This excellent piece was originally written for Poland's Tylko rock magazine
If we do not want rock-music to die – the band Procol Harum should not disappear from its landscape!
One can say, that it is a band of veterans! Do not misled by appearances. Some people insist on calling it a band of 'pensioners'. This is ridiculous, indeed, the average age in Procol Harum is only 47 years! For example in such The Rolling Stones – 58, in Pink Floyd – 56, and in Black Sabbath - 52! But let’s leave if well alone – do not look into the artist’s birth certificate, because the very art is timeless and can defend itself.
Exactly this was proved during two concerts in Poland by the band under the direction of Gary Brooker who has already been a visitor here for the sixth time (1976, 1978, 1979, 1985, 1992). The return of 'Salty Dog' to Sopot (Brooker gave a performance as a star of Sopot’s festival in 1978) belonged to the most unbelievable experiences of rock-music shape which got a vivid response from the audience of about 3,000 in Opera Lesna.
Great enthusiasm took over – loud peals of applause, standing ovation are only a few things mentioned which created the atmosphere this evening. It was really hot! Shooting furtive glances around me I could make sure, how many fans of Procol Harum there are in Poland. Then I thought that probably everybody of them thinks he is the biggest one.
Well ... this is a kind of music which everyone experiences on his own way and it is really difficult to guess what was going on in the mind of a single person from this evening. Some of them were lost in thoughts, others gambolled or swung to the rhythm of Procol’s music and one representative of the fair sex danced throughout the first part of the performance as a shaman in the narcotic trance. Near my seat there was a delegation from Germany as follows: Hermann Braunschmidt and Fritz Friedl with his wife.
The Master of Ceremony introducing the concert was the well-known, to us, fan of Procol Harum from Poland – Mac Gajda, who will describe the whole thing best himself. (see here)
And there is a lot of to describe – on a stage and behind it.
I will only add that Opera Lesna in a seaside health resort was built in a trough on the very top of a forested, fabulous hill. This place has really great acoustics (Elton John said once that if he gives a performance in Poland, then it will be only there).
No wonder, that this first concert simply had to succeed.
The second day in Wroclaw, in the exclusive Teatr Polski, with its chamber ambience, the group Procol Harum repeated its success. I thought the concert’s atmosphere was created this time by the theatrical character of the stage and an audience of 800. Gary Brooker adjusted himself to the warm atmosphere of this prestigious stage and put on a snow-white shirt and elegant jacket on this occasion. Certainly the splendid music which appeared in crystal clear sound (what wonderful amplification!) and in an unbelievably equal playing of musicians – speedily broke all kind of stereotypes. So you could listen to the concert as to a record played on hi-fi equipment.
At the beginning the audience seemed sluggish, embarrassed by nearness of the stage, then started a slow metamorphosis and after half an hour nobody took care of his hands or throat. What luck there were people among the audience who knew English very well, so they could 'talk' to Gary on behalf of audience.
The jokes of the band’s leader and his comments – that is another matter!
Brooker is the greatest master of ceremonies of all. He can do with the audience whatever and however he wants to do. He does not have to run on a stage as a madman, change clothes and make faces, and other musicians do not have to break their instruments against the loud-speakers or expose their own frustration and aggression. Because in the case of this band the music is most important, although for the first time I noticed with a kind of satisfaction – and the wondering of an old fan – funny jokes, comical jumps of the guitarist, or by-play over an advertisement for Polish beer. This kind of beverage was drunk by the musicians during the two concerts. In Sopot it was Polish 'Zywiec' and in Wroclaw 'Lech'. At one moment of concert in Wroclaw Gary swallowed from a bottle, looked at the label and asked seriously 'Walesa?'. And when Gary could not start the next song he looked for help in heaven, rising slowly his hands in a gesture of supplication. An answer for it were loud outbreaks of laugh and applause.
There were also some trials of learning our language. It came out that last visits of Gary Brooker in Poland were not to no avail and Gary deals with Polish language better and better. Occasionally it came to light that Mark Brzezicki is a 'Pole' by his father Stanislaw but the drummer did not speak a word and only laughed heartily. Mark admitted once that he knows only three Polish words: 'dzien dobry' (good morning), 'do widzenia' (good bye) and 'dziekuje' (thank you).
I can only not forgive Gary one thing, namely the fact that he let the audience know the final score of the football match between Wales and Poland (1:2). And it is a pity that on Saturday night a stand with Procol CDs and T-shirts with the 'Salty Dog' logo was lacking: the Sopot audience bought up all stuff the day before. Well, the Polish-English duet (John Grayson from Shine On and Jasiek Gajda (Mac’s son)) appeared to be a great trading partnership.
It is known for a long time that Procol Harum is better on concerts than on albums: the live music is more sharp and full. They cultivate luckily their original sound worked out in the 60s. On Friday and Saturday the band confirmed these opinions, and I even dare say, it was better than ever.
