Procol Harum

the Pale 

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Hard to Remember, Hard to Forget
‘Procol Rarum’
− the lost songs of Brooker/Reid

Saturday 21 July 2007: Charlie Allison, for BtP

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

London: 21 July 2007: Gary Brooker and Guests at St John’s Smith Square

It’s day two of the 40th Birthday weekend and the Palers banish fatigue and sense intrigue − which of Procol’s secret stuff would we be hearing tonight and indeed who would be performing it? As we gathered at 2 pm for the day ahead, these questions were ‘the talk of the steamie.’ (It’s really satisfying to introduce this international brigade to a good old Scottish expression, but I really put that in for George Lovell − the second great Scot book-launching today with his personal Procol reminiscence The Waiter Brought a Tray. A detailed critique will follow later, but on first sighting it looks just as wizard as JK Rowling’s marginally more publicised effort!)

Briefly, I’ll first report on the afternoon programme, where in addition to George’s signing session, we heard Doc Wallace’s fine words of thanks and a great Palers’ Band performance. Their first set started somewhat comically − the Smith Square residents had asked for the sound to be turned down, so the band chose to begin with The Unquiet Zone! Highlights were a rousing Into the Flood, our ‘Odd Couple’ George and Al Edelist waltzing hilariously through The Final Thrust and the charismatic Dave Ball joining the band for Seem to Have the Blues (Most of the Time).

We reconvened at 7.30 with a splendid Palers’ Project set for the first half of the evening. Roland sought a sound man with ‘Is it on, Graham?’ − you know he’s been waiting years to say that − then we were into The Piper’s Tune. Roland revealed that since hearing Joe Cocker’s transformation of With a Little Help from my Friends, he and his brother had wondered why no-one covered Procol Harum’s songs and therefore set out to ‘sing the songs wrong’, like Joe had done.

We progressed through She Wandered Through the Garden Fence (Dave Knight thought Keith Reid would be horrified by this), a blues version of All Our Dreams are Sold, arranged by guitarist Gary Shepard and his South Carolina neighbour, who just happened to be Capt Beefheart’s bass player) and One-Eye’s vaudevillian Robert’s Other Box.

Next an absolute treat − indeed one of the highlights of the whole weekend − The Milk of Human Kindness, featuring the haunting B flat cornet of Peter Clare. If Procol themselves ever thought of revisiting neglected songs in their canon for alternate treatment (now there’s an idea!) they could consider this arrangement as a most beautiful demo.

I’ll be kind and say nothing about a dire Pursuit of Happiness and move quickly to Butterfly Boys, an energetic performance with the excellent Mr Whitehorn guesting on guitar (as he does on the CD). Roland paid tribute to Chris Cooke for all the help he had given BtP in organising the 40th weekend, and also Antonio Costa Barbé, whose idea it had been to muster these arrangements in live performance, when it seemed logistically impossible. Appropriately it was that Italian maestro who brought the set towards a close with a moving interpretation of what he described as the aristocratic New Lamps for Old.

Just before descending to the crypt for light refreshment (and further speculation) we were treated to a further treat from up on high − Ian Hockley playing the St John’s church organ. No, it wasn’t the expected Bach, but a wonderful rendition of The Thin End of the Wedge − Procol’s acknowledged Ugly Duckling had just become a swan!

Now for the second half − and the main event, still shrouded in mystery. Roland and Jens reflected on the words and music of Brooker and Reid which had meant so much in our lives for the past forty years.

Gary appeared and, in the manner of the Father Bear, asked ‘Who Has Been Playing my Piano?’. He pronounced ‘It’s Working!’ then gave us a wee boogie in the manner of Bonnie and Clyde, as his merry band of musicians trooped onstage. We recognised three guys with Procol pedigree (other than GB) − Tim Renwick on guitar, Dave Bronze on bass, Frank Mead on various reeds and an unfamiliar young drummer, one Martin Wright (I later spoke to Martin, a drum teacher who was thrilled to have been asked to play − and (surprise!) found him to be Scot from a percussion clan: his Dad had been drummer for Lulu and the Luvvers in the 60s!)

They started with one we’d heard before (but not yet recorded) Alpha − chugging and bluesy. The musicians were clearly enjoying themselves − sparking off each other − so we knew it was going to be a good gig.

Gary’s next one was ‘off my album which nobody bought’ (most of us did, of course!) (No More) Fear of Flying. This was full of pace and power − Tim Renwick then Frank Mead soloed expertly and the Maestro sang & played brilliantly.

Now another lost song (‘when is a song lost − when it can’t be found’) and one that mentioned forty years − now that set us thinking. Gary said ‘we’ll have to get some pipes going’ and we sensed it might be McGreggor. Frank Mead did some clacking percussion as Gary told the tale of the soldier brave.

The guys trooped off and Gary was joined by Josh Phillips on the Hammond for a tender four-handed Salad Days − or to be more correct the ‘ice-cream version’ --which although having a less-than-serious preliminary verse, proved to be a sensitive, beautiful ‘neglected treasure’.

