We put in a call to Geoff Whitehorn a few hours before uploading the 3 December 2014 update at ‘Beyond the Pale’ where so many fans, worldwide, would be hoping to read about his health and progress. Far from languishing on his sick bed or feeling sorry for himself, Geoff had ‘just come back from the pub’. He really sounded in excellent spirits, and conversation ranged widely over numerous matters arising from Procol Harum's Dominion Theatre show on 24 November, and the fact that the band's longest-serving guitarist – ‘twenty-three years this month I think it is’ – had been obliged, owing to the sudden onset of considerable breathing difficulties mid-rehearsal, to miss it.
‘It was marvellous’ – a word that’s never far from GW’s lips – ‘marvellous to get such tide of goodwill and messages … so many people I haven't heard from for years coming out of the woodwork to ask how I'm doing. I can tell you, I was much more disappointed to miss the Dominion gig than the fans were to miss me.
‘Dave [Colquhoun] did great, a great job. Of course it's a bit strange listening to another man doing my gig. Shit happens! But he navigated all that material very skilfully, and you could hear how he was committing himself to it. A very respectful reading of the songs, stuff it has taken me twenty-three years to unravel, and he had to do it in four days. We’re not talking about easy music! In Procol you never quite percolate to the bottom of what’s in Gary Brooker's mind. He’ll be listening to what you're playing, and he’ll suddenly say, ‘I wonder if you could try … this’; and his hand on the piano will go into some spider shape, and out comes some augmented chord or bizarre passing note. And you just think, ‘Of course!’ Somehow he writes with other sounds on his horizon, that's why the music is tailor-made for the symphonic setting. He doesn't write small – except maybe in the ditties, the comedy songs, we all know them.
‘Procol Harum … how to put it? … we've been a bit sidelined in this country, and this Radio 2 thing was a major nationwide showcase. As I've said, I was more than disappointed to miss it. But I’ve captured it on my TiVo box. The choir and the orchestra do sound fantastic. Procol do orchestral better than any of the others. I stand by my verdict that it is a blues band with expensive chords: Ray Charles with Panavision harmonies, the strange mathematics that somehow lives inside Brooker’s ears.
'I grew up on the Shadows, Clapton, Bluesbreakers, Stones, absolutely loved them. But there's more! I'm see myself as a blues player – not a player like Dave Colquhoun, who can probably run circles round me technically – but my job as I see it is to push the tension when the twelve-bar blues comes up against classical structures. For a guitarist, playing in the cracks is what gives Procol Harum its character. Kicking against the pricks. But I mean this in terms of the compositions, mind. We're not fighting the orchestra when we play together, like your Purples or any of the others we could mention. Procol with orchestra, it's just a big band, a much bigger band. An absolutely delightful combination. As you can tell from the turnout.
‘Many of the people who go along to these gigs are symphonic fans, like we saw at The Barbican or in Manchester at the Bridgewater Hall. Suddenly they realise that the band is half tidy as well. We know what we're doing. Then the Commander opens his gob … and the voice that comes out is so extraordinary. He's even sitting down at the piano, yet the sound he makes … he sounds ten times better now even than he sounded on the records. There is no one like him.
'And I must say he sent me an absolutely delightful note when I had to drop out of rehearsals. ‘I never realised I could miss a chap so much’ I think he said. You can imagine how that made me feel. Anyway, I'm doing fine now, I'm well looked after, and I'd like to reassure everybody we're looking at a very manageable situation. The Roger Chapman gigs I was scheduled to play in December have been postponed and I'm looking forward to playing them in March instead. While my medication is running its course I've got some new toys in my studio, and I'm doing some writing and recording, joining the digital age.
'There will be product. Watch this space!’
Thanks, Geoff for the words, Jens for the photo
Procol dates in 2014 | Procol Harum dates with orchestra | Geoff Whitehorn's page at BtP