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the Pale

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Feeling “Wuppertalled”

Friday 5 April 2013 • text and illustration by Charlie Allison for BtP

Procol Harum with the Sinfonie-Orchester Wuppertal und die Kantorei Barmen-Gemarke conducted by David Firman at the Stadthalle, Wuppertal, Germany.

I present this new verb,  'to Wuppertal',  to lexicographers everywhere – to experience joy, well-being, glimpsing nirvana perhaps.

We were certainly full of Wuppertal this morning after a great concert last night – see, you can use it as a noun as well! And I suppose we can find it as an adjective too – we’ve all have enjoyed a Wuppertal experience? You can see my command of the English language aspires to be above what is expected of a roughly-educated Scot! 

Wuppertal itself is rather a dour town by reputation – in the shadow of, and regarded somewhat disdainfully by its two more upmarket neighbours Dusseldorf and Cologne (whose cathedral floor, I must tell you, features flagstones sent from here in Angus (Scotland) some two hundred years ago). The Wupper valley has long been a heavy industrial hub, whose main claim to fame is as the locus for the first manufacture of Aspirin, a boon drug for mankind and its parent company Beyer. Here there’s another historical curio – a link with my home-town Dundee (Scotland), where physician Dr Thomas MacLaggan used salicin as an analgesic some twenty years earlier – but even that wasn’t really a first, as tree bark extracts were used in ancient Egypt and Greece as anti-inflammatory treatments. Aspirin has been often used as a hangover cure – how very appropriate in Wuppertal with its suspended railway, or Schwebebahn, with speeding local trains hanging-over the entire valley! Sadly there was no time for us to ride this weekend – with a full programme of Procol and Palers' events to enjoy.

Last night, in the glorious surroundings of Wuppertal’s magnificent Stadthalle, Procol Harum came to play with the local symphony orchestra and chorus and scaled new heights of musical possibilities. In all respects we were royally entertained and uplifted on a night when we’d not only heard great music but had the additional pleasure of seeing some spirited dancing – not for the first time with Procol (they had a sinuous lady dancer at the LSO Barbican concert in 1996). Here it played a central part in an out-of-the-ordinarily captivating event. 

The Wuppertal Symphony was a new orchestra for Procol, not like the Danish veterans of previous campaigns, and appeared young and enthusiastic throughout. The local choir was augmented by Michael Ackermann, the native Procol guru from these parts – he was introduced and proudly took a spotlighted bow from the back row of the choir. He deserved all the acclaim for the part he played in “orchestrating” this event. The MC for the evening was Tony Cragg, who welcomed two hundred Palers from twenty-two countries, and revealed Gary was last here in 1966 for one of the final Paramount gigs, thus claiming the town played a pivotal role in the formation and subsequent worldwide success of Procol Harum the following year! This went down very well with the locals, who were loudly supportive all night – Gary remarked later what a fine, appreciative German audience they had been.

The band trooped on stage dressed for rock, except for Gary in his smart grey suit. The big band and the eighty singers were under the clear direction of David Firman and it was evident that the rehearsal days had forged a good bond of exuberant understanding between all the parties involved. And, as the band stood back relaxing to the heavenly lead-in to Homburg, it was clear that the large ensemble was to be delivered to us in a splendidly clear and powerful sound envelope, an impression endorsed when Gary’s piano and first vocals showed a soundscape with an exceptional power and clarity not always present in Copenhagen. Of course where one sits is important, but I felt the brass and lower register strings were captured more impressively here and the drums and guitars, so important to be ‘right’ and not over dominant, were just perfect in the mix. 

After a quick “Danke Schon and Guten Abend” we were straight into a perfect rendition of Shine on Brightly with the staccato guitar and counterpoint chords doubled by various departments of the orchestra. Josh played a sterling solo with only the spotlight taking an age to fix on him. Gary asked to be excused for occasionally speaking English then lamented their changing fortunes in losing the limos, fine food and grand hotels of yesteryear in favour of vans, fast foods and budget hotels (in passing I must compliment Jens, Roland and Michael for organising such an excellent and adjacent lodging for us at the Arcadia).  

