Through the power of their performance Procol Harum conquered an initially tepid crowd on a cool evening in Northern Illinois. Nestled in a wooded area between affluent suburbs north of Chicago, the beautiful venue of Ravinia would seem the perfect location for a Sunday concert. Families and couples—mostly in their fifties—filed in early to set up camp on Ravinia’s capacious lawns; others drove in from Michigan and Wisconsin. The well-heeled audience appeared mellow and intent on relaxing before seeing their heroes—Jethro Tull. Could I be the only Procol Harum fan here? I wondered. I meandered through the happy picnickers in search of a fellow Procoholic, but the closest I came to my quarry was a curious customer who purchased Secrets of the Hive and In Concert with the Danish National Concert Orchestra and Choir, the only Procol Harum merchandise for sale at the vendor’s booth. The local media gave the band similarly sparse coverage, usually just listing them as on the bill with Jethro Tull. Procol Harum would sink or swim by the power of their performance.
A number of concert-goers anxious to secure choice positions on the grass had arrived early enough to hear Procol Harum’s soundcheck at four-thirty. They reported that the band sounded ‘fantastic,’ a good sign. Gates to Ravinia’s seated section weren’t opened until six-thirty, a mere half-hour before Procol was set to take the stage. Tull fans continued to amble in as Gary and Company ripped into Shine on Brightly, for which they garnered a polite but tepid response. Next the band moved into a fine version of Homburg, to which Geoff Whitehorn added a nifty ‘tick-tock'. Josh Phillips put aside his customary shyness and jumped off his stool in a surprising display of showmanship as the band fired on all cylinders during Pandora’s Box. Truly, the room was humming harder, Procol’s rhythm section popped, and the audience heated up. Things may have slipped a bit as Whitehorn and Matt Pegg flubbed some of their vocals for Grand Hotel, and Geoff Dunn failed to replicate the grandeur of BJ’s fills; nevertheless, Hotel was my wife’s favorite moment, so things didn’t sink all that much.
I initially thought that Gary had made a mistake in his next two selections, two topical numbers from The Well’s on Fire: Wall Street Blues and The Blink of an Eye. The heavier arrangement of Wall Street Blues left their studio mix behind, and Geoff Whitehorn once again led the band’s conquest of the crowd with a series of blistering solos. Nice keyboard interplay between Brooker and Phillips elevated Eye above its studio forerunner as well, and the sombre number didn’t lose the excited audience. Gary then said: I think we’ll play one from the old days, and a guy from the crowd screamed for Conquistador, but the band launched into a thumping The Devil Came from Kansas instead. Whitehorn continued to perform his familiar pyrotechnical magic, building solos based in Trower’s original strokes but with melodic touches of his own. On Kansas, the crowd erupted in adulation after Geoff’s solo proper and after the song as well. The audience now belonged fully to Procol Harum. Geoff Whitehorn underscored the fact the audience wasn’t listening to a nostalgia act. Any remaining resistance fell during Conquistador, which ended with the band’s first standing ovation. With the spotlight on Josh Phillips, Geoff Whitehorn and Matt Pegg comically edged their way to Gary’s side of the stage and allowed Procol Harum’s new organist to show his stuff—which he did. Phillips appeared more comfortable than he did earlier on the tour, and the band obviously enjoys great camaraderie.
Gary’s voice held throughout a solid performance of A Salty Dog, and then the band shifted back into overdrive with a molten Simple Sister, which won Procol Harum’s second standing ovation. Gary then introduced the band before saying goodbye to Chicago with A Whiter Shade of Pale. Some audience members sang along and around half shouted in response to the line, the crowd called out for more. Procol Harum departed Ravinia as conquistadors, bowing to a sustained standing ovation, their third of the evening. Procol Harum arrived in Chicago as the opening act for Jethro Tull; after a one-hour performance, they won over an initially tepid audience and no doubt captured a few new fans. Procol Harum’s first North American tour in years can only be judged a success, and personally I was thrilled to attend my first Procol gig. I also managed to meet my first fellow Procol Harum fan in the flesh, since a fan no less than Jens sat two rows behind me! A pleasure!
Thanks, Daniel Wood, Three Rivers, Michigan
Procol dates in 2010