This year the annual shifts in the Islamic calendar meant that I had a ten-day break over the Christmas period, so for the first time in seven years I was able to leave the Arabian peninsula and make my way home across to the United Kingdom to celebrate the Festive Season and conveniently take in Gary Brooker's annual Christmas Shows at the same time.
Arriving at Gatwick Airport on the day before the Club Riga gig in Southend meant that tiredness deleted that show from my itinerary, and the Chiddingfold concert on Friday 21 December became the first one on the slate. Palers' Base camp for these charity shows was, as has often been the case in the past, The Crown Inn, in the centre of Chiddingfold, just opposite the Village church and the adjacent Village Green. Checking in at around 5 pm on an extremely cold Friday afternoon, I was greeted in the bar by the smiling faces of a small but distinguished gathering of the 'usual suspects'.
I took the view that on the Friday I would just listen to the show and cheer from the front but on the Saturday try to be a little more objective and make some notes. The Chiddingfold Community Centre is a functional brick built building about thirty years old, with a flat-floored main hall that can accommodate around four hundred people standing comfortably, probably over half the village, which has a population I gather of around seven hundred. I had been under the mistaken impression that these annual charity concerts were somewhat haphazard affairs, and rather makeshift in their presentation and preparation: in fact, sound, lighting and general execution were all undertaken with the same care and attention to detail as a normal Procol Harum concert; Graham Ewins, tweaking the knobs at the sound desk, and Procol Road Manager Ron Manigley sorting out the backline with Johnny Magner made sure everything was up to scratch.
Musically, things were no less professional; the excellent Never the Bride gave a short support set of around 45 minutes – and about 10 pm, after the raffle, much onstage chat and subsequent adjustments about which microphones and monitors were or weren’t working, Gary Brooker’s alter ego band No Stiletto Shoes launched into Let the Good Times Roll. The sound level was fairly deafening but clear, and the five peerless musicians seemed to be enjoying themselves. Arrangements in general were tight, and during the subsequent two hours Brooker and Andy Fairweather-Low clearly relished each other's company, the latter a surprisingly dominant part of the ensemble as singer, guitarist and co-Master of Ceremonies. It was great to hear some choice nuggets from the Amen Corner/Fairweather-Low solo back catalogue such as If Paradise is Half as Nice, and Wide-Eyed and Legless. Eric Clapton ambled on to the stage after about five numbers and played in most of the set thereon after, quite at home in the company of close musical friends and content to stand unobtrusively at the back and contribute some tasteful rhythm playing, the odd solo and the lead vocal on Willie and the Hand Jive. Both nights the shows had a fairly reflective conclusion with a sequence of four or five roughly mid-tempo numbers, Goodnight Irene just yearning for the moody 'lighters in the air' swaying audience participation moment quashed these days by the British smoking ban, and the inevitable Whiter Shade of Pale brought everything to a close.
On Saturday I was rather more awake and less inhibited by jetlag, and consequently able to pay rather more attention to the detail of the evening. The Saturday show was different in several respects. Never the Bride varied their set somewhat, and wryly amended the second couplet of Pinball Wizard’s first verse to ' ... from Chiddingfold down to Brighton'. Much of the Shoes repertoire remained the same as the previous evening; Eric Clapton did not appear but a stripped down Procol Harum did. While Gary was busy onstage with the raffle and then auctioning off the signed copy of the recent Clapton biography, closing at 220 pounds, omens were good when first Geoff Whitehorn was spotted in the hall followed by Geoff Dunn and then Matt Pegg. So at precisely eleven minutes past ten a four-piece Procol took the stage and gave us a 25-minute heavy set consisting of only four numbers; sadly Josh Philips was honouring his prior commitment with The Jones Gang and couldn’t be in two places at once. Memorial Drive kicked off, played with a nice loose feel with some scorching guitar from Whitehorn; Brooker’s piano solos were principally as per norm, but with a more jazzy feel, slightly more exotic sounding chords and a jangly piano. The new Yamaha piano has a meatier sound than the much heard and recently mothballed Roland RD-600. Homburg followed with lots of flanger on the guitar and the 'tick tock' counterpoints in verse two executed perfectly by Geoff Whitehorn clockwise and anti-clockwise at the appropriate lyrically horological moments. Missing Persons came next. This is only the second time I have heard this song, the first being its somewhat tentative premičre airing at the fortieth-anniversary concert in July 2007. I like this song very much; it is around seven minutes by my timing and sounds as if it will be subject to a little more refinement over time, before it appears on record. A long song, it has a three verse/chorus structure interspersed with two guitar breaks. The grim subject matter and key of D minor create an intense and haunting sound world; the falling and rotating chord sequence of D minor / B flat / C / A minor with the chorus on the top is faintly reminiscent of Pachelbel’s Canon. I look forward to hearing this song again and out of the four numbers in this opening mini-Procol set it was probably the most enthusiastically received by the attendant throng. Whisky Train wrapped things up with the usual short section of Gin House Blues to open: GB’s vocals were very powerful on this, with Graham Broad's ride cymbal substituting for the original cowbell and some fantastic bass work from Matt Pegg. A short and succinct drum solo from Geoff Dunn preceded a thundrous conclusion.
