They’re putting up the posters
The carnival’s in town
It happened all of sudden. We heard of Procol Harum coming to Poland and scheduled for just one gig, down in Wroclaw. And though the 2nd June was a wedding of our friends, me and Jan, my son, now 15, and a great fan of PH (my school!) decided to go there, risking family row. But there was Procol Harum coming to Poland and there was nothing more important than that.
It was already beginning of May when they decided to play in famous open theatre in Sopot. I wouldn’t say it was because of my 50th birthday falling just in May but that’s just a coincidence.
A guy who was promoting a gig didn’t have much experience with stuff like PH music and I offered him my assistance. It wasn’t easy to sell 4,000 tickets, which weren’t cheap for a gig of the band which most of the people hardly remembered from AWSoP. I wrote for him a newsletter for the local press, he arranged adverts on local radio and TV. They put hundreds of posters around cities of Gdansk, Sopot and Gdynia and later some big banners. I together with Jan nailed two of them on the fence of my future office building in Main Street of Gdynia. However, sale still didn’t go particularly well. We were all feared if we success to have at least a thousand people in audience. And the time was running out.
Finally, that night the band was to arrive. I was at the local airport late in the night, the flight from Moscow via Warsaw was late but eventually the aircraft landed. It was half past midnight. We saw them come out rather tired, with Gary on the front, looking around for familiar faces. There was just me who they recognized and a while later we were heading for the hotel. Brief meeting at the bar and all went to sleep.
Following morning I went to the airport again to pick up our German friends, Hermann and Fritz with his wife who decided not to miss such an opportunity. Fortunately, there was a sunny but rather chilly day, with no rain forecast for the evening.
Same afternoon 4 pm we agreed with the band to go for the sound check, after that some interviews in the hotel and the concert scheduled to start 8.30 pm. One of them was quite important, on request of Piotr Kaczkowski, the most famous radio journalist, great fan of Procol’s music, who has promoted them on the radio since it all started (see My Encounters with Procol Harum published in Shine On back in March 1999). I insisted Gary to give him an interview and he agreed almost immediately after I explained him all this.
Anyway, Jan and me are showing up in the hotel at 4 pm, the band is off for the sound check but Gary still in. He says to us: "We’ve got technical problems, let’s wait half an hour." In the meantime I learned that the digital piano provided was not of that model which Gary requested, and another one was arranged to be delivered from Warsaw (350km away from Sopot). Anyway, half an hour later we got into my car and set off for Opera Lesna. Gary is looking at the programme for the night, car radio CD’s playing Saw the Fire, and Jan says that is his favourite (though not really PH). Gary smiles and says that it would be difficult to play it tonight. Ten minutes later we are at the stage, Gary rushes to his piano and first chords he tries on are those from Saw the Fire.
A few words about Opera Lesna (literally: The Forest Amphitheater) in Sopot. The town itself is beautifully situated between Gdansk and Gdynia (these three cities are close and linked together with a total population of nearly one million people). It is located at the seashore on one side (with the longest wooden pier in Europe) whilst surrounded by hilly forests on the other one. Sopot used to be a spa resort since the beginning of XX century, very popular among German (it belonged then to Germany) and Polish people coming here for summer holidays. At the same time the magnificent Opera Lesna was build among the forest where holidaymakers enjoyed Wagner including famous Walpurgis (!). It has beautiful acoustics and unusual scenery, as there are big trees around and behind the stage. Later, after the war, it became quite a popular place due to Sopot Song Festival played every August. Gary was a guest star of that festival back in 1978, where he played there with Polish Zbigniew Gorny band, and he remembers it quite well.
Coming back to the sound check, the band is warming up playing a few things, which they won’t play later, including All This and More, but Gary is apparently not happy about his piano. Promoter insists on me that I persuade Gary to play on that piano but he is adamant and keeps saying no way. He decides not to get back to the hotel but stay at the theatre until the new piano comes. I take an opportunity and arrange interviews with journalists who are waiting for him. In the meantime, John with a little help of Jan put up merchandise for sale, which later proves to be very successful.
Everybody’s looking at watches, it’s 8 o’clock and the piano is still on its way to Sopot though the promoter promises it should be here within a few minutes. The crowd is gathering, hanging around and drinking beer. It’s fairly cold but dry.
It is probably quarter past eight and we are all a bit nervous, drinking our beer in the dressing room, when the piano finally arrives. They unpack it immediately and Gary puts headphones on to check it. It’s almost half past eight but it’ll take another quarter at least before the band is ready. Then somebody tells me why shouldn’t I announce the band. My first response was impossible, I am unprepared, don’t know what to say. Then Franky says: "Mac, you’re their fan, say just something from your heart". So, I agree, and a few minutes later am standing in front of crowd which in the meantime gathered up to about 3,000, saying that on behalf of Procol Harum I feel privileged to welcome everybody and wish a lovely evening with beautiful music of the legendary band. They are running onto the stage, Gary at the end, shaking my hand, and they start with Bringing Home the Bacon.
It sounds great and I can feel my heart beating. I move then to the audiences who listen to the music quite concentrated and absorbing every sound. And it really sounds magnificent in this forest, with lights spotting waving trees. I can hardly remember what was played being totally immersed in the music, which has been with me for most of my life. After a few numbers, I suddenly hear first chords of Saw the Fire, I immediately say to Jan – that’s for you! It took just a while and a minute later they changed to start As Strong As Samson. Only we knew what it meant and will never forget it.
And the music goes on with a lively applaud of the audience. It comes to Repent Walpurgis and it sounds really great with Matthew’s Hammond overwhelming the theatre. The audience seems to be moved and the ovation is long. And there was later after standing ovation when they play what everybody was waiting for. The crowd stands afterwards on the benches just to listen to Whisky Train that is a grand finale of the night. It’s all over and it took less than two hours. Long gig for the band, short for us, the fans. There are photographs in the dressing room, chatting, shaking hands and signing CDs and photos. Everybody is relaxed and all the members glad that the concert was so successful. And it was really good, with big sound and that beautiful forest scenery.
I remember when I talked to Gary last time before Sopot, and it was after the Christmas gig in Guildford in December 1999. He asked me if liked the music played then and my response was that yes, it was OK. But then I mentioned, with all respect there are quite many bands playing good rhythm and blues but only one playing Procol Harum music and I’d prefer to have that. Gary looked up at me with his usual grin and said: "Yeah, probably you are right and we’ll play it sometime!" It happened now in my hometown that the band played their unique music.
Following morning I went to the airport to see them last time before their departure to Wroclaw. It was rather rainy morning but they were all in good mood leaving Gdansk. Hope to see them again in Opera Lesna sometime.
When the show is over
The empty streets are glistening in the rain
It’s still the same ...