Procol Harum plays simply better and better. The band performed its best hits. The exceptional beauty of these songs reached as on the wings of Nirvana the summit of rock mastery. So there were: A Whiter Shade of Pale, Homburg, Conquistador, Grand Hotel or Pandora’s Box (this last song disposed the audience of both concerts for the rest of performance). There was also no lack of surprises: a blues mix (Memorial Drive, Whisky Train), a modern-day arrangement of the compositions (As Strong as Samson with the most entrancing guitar solo of both concerts), but also these songs, less known to the wider audience: Beyond the Pale, Holding On, Piggy Pig Pig, Typewriter Torment or even the 'première' song So Far Behind.
As the music is concerned the band showed real class, spontaneity and above all they did not let the music from the 60s and 70s die. Simultaneously one can hear in their songs modern sounds (here we have to pay homage to Matt Pegg and Mark Brzezicki!). There were sublime moments sometimes filled with nostalgia (A Salty Dog or Repent Walpurgis), it was really cool rock and heavy metal guitar show of Geoff Whitehorn. Matthew Fisher was merciless to the Polish Hammonds and showed how to use properly this famous and unusual instrument.
They played even and clear. And Gary Brooker? Well, this artist amazes still by his phenomenal vocal form. I personally got a few times the creeps when the singer shouted with painful passion, at the top of his voice, the consecutive lines written by Keith Reid. This slightly hoarse and charismatic voice in blue modes along with the unique sound of Matthew Fisher’s organ best makes Procol Harum an outstanding band.
In short: Gary Brooker and his band cast a spell on the Wroclaw as well as on the Sopot audience!
In spite of a middling advertisement Polish audience did not fail. I will maybe tell about the Wroclaw’s one, so that I do not cross Mac’s plans.
First of all there was a stunning price of tickets: 32-40 pounds! But if you are sitting in the very middle in the seventh row you would give even 100 pounds without a moment’s hesitation. So a lot of elegant ladies and gentlemen came to the Teatr Polski, representatives of middle age, well-known musicians and composers, local clerks but, it is still quite strange, that there came also a lot of...young people. Yeah, Yeah! You want not believe but there moved around even a young punk (!), who claimed he would frame his tickets. And not only I was astonished by this fact.
I have already mentioned about the music but I would like to emphasise one more time that I have never heard Procol Harum playing live as equally as this evening (and it was my seventh concert by now). Shine on Brightly, Homburg, A Whiter Shade of Pale started as on an album – with even wall of sound, suddenly without any piano preludes. And it was through the whole evening like this: even, clearly and dynamically. Each of musicians showed his skills to the full : the piano was more active than in previous years (Grand Hotel, A Whiter Shade of Pale), organ more passionate and powerful than usually (Repent Walpurgis, Typewriter Torment, Conquistador), rich 'juicy' guitar (Bringing Home the Bacon, As Strong as Samson) and sometimes stylised for the 60s (Rambling On), and rhythmical section modern but still suited into Procol Harum’s music.
But it is not the end.
After Saturday’s concert I saw Polish young people and a few older ones waiting in high excitement for autographs of British musicians. Their excitement was so great as if they were granted an audience with the Pope. I do tell the truth. I was in a privileged position because, invited by Franky Brooker and John Grayson, I stood in a hallway as the first one and told about other concerts to the excited fans.
There was some radio reporter who tried to implore John Grayson to give him five autographs of Brooker on the tickets for his radio-listeners. His emotions made the poor beggar forget his English. Some pretty girl (except for a ticket she did not even have a plain sheet of paper) noticed that I took a scanned photo from my briefcase and she looked at me in such beseeching way that I simply had to give her a gift.
(translated by Joanna Lukowski)
I spent forty minutes in the dressing-room where the bodyguard let five fans in and out every few minutes. That was a hard work. At this time I was sitting on the sofa next to younger Matt and Geoff who enjoyed Russian 'Stolicznyja' vodka. Matthew left quickly, Gary appeared, reclothed, and relaxed with his fidgety, roguish eyes. I was like Alice in Wonderland! When the next pretty young girl came, the band sang Eight Days a Week on this occasion, after this Gary found a crutch in the corner and was pretending to be disabled. That was a great fun.
Later on I found another picture of the band on which there was Mick Grabham instead of Geoff and I gave it to the guitarist. Geoff looked severely at me for such tactlessness and calmly painted black hair to the 'silver' Mick and signed it himself 'Geoff Grabham ... Mick Whitehorn'. My presence in the dressing-room of the best band in the World was encouragement also for other fans. I was asked to take memorial pictures every few minutes. There were mostly young people with vinyl records under their arms. Simply there are young people who listen to Procol Harum in Poland! And on the first weekend of June that fact allowed me to reconstruct almost-recently-destroyed belief in the human race.
Thank you to Organisers!
Thank you to the audience!
Thank you to Procol Harum!
(translated by Edyta Nadzieja)