Rättvik, Sweden: 30 June 2007: Procol Harum with the Gävle Symphony Orchestra and the Dala Sinfonietta Choir, conductor David Firman
Dalhalla is a concert venue created out of an old quarry – possibly the best use anyone in the world has ever made of a hole in the ground? It lies in the Dalarna region of Sweden, near lake Siljan, which was evidently created in prehistoric times by a meteor strike. The nearest town to the concert was Rättvik and it was a busy place on Saturday – and Gary and the boys were not the oldest rockers in town. That honour must go to the legion of classic American car enthusiasts who gathered there in their thousands for their annual round-the-lake drive, followed by a monumental piss-up in the town afterwards. I may send in a selection of photos taken of the cars – there must be many sentimental motor fans within the Palers! Oh and there was also a "cirkus" in town – around teatime, one presumes.
However this didn't adversely affect the turnout for the Procol Harum orchestral concert out at Dalhalla, some five miles away through sylvan countryside (they do have a LOT of trees in Sweden!). I estimate the 4,000 seat arena was at least three-quarters full – and many had driven up from Stockholm or further from the continent, and of course One-Eye and I were there to report the event.
I arrived at the arena right on six and hurried forward to view the giant bowl, my step rather quickened by the sound of a soundcheck going on in the valley below. Then on steps at the rear of the theatre I spied a photocall, featuring Gary and some local dignitaries – and the first sight of an umbrella being hoisted.
I had just positioned myself to take a few shots, when GB arrived (during Whisky Train), asked for a bit more volume in his monitor, then Chris Cooke came on to hustle them off, presumably for a pre-concert refreshment.
I adjourned up the steps to eat and immediately ran into the One-Eyes, who were spending their thirty-third wedding-anniversary time touring Europe with the Band and were now engaged in selling fresh PH merchandise – namely two new Procol tee-shirts, both with a bee motif, one in fact a honeycomb. It was not immediately apparent what the significance was, but later I learned it was a cunning future plan ... more no doubt at a later date.
At 6.30pm precisely the heavens opened, in a monsoon reminiscent of the Caribbean (or South Yorkshire last week!). Everyone took cover and the Dalhalla shop did a roaring trade in green plastic macs – think Maid of the Mist at Niagara – the ultimate in maternity wear (if you were having quads!)
At 7.30 the rain relented and we took our seats ready for the 8pm start, preceded only by the local promoter and music festival chief giving brief speeches of welcome to us and the band. The promoter had been at Ledreborg and was eager to have a repeat event in his wonderful venue.
The band came on, smartly casual – collared shirts rather than tee-shirts, excepting Gary, smart in waistcoat and suit. The orchestra wore white jackets, the choir dressed in black. The stage looked large and commodious. The band were out front in the familiar set-up, with Geoff Dunn on a riser with plastic baffles behind him only. The choir were to be accommodated on steps to the left and the orchestra was behind the band, brass and 'celli/basses to the right behind the Hammond.
The choir and orchestra started the sublime intro of Homburg and we were transported into dreamland again, with perfect sound and Gary singing just better than ever – this is the oldest cliché on this website, but it's true. After listening a lot to Union Chapel, where he does get a bit gruff in the second half, this was just perfect.
After a quick "thanks and good evening" we were bombasted by Butterfly Boys with Gary mixing the words like confetti (Al says he always does) but with a few extra words at the ending. The orchestra are absolutely spot on and we get massive applause.
Gary then apologises for having only a few words of Swedish and tries a few, including "coconuts", which gets a big laugh (more about this later). He promised a few songs they would know and some they might not.
He introduced The World is Rich by highlighting what is going on in parts of Africa. Both Geoffs were great in this. Josh stood to play his top keyboard. It was band and choir, no orchestra. At the close, Gary credited the words to one Stephen Maboe.
With a count we were right into the majesty of Something Magic – Geoff Dunn gave a LUBB DUPP to the beating of a heart and Geoff Whitehorn performed valiant backing vocals even though there was a choir there too! He also played a guitar solo with the orchestral strings in the break. Sharp finish to great applause.
Gary referred to the 1991 album featuring Can't Turn Back the Page, which had a fine guitar break and a wee bluesy bit at the end.
After thanking the choir, Gary said this next song was one they had just slipped in – before giving a lengthy preamble about his young neighbour going off to the war and coming back deaf after being imprisoned in Poland and living on a diet of cabbage for four years. Symphathy for the Hard of Hearing was very well played and sung, and (surprisingly, for an unknown tune) got the biggest ovation of the night so far – perhaps due in some part to the fantastic ending when Geoff W again manufactured something wonderful to 'collapse' the song.