Familiar reinforcements (Messrs. Whitehorn, Pegg and drummer Wright) arrived on stage − does this mean we now have Procol Harum with another drummer to add to the BtP list?) The song − a louder, stingier Milk of Human Kindness, which was a tour de force for Geoff and then Josh − why don’t they play this one (and indeed Salad Days) more often?

Next, not a lost song, but a favourite song − A Rum Tale, which is always a wonderful showcase for Gary − voice, piano and composer. A bit more guitar than usual from Geoff. Never mind rum, Gary, this is cognac. Big applause, naturally.

‘I’ve been here since yesterday!’ said Gary, who then explained the next lost song was one that Keith and he had written for Dusty Springfield − but then they ‘couldn’t find her address’. There was a little bit of Bachian prelude to this tender love song with a classical basis − if it had all happened as planned I Realise would have been much admired today. Maybe there’s still time for someone special to give it a life?

Next a song where Gary couldn’t at first find a tune for Keith’s splendid words ... and Robin Trower beat him to it. But now we hear Gary’s Victims of the Fury − with the Renwick/Bronze/Mead combo returned to the fray. Great piano at the start and at the finish which dissolves to quiet.

Now a bit of Gary whimsy with his tale of going to Alaska and being hit by a bear, which sidelined him in a small Eskimo village for several years from 1977. The song was ‘a follow-up to The Angler’ and the words were his, so unlike Keith’s. They told the tale of a king salmon returning to his home river to ensure his succession, and the guilt of the fisherman for standing in his way. I presume this chugger might have been called Alaskan King Fever [correct (Ed.)](‘has got me hooked’) − a quite splendid tale which might, if recorded, become a big hit … in Alaska?

We moved on to an instrumental next − ‘I think I’ll let Tim take the melody’ − a haunting tune vaguely similar to Local Hero which Gary later told me was Bird Island (‘at least that’s what it’s called today’). A lovely tune with solos from Tim then Frank, trading and weaving in the final verse. This programme is very well constructed for light and shade, and every song is being loudly applauded.

Back with the Procol line-up Gary introduced a song ‘so lost we couldn’t remember it’: the ‘Tamla Motown’ One Eye on the Future − very poppy and catchy − what reviewers used to call ‘a possible single?’

Next a song not lost, but ‘recently rediscovered’ − Something Following Me. This was slower and more coloured than all these years ago. Geoff’s guitar was great, Josh was big in the choruses and Gary had a marvellous piano solo too. Slowed ending. Everyone up cheering again.

Geoff gave way, with a bit of jostling, to Dave Ball, who immediately called for technical help with the plethora of pedals − ‘I don’t do folk!’ he jokingly stropped. The song, which could have been called Yours if you Want It, was strongly reminiscent of Hootchie Cootchie Man. This raw and raucous R&B, with prolonged soloing from Dave and a blast from Frank Mead, got the biggest standing cheer of the evening − I hadn’t realised that the amiable Dave Ball was such an iconic figure, the most vertical and facially animated guitarist of the weekend.

Now some real schmaltz from the vaults! Gary told us the next song was commissioned (then not required) by a movie producer, sharing the story that George Martin also composed a score for a major motion picture then was let down by the movie moguls. Gary outlined the romantic brief of Dancing Underneath the Moon, a languid lounge song with a smoky sax which I’ve seen Gary perform on Dutch TV during a somewhat cheesy interlude in his solo career.

Back to a vaguely Scottish lilt for Chasing for the Chop with great piano and sax breaks; then we get a bigger band to conclude wonderfully with Lieber and Stoller’s Poison Ivy − arguably the song that started it all? Standing ovation!

Our webmeisters were then joined on stage by both Gary and Keith for a special presentation. Roland explained that Britain honours its famous writers with blue plaques on their houses, but only after they are dead – so BtP created two special plates in Bristol Blue glass for our Procol lyricist and composer. Gary offered thanks then Keith stepped forward to note that he’d come for the weekend, done nothing, heard some great music, and got a gift!

Gary introduced the entire band, including ‘Francis Marmaduke Mead’ and ‘Mr Procol Harum’ Josh Phillips (a moment to treasure for him, I’m sure!) − in fact everyone got a special mention and a generous cheer. And for an encore we had Gary’s great message song for today, War is Not Healthy − a bit of a rap really, but with room for all to improvise. Gary moved round the stage encouraging his ‘big band’ as they took their spotlight moments in turn − Tim, Frank then Geoff. The audience were all standing, clapping and dancing on the spot in this fantastic finish to the programme. A real blast!

Downstairs for drinks and to hear all the favourable comments for a great night and indeed a great weekend. The Band, including Keith, were all in attendance − many autographs were given and photographs taken. Palers toasted friendship and the talk was of not only the past forty years but speculation for the future − the only fly in the ointment being the upcoming legal appeal in early October.

I left the hall at ten minutes to midnight and whom should I run into outside in the street − Gary and Franky Brooker. I paused to thank him once again and to enquire if they had been flooded at home (‘No, we’re all right’)

I hope we all have many opportunities to renew our acquaintances and to listen to this great music in the live setting again. So good health and safe travel till next we meet. Al, it’s over to you to be the autumn correspondent in Holland and Italy. And Jens and Roland − keep it up! What you’ve done for us needs blue plaques too.


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

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