Grand Hotel was suitably impressive, as ever, with the tall young leader introducing himself with particular flourish then gypsying his way through his solo, towards that much-anticipated moment when Mr Whitehorn cuts through the orchestra with assertive power to lead us to that higher plane of the final verse. Delicious moments and rapturous applause at the end. 

After the French girls who like to fight, we were straight into Toujours L’Amour, one of several songs where the band-only bits gave us nothing lost, in terms of the sound effects heard – later I would muse on how much of In Held is actually Orchester-frei). The turning on the full symphonic sound is sometimes used quite sparingly to heighten the pleasure. Geoffrey had two excellent solos, once again using the neck of the guitar like some serpent trainer caressing his charge, giving us both groaning and whining in appropriate measure (I know Geoff will have a wry laugh as such a pseud's-corner critique of the blues player's technique!).

The first half highlight, in terms of audience reaction, came as a surprise when one considered events in the first half of the last century. Gary asked us to consider what we do in asking our young men to go off and fight, in his superbly constructed epic anti-war song Symphathy for the Hard of Hearing. There was no count-in from GB to the rocky bit – just a few rough starter chords from Sergeant Whitehorn to stir the troops – before the song built and raced to a feverish climax where Geoff's guitar breathes its last with superb effect.

The ovation seemed to last a good two minutes with many standing. Gary commented that orchestras are not meant to rock ... but this is Wuppertal and there is Something Magic in the air here tonight. This lyrical song was orchestrated on the original record and the version here has changed little with the years. The perfect ending shows the band and orchestra were tuned to the same wavelength. 

A Salty Dog’s dedication extended to an unusually greater Hall of Fame of those “looking down on us from above” – BJ Wilson, Kellogs, Jon Lord, Reg Presley and Elvis Presley – before a sublime orchestral interpretation which started in full nautical mode with various sub-sea sounds and ships' bells on foggy nights, and the classically choral introduction. We heard a wonderful orchestration of all departments, right through to the loudest gun ever, firing in the third verse. David Firman gave a clear lead but the man in command was obviously Gary who sang flawlessly, with all band members responding perfectly to his lead. Geoff Dunn was naturally once again most noticeable in his consummate skill in the fills, blended with some extra snare, bass drum and other percussion from the orchestra. This labour of love is one of several repertoire highlights which got sustained applause, with many on their feet.

You could really not top that with anything, but to close the first half the free souvenir programme had flagged up that a local – yet world-renowned – dancing troupe would be appearing during Simple Sister. I knew this was to be the next song as Josh took his customary leave of the stage; and there was a strange movement of band members with (the superb) Matt Pegg plunking himself down on the organ stool and Geoff Whitehorn retreating to the shady nook behind the curve of Gary’s Yamaha piano. Two willowy ladies with loud hair – the Simple Sisters – emerged through the side doors and pranced and paused through the audience before taking to the stage, later to be joined by a lass in teenage gear and three likely lads straight from John Travolta’s gang in Grease. I will make no attempt to explain the choreography, except to say it appeared quite complex, and in first-class synchrony with the music, but I felt it was quite distracting to us Procol purists. I think the band and orchestra played perfectly but I cannot highlight any of it, save for one marvellous cameo when Matt (seated) was surrounded by three young lovelies and would have had the perfect opportunity to collect 'phone numbers! But hey!, this was art and again it received a huge standing ovation – so maybe for the greater good it was a tremendous success and worth repeating next time? Anyway at the end there was a communal bow, flowers, much applause ... we went out to the marble and chandeliered foyer bar for a beer and giant pretzels with something obvious to talk about! 