Gary asked if everyone was happy, now that the rain had been sent away. He talked about Naikolai the Pike who inhabited the lake, whom they had been throwing stones at all day (fishermen don't like pike, do they?). He loved Sweden, where they eat Reindeer Steaks with Rainberry Sauce or something. He remembered the great lodgings in Europe where they could live well touring – now they were lucky to get a bit of microwaved chicken! "These were the days of Grand Hotel" ... cue the music.
The orchestra leader had waited all his life to ham up the part of the gypsy violinist, accompanied by Geoff on cod balalaika, then it was "Swedish girls like to fight". Marvellous, a Michelin five-starred hotel.
At the interval I went forward to speak to Al, who was sending out the first-half setlist to Roland on his Blackberry – what an up-to-date service this website gets from the main man! He thought the orchestra had been a little quiet, but it sounded perfect to me in Row Ten.
The promoter returned to introduce the conductor and the band individually back on stage, then it was CRASH BANG (you guessed!) Simple Sister: but where was Josh? He appeared only in the very last verse! The audience were encouraged to clap by Gary and Geoff W and it finished with plenty of volume, including a round of tubular bells.
We had probably guessed that was Simple Sister, as the choir kept saying 'Simple Sister' ... then a preamble about the 1991 Gulf War and it was still happening today. "Hold on Boys, we'll bring you back as soon as we can" said Gary. I thought Holding On was another African song, but now it has metamorphosed into something global.
Gary had a short boogie on piano then launched into Nothing but the Truth where Josh really opened out on his Hammond. The choir were very prominent in the middle eight.
More Swedish language classes – 'Tack' and why do waitresses say what they do – then he introduced the band, pretending to forget Geoff Whitehorn, who came from Gravesend, where Pocahontas is buried (she drank too much beer on her way back to America, evidently!)
Next a song for all those who looked down from above – A Salty Dog. This had an extended and reworked orchestral introduction with many seafaring figures and good use of woodwinds and 'celli, then the Latin choir, so it was maybe getting on for two minutes before Gary sang! Geoff Dunn passed the test here with flying colours with his breaks – on my first viewing he is not a million miles from Mark B really – and Geoff Whitehorn's playing was achingly beautiful, including the seagull moments. Standing ovation and cheers!
Gary introduced a song they had 'played with orchestra and really never properly recorded' – Into the Flood – which had the full version with the sawing strings and a big brassy finish.
Then after again thanking the orchestra and choir, GB recalled 1971 and the Canadian mining town of Edmonton, "where all the men wore checked shirts and had big beards" and where they had played with the local orchestra to create Conquistador. There was a barnstorming version here tonight, with Geoff Whitehorn starting his solo real low and slow, with Geoff and Matt jumping when Josh did his part towards the end. Flat out and wonderfully received.
Flowers were brought on at this point (?prematurely) and
stashed for an unexpected extra bit of fun – though it was a reverential tribute
to Swedish entertainer Povel Ramel, who had recently died. The band led a sing
song of a classic ditty he made famous in Sweden (and you could have knocked me
over when I heard what it was): I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts- a
music-hall favourite in Britain (composed in 1944 by Fred Heatherton) and a
certain first for Procol Harum! The audience just loved this moment of
improvisation and thoughtfulness.
Gary asked for a moment to get in the mood, then with a count we were into AWSoP, but with a differently-scored introduction – sadder accents, less smooth and schmaltzy. The intro over, the band were brought in (surprisingly) by Geoff Whitehorn with a few loud notes on guitar then it was the two-verse version. A retired couple danced in the aisle and then it was all over – crowd on their feet cheering and hollering for more ... but the band had gone, though the orchestra remained, apparently for a further encore. It was only just 10pm and we all expected a return ... but for some reason they sadly didn't oblige. It was left to David Firman to come on, take a bow for his orchestra, then usher them off-stage.
A great night – wonderful music in a spectacular venue. The only criticism I have (and I never have many) is that I think the audience expected and deserved another song. I also feel that in the orchestral AWSoP is best followed by a bigger finish – say New Lamps or The Long Goodbye segued into Grand Finale? I think it leaves one with the high of the virtuoso collaboration. AWSoP is, amazingly for such a classic, a bit quiet and limp after all the bombast before, and might be a better penultimate song in concert. In fact I think that would also give Gary a chance to acknowledge the greatness of the song and what it has meant to a whole generation ... then he could introduce positively the last song ... you get the drift.
My internet time is up, here in Stockholm Airport: I will depart now for home, hoping to see some of you in London in three weeks' time, for what promises to be a GREAT event in our PH history.
Thanks, Charlie (preview pix by Charlie, Bengt and Hasse; programme shot thanks to Lars)
Procol dates in 2007