Procol Harum

the Pale 

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Life Begins at 40 – Procol's Birthday Bash in London

Friday 20 July 2007: Charlie Allison, for BtP

BtP presentsProcol Harum's 40th Birthday Celebrations 20 / 21 July 2007

What is it with Procol Harum and the weather? After the deluge at Dalhalla, we now struggle to reach this historic 40th birthday weekend, with freak summer storms and flash flooding over the South of England. I took nine hours to fly to London but fortunately arrived in time – Diane Rolph sadly missed the first third of the gig. Better lay on ice axes and crampons for the Fiftieth Celebrations – or will we have global warming by then?

The church looks a fine, stately venue for this auspicious occasion – flat floor seating, less uncomfortable than the Union Chapel pews – but sadly no drinks in the auditorium. There are side seats and a few folk hanging over the gallery above, but the body of the hall is very well filled. Saw a few familiar faces – the big US, Scandinavian and continental contingents – and Dave Ball is here from New Zealand. Happily I also caught up with Mike Masterton and Richard Solly, veterans since the monophonic, black-and-white era. Some were advised 'no photography in this listed building', but I see Direktor Hermann has not only set up his archive machine in centre-field, but it’s up on a natty and very conspicuous tripod. There are also many digital cameras capturing the event – most will no doubt take better pictures than mine.

The lighting looks very basic and the band are set up in the usual manner – but there’s no grand or faux-grand for Gary – just his (actually Roland from BtP's) naked Roland keyboard.

'That's another fine mess you've got me into ...'The lights dim and Jens and Roland appear on stage (see illustration) to make introductions. 'Hands up all those who remember where they were when they first discovered Procol Harum?' This brought a forest of arms aloft. For me it was June 1967 when my father had just had his first heart attack and my mother asked me if I had to play that awful wailing music again! I was 14 and went on a school cruise to Leningrad where my school friends requested AWSoP on the ship’s radio station for my July 1st birthday. By some scary coincidence, on June 30 I visited Jens’s home town of Kristiansand in Norway – I remember the ice-cream was different from what we had at home in the UK (something like a Strawberry Cornetto today!). Anyway enough of this personal digression, though this was an occasion for personal memories – no doubt for the musicians as well as the audience.

'So let me introduce to you the band you've known for all these years – Procol Harum!' (everyone on their feel, clapping and cheering) then after a longish pause, on trooped our heroes, jaunty and casually-dressed, and ready to rock.

A brief clearing of the throat by Gary: 1,2,3,4 and we were into the familiar opening chords of VIP Room. Immediately one noted the intimacy of the venue, the clean acoustic and the LOUDNESS of the music, compared with the quieter orchestral outings and the open-air event down at Lulworth last year. Geoff Whitehorn slid to good effect and Geoff Dunn and Matt Pegg generated some mighty power at the bottom end. Gary looked perky and pleased and as sang well as ever.

Next Homburg – where Gary gave us the strange lyrical treat of 'the signpost being too tall' (one of only a couple of senior moments all night). Geoff W tick-tocked through the second verse and gave us some good guitar on the final choruses. Geoff D’s fills were great throughout. Josh’s organ (a new digital Hammond B3, it transpired) was throatily beautiful. We rose to pay homage to one of the milestone songs in the repertoire.

After a word of welcome to St John’s, and 'Thanks to BtP for inviting us here', Gary looked back on the first two songs. 'You don’t want to die somewhere on your own – maybe fishing – you want to do it in front of everyone, and maybe get your name in the paper.' And Homburg was evidently covered in Italy by a group who renamed it 'Dik Dik' [sic]!

He paid tribute to his great friend who had written excellent words for forty years – Keith Reid – then said this must have been an off-day for him – cue Typewriter Torment, with Josh very prominent – when he wants to be noticed, he just stands up (easy, really!).

Gary remarked it was a lot colder in 1967 when he bought his shirt – it’s the one that comes out at every ten years at a major anniversary. He never thought that they would last for forty years, but they had nothing better to do really ... He jested that the piano was out of tune, but then it always is... . 'The next song reminds me of Poland, at the time it was owned by the Pope' and we were into a sturdy rendition of Beyond the Pale with Geoff Whitehorn heroic as ever over the third verse and Matt and Geoff Dunn giving a real lilt to the song. Naturally, in this audience of devotees, there was a huge 'Oy!' at the end!

Then there was a discussion between Gary and Geoff about the next song. It was to start in A Flat and follow from there – Geoff was none the wiser. 'One from one of our 1977 albums. Mutterings of Oh No, not The Worm and the Tree!' – no it was the stately Something Magic with the band in absolutely top form, especially a rousing guitar solo in place of the orchestra break. Cheered to the rafters at the end.

Gary then hoped for something simple with maybe four chords and not 44, unlike the last one which had every chord used in it! He said it was time for Geoff to start them off and mimicked a few big guitar plunks – yes we were straight into Simple Sister – quite magnificently big and brash, with everyone clapping along at the instrumental break when Matt does his solo spot, and Geoff looking suitably pained repeating these balalaika notes. Huge applause and cheering again.

Now Gary told us they would take it easy with 'Bob’s Box# – the code name for one of several PH box songs – but we knew it was to be the Hawaiian rhythms of Robert’s Box (I always think of Gary’s heritage here and maybe it’s a tribute to his father’s musical legacy?). Matt Pegg stepped up to solo serenade us on Aloha BVs while Geoff took a breather before finishing the song with a great pinch of Gibson to ease the pain. Not perfect (one wee timing problem) but wonderful. A great personal favourite of mine – all Procol medics love this one.