As we resumed after the break, Gary came on stage to introduce David Firman and the band members individually. As in Denmark, the sylvan Whiter Shade of Pale opened the second half with a great richness of sound and everyone delivering a perfect rendition of the classic to loud and long acclaim. There were some choir members (and one of the third violins) waving lit mobile phones in homage. It was straight into Broken Barricades where as a follow-on to AWSoP its lyrics received a more careful listening. The band and orchestra’s tempo here was flawless – Geoff Dunn, like BJ, Mark and others before, played a major part in keeping this on-track, while filling the spaces with distinction.

Fires Which Burnt Brightly was next, with the orchestra and choir fully participating in a perfect performance. Again it took the spotlighter a long time to find Josh, but no worries for Mr Phillips as he found his notes “in the dark” faultlessly. Gary’s piano was a little quiet to hear his solo to best advantage (but happily it was at full volume the following night). 

The Commander acknowledged the place of the great German JS Bach in Procol Harum music – “one glance at The Well Tempered Clavier and another song is formed!”. He also asked the audience to look out for some Mozart and Beethoven during “the rarely performed” Into the Flood. The choir (and Josh) again asked for audience clapping to encourage the orchestra during the hoedown section. Geoff gets to play slide guitar and stars in the solo stakes. A big ovation again at the finish. 

Evoking memories of 1968, Gary then recalled the era of rock and roll experimenting with new ways, new religions and new substances to heighten creativity, setting the perfect karma to start the masterwork In Held 'Twas in I. First we had Glimpses of Nirvana where, in a haze of self-despair, life is revealed by the Dalai Lama to be “a Beanstalk (my son)”, with Matt Pegg appearing as Sir Ian McKellen. Then we enjoyed the comic relief of raucous Teatime, before a foundation-shuddering thunderstorm led us to near ten minutes of artistic perfection with The Autumn of my Madness and Look to your Soul, both wrought with searing drama, particularly Gary’s wonderful vocals and the 2013 Whitehorn versions of Trower’s epic solos. It was here I noted long spells of band-only activity, but with no diminution in the majesty of the aural tapestry – what a mighty sound Procol produce, and what a giant of creative writing this sadly under-recognised piece is. Grand Finale was splendidly fulfilling, a huge climax to the evening and met with another standing, cheering ovation, many minutes long. 

The now-familiar spirited encore Conquistador followed some further introductions and thanks, and the various sections of the orchestra were now at the height of fun-filled animation. Geoff and Josh played their solos in turn and the ending was perfectly coordinated and – Olé – we were all beaming with pride.

A prolonged ovation with calls for a further song were eventually, and perhaps inadequately, met with the house lights and Frank Sinatra – on record – singing My Way. (On Saturday Gary came out to thank the crowd again and wished them Guten Abend and Gute Schlafen ... and everyone trooped off happy)

Two hundred lucky Palers gathered in the crypt for an excellent buffet meal – the first of BtP's 'Echoes in the Night' events – a meeting of long-term friends and the making of new acquaintances. All were agreed the concert had been a spectacular success and looked forward to more in the morn, both in the Palers' venue at Barmen and in the Stadthalle with the band and orchestra. There were many brief encounters with Gary and the others in the band, which were a great opportunity to give thanks and make optimistic noises about the future. A tremendous time was had by all.

And as they would say in Germany – sehr gut Procol Harum, danke Michael Ackermann, and well done Wuppertal! Gruss Gott. 

This Friday concert report was originally written the morning after this magnificent event but unfortunately disappeared into iPad-ether in Wuppertal. It has now been rewritten, as faithfully as memory serves, back in Scotland on a decent Mac, after several late nights, early morning travel, lots of marvellous Palers' Band music, and several gallons of Deutsches Pilsner. You will notice a few annotations referring to the Saturday concert, a report of which will appear shortly, as will brief reviews of the Palers' events and many dodgy pictures taken throughout the weekend. 

Thanks, Charlie!

Procol dates in 2013 | Setlist

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