Stadtshalle, Hagen, Germany • Thursday 8 October 2009 • Charlie Allison for BtP
Our favourite team resumed their playing season, with its first international game after the Captain sustained a serious injury in the warm-up before the Finland match: an away fixture in Germany. The good news is that with his ribs having been spared, the game ended in a sizzling score draw – Boxes 2, Stories 2 – and we were all 'over the moon with the result and the performance'. OK, is that every football cliché imaginable? [If you’re from 'over the pond', you may not know there is a great deal of soccer history between England and Germany ... (by the way please don’t mention Scotland in this context at the moment)]
We gathered at the Mercure, surely the most convenient hotel for a gig ever ... only fifty yards to the front of the Hall. We’d flown in from Scotland that afternoon for forty quid return on Ryanair – so cheap we (almost) forgave the band for not playing this year in the UK! Dinner was gravidlax (in memory of past Scandinavian gigs) and schnitzel washed down with some surprisingly good German Chardonnay. Our private peace and quiet was broken by the arrival of Jens and Andrè from Norway and the inevitable Allen Edelist on day one of this four-gig tour, which will take in Norway and Russia. Great to see them all looking so fit and well. Later, in the venue, we met up with Hermann Braunschmidt and Michael Ackermann, a bionic man with two chunks of metalwork – the first Paler with joint replacements? We were all eager to learn how Gary’s ribs and voice were holding together – news from the sound-check was that all was well.
There were maybe 600 in the Hall, some standing in the pit, others sitting at tables on a raised platform near the bar ... very handy for making notes and hearing the music, but a little too far for best-quality photos (make do with these meantime). But don’t worry – Jens and others had cameras at the front.
The promoter welcomed the 'living legends' 'and all the visitors from the US, Schottland (second in the rankings!), Norway, Denmark and Netherlands'; then we had a half hour of a support band called Monty Burns, who sang in English but did all the chat in German. Dunno where they got the name from – Monty Python and Robert Burns fans? (or maybe they knew a cat of the same name?) One or two moody songs, and quite competent, but not anything like the standard of what was to follow. Procol Harum were EXCEPTIONAL!
Band on at 9pm, set-up as usual. Sound loud and powerful, the tempo of most songs reasoned and never rushed. This was the night that I finally accepted the excellent Geoff Dunn as a resident of the drum stool and not just keeping it warm for Mark, who might now be in Procol retirement? And may I just mention Matt Pegg, now at the start, for his immense contribution to every song tonight, as I always tend to overlook his performances, taking his musicianship for granted. What a foundation these two guys lay down, with loads of colour and improvisation too.
Broken Barricades opens the show, which it has done on previous occasions (including Redhill, if I remember correctly?) We hear an extended introduction, the song is stately and warm and the sound balance is spot-on. It has never seemed an easy song to sing and Gary passes this fitness test with flying colours. He finds one guy in the audience who speaks perfect English ... and he is Norwegian!
One Eye on the Future follows ... again a developed tuneful introduction for this song which has a 'singly' feel to it (but they don’t do 45s any more!). Growing on me. Does Al get a royalty as well as a name-check? Gary reckons this (new song) is 'enough excitement for the night' so introduces a familiar song from the 60s – Homburg, which receives the familiar treatment and receives prolonged applause.
After some whimsy about a meteor falling from Andromeda to create Westphalia 107 million years ago, we have a song about talk shows – TV Ceasar – great drums, organ and guitar solos. I had the quiet thought to myself that this might not be the best venue to tack on Rule Britannia (as they had at Hollywood Bowl in the 70s).
'Something gentler,' next said Gary, and it was Pandora’s Box, with good Gary piano and Josh (on two keyboards) great in the playout.
'While we're in a Latin mode ... usually Procol Harum are prog-rock ... we’ll give you another of our Box songs' Yes, we continue with Robert’s Box, the tale of that physican-prescriber to the rock-stars of yesteryear. Geoff slides to good effect (then stings at the end), the other Geoff rumbles, and the boys Hawaii-hula the background vocals. Big ovation. Gary is singing so well!
Now one 'with only three chords, from The Wells on Fire' – Wall Street Blues. 'Mr Whitehorn from Gravesend Grammar School' is accused on being 'prescient' in knowing about financial moves. This is LOUD with a great vibe, a fantastic piano break, sounds of the city and an extended guitar solo. More cheers after this one ... this has become a great song in the live repertoire (I didn’t like it particularly on the record).
