Procol Harum playing at some festivals in the Summer of 2009? Glastonbury? No. Cropredy? No. The Northern Norway Fish-Drying Festival? Yes! Well, perhaps. (read the first part of this report here)
A brief few days in Norway followed by a further stop-off in Sweden visiting friends led me to Finland for the first time, the day before Procol Harum’s show on 23 July. Close examination reveals distinct differences between Finland and its Scandinavian neighbours. Norwegian and Swedish have many similarities but Finnish is something completely different, more akin to Hungarian than anything else. Finland seems slightly more ‘eastern’ somehow, the architecture seems more Baltic and its people are in the main more Aryan-looking. One interesting fact gleaned from our utterly charming Finnish host, Juice Huhtala, is that Finland has one sauna to every five people (its population is about five million). Visiting Palers were taken to a traditional Finnish restaurant by him the previous evening, where the Finnish fare of fried herrings and beetroot prepared us well for the following day’s show. Little did we know what was to come … Driving up to Äänekoski on the day of the show I was struck by how empty Finland is. There were few cars on the road and the scenery was absolutely beautiful. Äänekoski took about five hours to drive to, with a lengthy lunch break, and is forty kilometres north of Jyväskylä, the main airport town north of Helsinki. Äänekoski itself is a small town in the Finnish Lake District, with fairly utilitarian buildings set in beautiful countryside close to Lake Keitele.
The lake has a jazz festival named after it: the Keitele Jazz Festival runs for three or four days each year, attracting international acts, mainly with jazz leanings, but with a couple of evenings given over to straight ahead rock acts. Various events take place around the Festival site but the main tent was set in a picturesque spot by the river, a voluminous white tarpaulin which could hold about 400 people standing with bars and food outlets just behind. The sound was surprisingly good.
I had met Swiss Paler François Courvoisier in the car-park a few hours earlier, mentioning that he had heard that there had been some kind of accident. Apparently Gary Brooker had climbed on to one of the piles of roadside logs that appear regularly in the Finnish countryside the previous evening, pipe and lighter in hand; they had collapsed underneath him and he had fallen, on his back, on to a rock. Noone was really sure how this was going to effect the evening’s show.
The Animals wound up their excellent set late and Procol Harum appeared at about 10:30pm; Gary was clearly not in the best shape, as he had broken two ribs (or so he thought at that time – it later turned out to be four, with a fifth one fractured) and could barely walk. He could certainly speak, and introduced the visibly-nervous band. Bringing Home the Bacon kicked things off, with a crystal-clear sound balance: but as The Commander opened his mouth to sing it became evident that the combination of a serious accident and strong painkillers completely drying his voice out was not going to make the evening very easy.
The official ‘Beyond the Pale’ report from this concert was extensive and I am not going to repeat things here, but this concert did have some good things going for it. The other four members of the band really rose to the occasion, particularly the fret men; Geoff Whitehorn produced some of the best playing I have ever heard from anyone, anywhere, especially the blistering versions of Whisky Train and Cerdes, and Matt Pegg was equally stunning with bass runs and stuff flying out of the instrument, the like of which I have never seen him do before. Geoff W really held it all together, contributing many of the missing lead vocal parts and engaging with the audience. I suppose another positive was that a mostly-instrumental show focused attention on things one might not normally be aurally aware of. Hearing a vocal-less A Salty Dog reminded me of just how good the instrumental work in the band is, how tight and perfectly integrated with each other. I can’t pretend that this was in any way a vintage show, though, and it was pretty distressing to see Gary in such a state: at one point he said, “I’ve always wanted to die on stage” and several times I actually thought it was going to happen. He seemed bothered by the stage lights and his monitor was feeding back, as Graham Ewins pushed to try and get more of the vocals out. The crowd were genuinely supportive and seemed to understand the predicament. Likewise, the consummately professional band gave their all, led by a Commander with steel boots on and a will of iron.
So a brave stand, but an ultimately disappointing show given in the most difficult circumstances imaginable.
I spent the subsequent few days in Finland in the company of Juice and Tatu at the latter’s summer house on the shores of a Finnish lake, pondering the events of 23 July and how musicians can pull stuff out of the hat when the chips are down. Further musings in my idyllic surroundings, time in the forest and on the lake at least made me understand late Sibelius more. The people-less worlds of Tapiola and the Seventh Symphony have exact counterparts in the beautifully-lit empty landscapes of central Finland. And, yes, Finnish people really do have a sauna by the side of the lake, yes they do stay up all night during summer, and yes, they do sit in the sauna and then run into the lake with no clothes on. Much food was consumed over the weekend, glasses were filled, and raised to Gary Brooker’s health: one hopes that his promise to return to Finland in better shape won’t be too long in coming.