Procol Harum

the Pale

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Gary Brooker's birthday gig at Freising, Germany

Oakapple Day, 29 May 2014 • Words by Theo Miller • Pictures by Fred Lodder

How does one attempt a competent review for a band one has seen perform live over a forty year period? Even given that the band has had various players over that time, and that one’s partiality is always tested by a review document, it seems a worthwhile challenge to me. So this reviewer confesses up-front to an enormous devotion towards this band, as well as a longish (if not the most extensive) history of audience with this evolving troupe.

Freising is just another in the still-growing European catalogue of concert triumphs for Procol Harum. So, on the face of it, there is nothing special going on here (or there, last week). The band is booked for more US dates, with presumably the same results expected: consolidation of the extant corpus of admirers, and the recruitment of yet another younger or fresher set; a good example of which may be the young lighting operator for this show.

So how does the magic continue? There can be no doubt that each card-carrying player has brought magic in large doses over the long haul, no common achievement in itself. But through it all, over again and still there’ll be more, the Commander, Gary Brooker has presided. And what remains startlingly obvious is his centrality to the birth, development, endurance, and (dare we say) maturation of this formidable musical force. How can one man keep so much magic alive and flourishing, while weaving together a motley cast of other wizards along the way, each of whom have brought their own mystique and craft? And this hewing and polishing of precious gems can be rough work; hard, workmanlike, sometimes abrasive and time-consuming. And unlike light bulbs, these musical jewels have collaborated in their own transformations. So one should not underestimate the significance of all the former fellow-travellers and the journey’s passage in bringing the band to this point.

And here we are in Freising where the local community festival organisers have scored a triumph. They contracted the best available talent, sold the tickets, advertised widely and mounted a professional show in a sports hall without seating (in line with GW’s preferences). The opening band (RPWL) does a nice job of representing 50 shades of Pink (Floyd), then all is reset for the main act. Stage crew does a very good job in getting the band on in timely fashion and the magic begins. For those aficionados of BJ (and I am one) who thought that Bringing home the bacon could not enjoy a better rhythmic driver than BJ, I was again astonished at what a great Procol drummer Geoff Dunn has become. In fact his craft is what really drew my attention again to the solidity of the music, and the kinds of demands it makes upon even exceptional players.

Matt Pegg, the consummate backline musician, proves again how professional the best players can be. His reliability may well come to signal a new high watermark for the virtuoso bass player. And while Josh Phillips has brought more than a sprinkle of stardust to the band, he seemed oddly distracted at this concert, despite playing his wonderful lines and orchestral motifs. While the mix attempted to showcase his carefully crafted string and brass lines, it rather foregrounded them too far for my liking. But then again, I am rarely wholly satisfied with the FOH mix of PH.

And then you had the magnificent Mr Whitehorn, to whom we all owe so much. The second longest- serving member now is the guitarist who occasionally sings. Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect the significance of Geoff behind, and in front of, the scenes is now fundamental.  Without his contribution I suspect the Procol opus may well have been markedly diminished and truncated some time ago. One can forget just how long these men have been masters of their craft, and how their performances continue to tower over their contemporaries.

Gary Brooker sang with his usual majesty, if a little less assurance. He played faultlessly through a long set and encore with his usual wit and self- effacing banter. Highlights included one ‘proper’ song from Home -rarely heard- which sounded just as fresh as 1969 (despite Charles Allison’s reservations!); a nice and fitting nod to the work of Roland and Jens, along with an emerging gem from the Ninth; and the classics Simple Sister, Conquistador and Salty Dog. Even in the writing of the above, one can only be impressed by the unequalled compass of the writing and performance of this band. The intro to AWSoP was inspired, even if a little cheeky. One can forget, listening to the master, just how difficult some PH songs are to sing, especially as one is again admiring their elegant construction. It has always been a pleasure and privilege to witness this band perform, especially as the songs are never delivered in a stale or programmatic way. Like all the best classical music, most of it is way beyond words.

I left this concert feeling even more reassured I had seen part of musical history over these last four decades. It was back in 1970 that a musical scholar suggested to me that ihho Gary Brooker would be remembered as a minor English composer. I didn’t at the time quite know how to take this, but remembered the form of words. If we all live long enough the question seems only whether it will be minor or otherwise. Hearing the oeuvre presented at Freising, I commented that one could feel mighty proud if one had written just one of these songs… but knowing the quality of what had been omitted on this occasion, it seems to me that Procol Harum remains a singular artistic accomplishment the peer of which I will certainly not see again in my time.

Procol dates in 2014 | Freising party index

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