took to the harmonica and mic. With Paul and Gary sharing vocals and a final triple of numbers before home time, I feel that this band were without a shadow of a doubt playing for their own satisfaction as much as audience appreciation. Frank managed to knock a few Jingle Bells into Willie Dixon’s My Babe, Spoonful and Wolf’s Smokestack Lightning; all blues and roots songs to close down a night of intriguing surprises, no A Whiter Shade of Pale, but every other conceivable audience-pleaser was explored and delivered with a vengeance. This had been a highly productive musical outing, connecting full circle with my original introduction to ‘The Shoes’ as ‘Willie and the Poor Boys’, ‘The Rhythm Kings’ or any number of tempting musical guises. May ‘No Stiletto Shoes’ live on for many years to come in the hearts and minds of all those who witness their exclusive rare shows and sophisticated talents!
© Stephanie Thorburn 2005