Procol Harum

the Pale

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Mehr Harum Magic aus Wunderbar Wuppertal

Saturday 6 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.

Night two of the German orchestral events and I have moved to a different viewpoint, nearer but more peripheral in the hall. The set-list and personnel are to be the same, but there are a few subtle differences, (I admit some of these may just be things noticed for the first time) so in this short report I’ll endeavour to take you there to share the experience.

First of all you have to imagine you have had this great life-enriching treat over the previous 24 hours, a wonderful Procol/orchestra concert with a late-night feed to follow, then spent a joyous afternoon with like-minded people discussing it, breaking bread and drinking wine and beer. Most of all, you have been in a sublimely happy parallel universe enjoying every moment of the community spirit of the Palers' Band, as members explored the furthest files in the Brooker/Procol repertoire with loving respect and a great deal of skill and enthusiasm. Now you are in your seat in ready anticipation of the second Stadthalle event.

After Tony Cragg’s slightly truncated introduction with a further salvo of applause for choirboy Ackermann, the band appears. Gary has a light jacket tonight and looks years younger on stage, doing the thing he loves and receiving the appropriate recognition (never retire Gary!). The choir and some of the orchestra have Procol Mania tee shirts on tonight – was this not a term coined somewhere in the North-West of England in the early 60s, about a band Gary and his cohorts used to support (in fact, in one recent noted publication, Procol did refer to George Harrison being generous with refreshments at that time!).

Homburg and Shine on Brightly sound the same, though I notice the choir ‘Shining On’ at the end of the latter. Gary’s Grand Hotel introduction laments the loss of reindeer with cloudberry sauce in favour of fast food at McDonalds. The extrovert leader breaks through the plexiglass screen with his fiddle to serenade Gary and the band with an even more extravagant flourish. I notice a clacker [in orchestral terms, a 'whip' ... ED] in Toujours L’Amour and Josh’s plunking synths on Symphathy for the Hard of Hearing (again well received – the Germans recognise complex songs and maybe are right in tune with the anti-war sentiments of how we confuse and abuse the young in sending them forth to fight. 

Something Magic tonight has '123 chords' (last night I should have noted it had 'every one ever written') and I notice Geoffrey doubling the melody in a lower register towards the end. He also is going great guns with the backing vocals, despite there being eighty singers on the stage. I notice that two or three choristers are taking photos, one lady even using flash! 

Gary’s A Salty Dog pre-chat gives no name-checks tonight, as he reckons we like our departed friends above to be there all around us. The moment of quiet at the end is palpable and shows great respect from this audience, which savours the silence.

Naturally I view Simple Sister with the experienced eye of a ballet critic, having seen the witch dervishes dashing about last night. The band take to the corners and seem greatly amused by the spectacle going on in front of them. Matt has left his lumberjack shirt at home and donned a moody black one, hoping to impress when the three girls come over to congregate round the Hammond, where he’s taken a chair to play his bass. I just wonder what Josh is doing in his customary break off stage – time for a brew (or a brewer?) before he returns for the last verse?. Then comes a half-time bow, flowers for the girls, the band clapping the artistes – everyone very animated. We are cunningly first out the side door to head the queue in the bar as the applause continues in the hall.

Gary thanks a whole load of folk at various times in the second half, (earlier Tony Cragg seemed to thank some corporate and local government sponsors too). The Palers' Band has been here for a week, helping the local economy. I did mention the tee-shirts – come to think of it, the choir may just have put them on in the interval? Gary feigned noticing them for first time, asking who was paying for them (in a quizzical tone which suggested he thought it might be him?) I was enjoying this whimsical moment until he said it was good they weren’t in Scotland where they would have had to pay for the tee-shirts themselves. A monstrous slur, Gary, but one which can be repaid with a concert in Scotland sometime, where we will share a great generosity of spirit (that’s a lot of whisky BTW). And the fishing’s good too. I live in hope. 

A Whiter Shade of Pale is beautiful, marred only by the Commander's momentarily delaying his entry and some oaf shouting out for “More!” almost on his own (sorry!). I like Geoff’s lower-reaches melody in the last verse which helps make the ending seamless. A very long applause is rewarded by Gary playing a beautiful cameo coda solo of AWSoP on piano which cleverly segues into Broken Barricades.

Prior to Fires Gary does stand-up when he mentions “Bach’s 21 children – perhaps his organ had no stops?” as well as name-checking The Well Tempered Clavier as a fertile musical source. The song is again sublime. Orchestra, choir, band – I always reckoned this was one of BJ’s best numbers and Geoff D does the song proud. Gary’s piano is a lot clearer tonight so his genius is heard better in the hall. 

We then have another amusing discussion of 1968 and the philosophers of the age and the band’s success in the US, before embarking on In Held 'Twas In I. Gary told us US jocks evidently liked putting this eighteen-minute epic on the turntable, so they could go off for a coffee and a smoke! The whole piece is really a Glimpse of Nirvana but after the Indian bit and Gary’s beautiful piano, we judge that Matt Pegg is more Simon Callow tonight. I detect a great deal of warmth and enthusiasm in the choir as they ham up Teatime before the earthquake hits the building. I find The Autumn of My Madness and Look to Your Soul an emotional roller-coaster and the heightened feelings come from nostalgia and the summit of perfection we are hearing from the stage. As I wrote yesterday, great swathes of this epic are performed by the band alone, yet you hardly notice any diminution in the power or ‘orchestration’ being handled by just these five talented men playing at their very best. One is softened up before the epic climax in Grand Finale, a tune which I heard archivists were recording for the widespread promotion of excellence on the social media – hopefully a route in these modern times for propagating the popularity of the band.

Huge cheers and many on their feet at the end, the long-term aficionados looking moist-eyed. I suspect with the unfortunate loss of Walpurgis, (a situation unlikely to change with repentance) this epic will be the last song on the last show when the band decides to call it a day. More than A Whiter Shade of Pale, this masterwork defines the greatness of the band.

Naturally we would have some more! After good words for the orchestra and choir and handshakes for David Firman, we heard a faster run-through of Conquistador, even more exuberant than last night, if that were possible. A long final ovation was rewarded by a touching personal appearance by Gary, who quietly and with great sincerity thanked the crowd and wished them a good night and a good sleep.

It was quarter to eleven. The night was young and we were off in a bus to Barmen to hear the Palers' Band again, with performances by none other than Gary Brooker and (much later) Geoff Whitehorn. What stamina, what youthful enthusiasm - nothing is impossible when love is in the air. 

And as Keith Reid wrote so perceptively in that first famous song ... the crowd will forever cry out for more!

Here’s to the next time. Hope it’s soon in coming.

Wiedersehn Wuppertal.

Thanks, Charlie!

Procol dates in 2013 | Setlist

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