Though it wasn’t played that night, Something Magic was an apt theme to Procol Harum’s appearance with the Delaware Symphony Orchestra and Opera Delaware Chorus on December 4 for Wilmington’s Grand Opera House annual gala.
The magic started for us just after we checked into the Hotel Dupont, site of the gala after-party, as we were riding the elevator to our room on the tenth floor. We stopped at floor six and a silver-haired gent with reading glasses climbed in and pressed 9.
There followed three floors of stammered attempts to convey our excitement and long-time fandom and a handshake and he was gone. But just for the time being.
Just a bit later, I went downstairs to meet fellow Procoholic Gary Celebre, who introduced me to Matt Pegg. Gary C. and I and my wife retired to the lounge for a drink, where we were later joined by Evan Wagshul. As Gary C. and I were sharing various Procol memories from over the years, in walked the Commander with Spencer Zahn, artist of Grand Hotel fame. GB was kind enough to sign a poster I’d brought with me from a 1973 Easter Sunday show at Upper Darby’s Tower Theater that I’d kept all this time.
The gala itself was part senior prom, part special Procol Harum concert, part society ball and part Palers’ Convention. Around 7 pm hundreds of us in our black-tie finery began a promenade from the hotel to the Grand, just a few blocks down the street. The Grand was lit in colored lights and, along with Christmas lights in the street and the odd vintage Rolls Royce parked along the way, it was a festive scene indeed. I couldn’t believe we were on our way to see our beloved Procol Harum play with orchestra and choir.
The Grand is a lovely and intimate space which opened in 1871 as the Grand Lodge of the Masons and was later used for various entertainments. Preceding Procol to its stage were Ethel Barrymore, Buffalo Bill Cody and John Philip Sousa, among others. I myself have seen the late Jimmy Smith there, and Lyle Lovett.
The evening began with a presentation to a prominent local civics leader. While this is a standard part of the gala each year, no doubt every Procol fan in the audience joined me in thinking, “Let’s go, man, and get on with it!” Not wanting to deny the gentleman his due, I did my best to remain still and attentive, just as I did as a boy waiting for church to conclude.
Finally, the opening ceremonies concluded and the musicians were introduced and took their places on stage and commenced with Homburg. After taking a moment to settle the tempo between band and orchestra, we were off on a magical collaboration of band, orchestra and chorus, with David Firman at the podium behind the drum kit. I find it quite remarkable that, with just a minimum amount of rehearsal (“We’re just busking up here,” Gary would remark after the opening), the performance sounded so natural and totally integrated. No doubt having maestro Firman at the helm is an advantage, having worked with the band previously and using the same arrangements as the excellent Ledreborg concerts.
Next was Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) featuring a terrific organ solo by Josh. The Hammond was perfectly placed in the mix. From our seats, which were just behind Graham Ewins at the mixing console, the sound was just right – well balanced and crystal clear, and the organ just seemed to jump out at the appropriate moments.
Following was Grand Hotel, with Gary popping out his top hat before commencing the middle section. It took three or four punches to extend the flattened hat and put it on his head. Whether this was the true effort or for comedic effect, I don’t know, but it kept with the relaxed, humorous vibe maintained all evening by the Commander and the band. The interplay among Geoff Whitehorn, Matt Pegg and Josh Phillips on the front line is engaging and infectious, and can be heard to good effect in the music.
Whaling Stories followed Simple Sister, with that arrangement so familiar from the original Edmonton recording, minus the thunderclap and the anvil heard in Ledreborg. Geoff’s guitar work was the highlight here – his solo, beginning with the crunching chords during the diminished scale riff, was a model of controlled fury. He said later in the evening that, to him, A Salty Dog and Whaling Stories are the signature tunes in the Procol canon. The Opera Delaware Chorus was powerful in the majestic closing chorale, my favorite part of the piece.
Butterfly Boys was introduced by Gary as the closest Procol song to three-chord rock and roll: and by the final chorus the orchestra and chorus were indeed rocking.
A Salty Dog received the usual introduction with reference to those who watch from above. To sit there and hear it live was an incredible experience. Geoff Dunn looks so placid and economical playing the drums, it’s hard to tell how much effort he’s actually putting into it, but the sound was powerful and note-perfect tasteful. I’ve always thought the drum intro toward the end of the first verse was a key to the whole song.
Symphathy for the Hard of Hearing was next, preceding the lovely two-verse version of A Whiter Shade of Pale, at which point the band took a bow and, without exiting the stage, went straight to an encore of Conquistador, with Josh again turning in a terrific and energetic solo. A truly magical performance. My only quibble as a fan would be to wish for another hour, but this was governed by the Gala itself and the nature of the event. No doubt there were many in the audience without a clue as to who Procol Harum are. Nonetheless the performance was extremely well received. And for us rabid fans in the audience, it was a dream come true.
Following the show, we all trooped back up the street to the truly grand Hotel Dupont (referenced as such by Gary during the introduction to Grand Hotel), and the after-party was on, with musical entertainment in three rooms, each with bar and open buffet. Throughout the evening the band members appeared to party and to mingle with fans. Geoff Dunn was spied on the dance floor. Each Procoler was gracious and generous with the fans, whether posing for pictures, chatting and answering questions, giving autographs, or, in Gary’s case, accepting a hug and kiss here and there from female admirers of various ages. No wonder he seems always to have a twinkle in his eye.
An observation about this lineup of Procol Harum: Geoff W, Geoff D, Matt and Josh own this material now. You can see it and feel it and hear it. No need to quote or copy anything unnecessarily. In particular, Geoff Whitehorn talked about Procol music and Gary Brooker as a passionate fan. While he described his own elegant playing as “just the blues”, there was no disguising the affection and appreciation he has toward Gary’s writing, playing and singing, which he discussed, unbidden, at length.
2010 was a most bountiful year for Procol fans in the northeast US.
If, as an awestruck fifteen-year-old guitarist watching his favorite band in the world thundering away onstage from the second row of the Convention Hall on the boardwalk in Wildwood New Jersey, you had told me that – some forty years later – I would be dressed in a tuxedo, watching them play with an orchestra and choir and later standing with a drink, chatting with Gary Brooker himself, well, it would have been unimaginable.
But then, life is like a beanstalk.
Procol dates in 2010 | More about this show