The band always like to keep us on our toes and Gary appears to give us an extended piano intro not a million miles from The Emperor’s New Clothes, but no, wait ... it's Taking the Time from the Ninth album – never heard this so good. Guitar and organ trading bars – Geoff even goes across the stage to spur Josh on. A new concert highlight ... big applause.
'Last time didn’t do too well ... someone got sick, hurt themselves ... just play on I suppose ...' then we got into Sister Mary, a work-in-progress, but to my ear I didn’t think Gary sang this too well: it was a bit restrained and unclear (the only song tonight one could say this about). Maybe it was that I much prefer the London version where Geoff shared the singing, doing the parts about Father Leary in a higher register, which gives the song an extra dynamic.
(Maybe when this gets to be finally recorded Gary should afford
Geoff the honour of a shared lead vocal, to join the very few Harum members so
to do? Count them!) The mood is created for Geoff to do a slow burning guitar
solo – first twiddly then wailly. (thinks – I’d like to see them perform this
song in Dublin!)
Now to the masterwork of the night – Barnyard Story – applause on its introduction then a fantastic rendition. Gary sings and plays brilliantly. Josh’s organ is magnificent too. But the extra dimension is a brilliant guitar solo from Geoff. Just like Quite Rightly So at Union Chapel, we have now moved into different territory with this song, a new sublime dimension for all Procol Harum listeners. Let's have it recorded this way, sometime, please.
Now one for the Northern Europeans, Beyond the Pale, with its customary spirit and drive. Gary a shade Germanic in the last verse. Drumming first-rate. A good 'Hoi!' at the end shows there are a good few Palers and not too many strangers in the hall tonight.
Josh does a two keyboard intro to another new song – Missing Persons – sad and melodic with a good few chord changes. Gary sings this better than Sister Mary. Mood-creating organ break had a few almost AWSoP figures. Two guitar solos – one tangential (I wrote), one loud and piercing. Good finish. Awaiting recording?
Straight into A Salty Dog, then we come to a halt for Gary to explain that it's for all those friends who look down from above. This is a classic rendition, with Geoff Dunn perfect on cue to fire the gun (loudly) and roll the floor toms in the final verse. Gulls and loud cheers at the end. Band take a bow and go off. The crowd calls out for more.
The second 'story' of the night is an exemplary rendition of Whaling Stories, dignified and grand, with all the dynamics we know perfectly measured. Matt Pegg has his own brief moment (but has been splendid all evening), Gary plays and sings perfectly, Geoff Whitehorn’s solo is dirty and subterranean. The break of dawn is heralded on the keyboards, with Geoff offering a few choice notes (like he does to colour ASD). Quiet and peaceful at the end ... then tumultuous applause.
There’s a band bow. I see Gary, for the only time this evening, holding his ribs ... also making a watch gesture ... but hey this audience wants to hear ... AWSoP – a standard two-verse version. Top notes? No problem for the Commander. And at 10.40pm, after fifteen songs, it’s all over. And very well received. 'We love you ... and we’ll be back' says Gary ... and we all troop over to the hotel for a refreshment and a brief word with the band, gearing up for the short hop to Norway and the two days in Russia, all looking fit for the challenge.
Your correspondent doesn’t make the next gigs. He has flown back home and tonight has attended a fantastic show by another of his musical heroes, Gerry and the Pacemakers. 48 hours after Procol Harum, I am treated to another strong and enduring voice in rock and roll, Gerry Marsden singing classics like Don’t Let the Sun Catch you Crying, Ferry Cross the Mersey and You’ll Never Walk Alone (as well as Great Balls of Fire and Jambalaya) to an audience of 1,000 in my home town (Dundee), who would doubtless turn out for Procol Harum and A Whiter Shade of Pale should they ever wish to perform here (gosh, have I said this before?)! Incidentally Gerry promised he would be back next year.
I finish with the strangest mis-hearing/misunderstanding ever. I was talking to a young German lad on the plane-to-terminal tarmac 'bus, who asked why we had been in Dusseldorf. I told him we had been to a Procol Harum concert. He looked bemused ... then a few minutes later, after reflecting, said he didn’t realise there had been a Pocohontas show in Germany! I was speechless ... but thought it an amusing mistake!