Almost immediately, Procol Harum morphed into No Stiletto Shoes, and at about 10:35 pm things kicked off with Let the Good Times Roll, with tasty piano playing, before Mystery Train, with Andy Fairweather-Low on vocals and Frank Mead swapping his sax for tambourine. Gary introduced Poison Ivy with its original catalogue number – Parlophone R163 – and the audience sang along with the chorus. This seemed to be a highly identified number with the crowd, their general familiarity with it belying its rather low original chart placing. A quick retune was followed by If Paradise is Half as Nice, Dave Bronze singing backing vocals to the Fairweather-Low lead. A bit of characteristic GB patter followed, something about touring to Southend-on -Sea being 'North of the Thames' before Shake Rattle and Roll. Gary picked out with precision the rolling boogie figure with his left hand. The rather wearing Stand up for Your Rights stretched to eight minutes, featuring the Mead vibraslap in its only outing during the evening; a much more appealing Lay My Burden Down had an excellent Fairweather-Low vocal, another great piano solo and the Mead soprano sax decorating the top end. A very extended (about ten minutes) Santa Claus is Back in Town with interpolations of Jingle Bells was positively sleazy in atmosphere – more red light than seasonal red coat – and the Brooker bar room piano was well to the fore. This kind of repertoire really enables one to appreciate Gary’s flair for r'n'b piano and, although never overtly showy, it fits into the ensemble with all the flair of a Fats Domino or Ray Charles. The vocals, too, are still amazingly strong after all these years and show absolutely no sign of deterioration whatsoever. The limited edition No Stiletto Boot CD, recorded off the desk at the Club Riga show in 2006, that was hastily put on sale during these concerts (and whose appearance took even our webmasters by surprise) shows this in spades. The vocal attack on the second track, Good Golly Miss Molly, has to be heard to be believed. This CD will surely become a sought-after collector’s item at an initial run of only 300 copies, and perhaps more than anything else currently on the market shows Gary’s flair for this kind of repertoire. The remaining copies that were not enthusiastically snapped up by the audience should be available at the Beyond the Pale shop soon. [A few remain: order here].
Anyway, I digress. Moving into the final straits a nicely understated Woman Be Wise with shared vocals and Andy Fairweather-Low on acoustic guitar followed, a song I have never heard before; then a bit of fun, Andy introducing 'Railroad Bill Brooker', as Gary donned an acoustic guitar for Puttin’ On the Style as they duetted, tossing the verses back and forth accompanied by some witty jaw’s harp from Mr Mead. A strong Blueberry Hill followed: Fats Domino would surely have been proud and the rolling piano really came across well, again with a definitive Brooker vocal.
As on the previous evening there was a nicely-judged final selection of slower and quieter songs to finish the evening off. Wide Eyed and Legless finished the set, before the first encore of A Whiter Shade of Pale. Geoff Whitehorn returned for a lengthy rendition, first verse and chorus as normal, second verse with Geoff on solo guitar and no vocal, third verse sung ('she said there is no reason'), chorus, followed by a fourth verse this time with Frank Mead’s languid but precisely notated sax solo, then chorus and then straight ending with no piano cadenza, unlike the previous evening. Somewhere in the final chordal peroration the da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-daaaaa! theme from the last movement of Saint-Saëns Third Symphony emerged from the texture, seamlessly woven in, played on the VK7 sitting atop the Brooker piano. Goodnight Irene brought the evening gently to a close, the swaying crowds hanging on to every word as the concert wound down just before midnight and we disappeared into the freezing blackness of the Surrey winter night and back to The Crown for hot whisky with happy Palers.
Sunday saw a freezing cold morning and after a run around the Surrey countryside, lunch with the Brookers, Bronzes and Meads was a relaxed and happy occasion: champagne flowed and Pannetone was cut, both kindly supplied by the prematurely departed Ciccioriccios. Absent friends were toasted and the Bristol half of our dedicated webmeister duo thanked Gary and Franky for their hospitality and made a brief speech reassuring them that Procol Harum activity would be most welcome, and well-supported, in 2008.
Driving back home to Kent through the fog-bound Surrey countryside I hoped that new material and more concerts do emerge from Procol Harum in 2008, as the music industry enters a period of unprecedented uncertainty regarding its future; some standard-bearers are needed to keep the flag flying for high quality live music and solid new recorded product. Roland said he thought the weekend's shows were the best he had ever heard from No Stiletto Shoes, and so one might hope that the Shoes find a new home as – sadly – the Chiddingfold Club is to close at the end of March. Gary remarked at the end of the Saturday show that '... we’ll have to find another venue next year... ' at least giving a possible intimation of activity to come some twelve months hence. 'Til then … .
Have a look at Procol Harum set-lists