Then it was to be a song about Fast Cars – Gary seemed genuinely pleased to have stumped many of the lyric intellectuals in the audience – 'nice to play the ones you don’t know' – then eased us into Fat Cats – he got the rhythm by doing a little tap dance evidently! This was a much brighter and better developed song than I remember from a few plays at home some years back – catchy even – and it would be good to hear the band recording it. Gary thought we were all fat cats for paying – 'what £10?' – to come and see PH – he said he wouldn’t do it!

He confessed that although they all looked light-hearted, they were in fact knackered, and it was only half-way through the evening! Time he thought to 'put in some ballads, or at least what Procol Harum call ballads' – so it was For Liquorice John, with great ensemble playing and a marvellous grand slide to immortality at the end.

Gary then couldn’t read the setlist – or was it the words to a new song – 'Got any Glasses?' 'Got a pen?' 'Sorry to be a bit vague' – but it was to be one we haven’t heard before in England – Sister Mary. This was a well-constructed song, with most unusually Gary giving Geoff Whitehorn a few lines to sing on his own. It was full of complexities of tempo and chords, rumbling drums and built to a climax with a great guitar solo and the organ swirling in on the top before a quieter tinkling ending. This could be a real Procol Harum classic in the making – 'Father Leary, you haven’t got a prayer' – fine lyrics from a song on their next CD (one hopes – and prays!).

Back on familiar territory next with Pandora's Box, a version with two winged horses and no brave lifeguard, but perfect in every other way. Different ending from Union Chapel.

Now to the point in the evening to make English boys happy – singing the blues! – and the song with the title that goes all the way across the page of the setlist; Seem to Have the Blues Most of the Time was a terrific showcase for Gary’s singing and a really brilliant workout for Josh on the organ. The band are really loving this and so are we.

Not unexpectedly we move on to the bartender being called for another whisky, right to the brim – with 'Robin Trower’s Whisky Train' (as Gary referred to it) – more clapping then a storming, well constructed, powerful solo from Geoff Dunn, rattling his cowbell with both sticks as well as journeying round his toms and cymbals. (The kit seemed very well miked too – in fact all the sound was perfect on the night). Big applause, especially for Geoff D ('are you standing up?' said GB). He then introduced all the band, including 'Captain Mark Phillips' on the organ, with Geoff Whitehorn asking us to applaud the reason we are all here – Commander Gary Brooker MBE.

In a quieter mood we enjoyed Keith Reid’s words, originally from Stephen Maboe – The World is Rich – the band all playing splendidly to capture the reflective mood of the song. The very last note was particularly exquisite tonight. Massive applause.

People *talking* in the audience! It's a disgrace.No intro at all (surprising) – just brief seagulls and we were into A Salty Dog. Geoff Dunn’s opening fill was a BJ copy to the letter, and later he was original and excellent in the second verse and then when the gun was fired. The whole band were just perfect here and Gary shone through with his usual effortless class. (I saw Art Garfunkel struggling recently to reach his top note in BoTW, even transposed down a semitone or two).

At the end Gary asked for applause for Geoff Dunn – first time with Procol in England – Geoff joked that it was only the second time ever that he had played the drums! Then Gary thanked Jens and Roland for inviting the band here, before insulting the road-crew (bad smell, eat turnips) in jest: he thanked them all individually for their faithful service.

Now he thought they would end with two songs, first one we would know, then one we wouldn’t. The first, 'which started all this off forty years ago' would have the new introduction first tried out in Sweden, paying homage to its origins. Yes it was AWSoP preceded by Air on a G String – very appropriate in the circumstances Gary finds himself in, but maybe not to be the permanent treatment of the song for evermore – who knows? (Methinks – I hope Bach doesn’t sue!). It was the standard two-verse version and Geoff Dunn was Bill Eyden on drums.

To finish – a historic moment, as promised – the début of a new song, Missing Persons – not hard to name as the title is repeated over and over again. It is a bit like …well something I have in my head – not Procol, but I think mid-period Elton John – a song about Belgium I think? A typical big Procol song, building layers, two guitar solos, a modulation, climbs to a climax – very good, even on a first hearing.

We finish with rousing cheers and flowers – the signal that a gig is over. A good programme, just the right length, though we’ve had no luxury hotel nor Spanish horsemen tonight, nor indeed any instrumental work. But we are all satisfied, and trip off down to the crypt for the post-show party – time to meet old friends and reflect and to see Gary present One-Eye with a well-deserved certificated award as No1 fan (see illustration).

Last thoughts. We’ve heard some Procol Rarum tonight, so what’s to be on tomorrow? And these new songs need to be recorded sometime, as does Niagara and a few other rarities. Chris has given us all cards showing the artwork of the new Secrets of the Hive compilation – but as we look back, we all fervently look forward and hope for another new CD, that DVD from Ledreborg and other anniversary gatherings in years to come (and maybe a gig in Scotland!). But still there’ll be more in Smith Square today – and what Rarum will we be treated to? I know Dave Ball is going to play, but who else, and what will we hear?

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More about the 40th anniversary celebrations | Friday aftershow party booking

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