'A Night of Unbridled Joy' • 16 May 2017
Procol Harum at The Colston Hall, Bristol • Steve Rickett (from Penarth) for BtP
Having grown used to travelling many miles to see the various incarnations of my favourite band since 1972, it was a pleasant surprise to have to go only an hour down the road from Penarth to this venerable concert hall (although because of heavy traffic, I did get to Birmingham quicker five days before!).
I first saw Procol Harum after obtaining a ticket in the back row of the Rainbow Theatre in September 1972 for the princely sum of 50p, when they performed most of the then brand-new Grand Hotel and other classics with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Bristol was the fourteenth time that I had seen them live and my anticipation and excitement remained unchecked.
Having been at Birmingham Town Hall on 11 May, and checked out the setlists from the other 2017 UK gigs, I had an idea of what to expect. Birmingham provided two gems in the form of the joyous and totally unexpected Still There’ll Be More and my all-time favourite Cerdes (Outside the Gates of) and I found myself grinning like an idiot, so the third and fourteenth songs of the set were particularly anticipated.
Having bought Novum on the day it came out, I was familiar with the eight new songs played from that album, all of which are brilliant in their own way on record: but the live rendition added a further dimension. After the deceptively gentle piano introduction to I Told on You, my wife Ann, who preferred to hear the songs live for the first time, jumped out of her skin when the band took flight with that first big chord. Much has been said about the enduring quality of Gary Brooker’s voice but ‘magnificent’ is the only word that will suffice. After an accomplished Homburg, the third song turned out to be Nothing But the Truth, which I was used to live as an orchestral version, so was good to hear as ‘band only’. After a frisson of disappointment not to hear the classic from Home again, I thoroughly enjoyed the energy and quality of the playing, which prompted Gary to comment at the end “You try doing that at our age!” Briefly swapping notes with Roland on the sales-stand at half-time, we agreed that NBtT was a worthy replacement for STBM.
The rest of the first half played out the same as the Birmingham gig, with Pandora’s Box, As Strong As Samson and of course A Salty Dog gracing the back catalogue, and Last Chance Motel, Sunday Morning and Businessman exemplifying Procol fifty years on.
The second half started with Josh Phillips’s Hammond recalling the opening strains of Quite Rightly So, but Image of the Beast soon makes its own mark, and as one of my favourite new songs on Novum, it sounds even better live as a powerful rocker, with the inimitable Geoff Whitehorn having his head. Two from the history books followed, An Old English Dream, which now seems to be a regular live, and the unique and incomparable Grand Hotel, during which Josh watched Gary like a hawk for the violin bit in the middle. I almost had the impression that anything could have happened! Next came Can’t Say That, my favourite track off Novum. With its amazing bass line, this gives Matt Pegg a chance to shine and the closeness and camaraderie of the band was fully apparent when Geoff and Josh swapped warm smiles of appreciation when Matt did his complicated runs during the verses. Ann commented that she felt sorry for Geoff Dunn as he seemed a bit left out of the interplay, but I said that he is the quiet man at the back – solid and reliable throughout. Now for the fourteenth song and a journey back in time to 1967; but Gary announced a change in the programme to reflect their nautical surroundings, as Whaling Stories replaced Cerdes. Another frisson of disappointment not to hear my favourite Procol song again, but who can argue with the epic masterpiece that is Whaling Stories … and it then occurred to me that I had had the best of both worlds with four classics over the two performances. I love it when Geoff Whitehorn puts in those two big Trower chords during the quiet passage, which somehow got left out by both Dave Ball and Mick Grabham back in the 1970s.
Light relief followed in the form of Neighbour, which would probably slot neatly into Chas and Dave’s repertoire and gave the band a chance to stretch their vocal chords with some great back-up singing. The timeless Conquistador followed – which together with A Salty Dog are only songs that have been played at all the fourteen gigs I have attended. The band clearly loves playing this, emphasised by Josh standing up to do his Hammond solo. The stately I am The Only One wrapped up the show, with exquisite ensemble playing. I have to admit to this being my least favourite track on Novum but it is a grower and another song that translates well from the studio to the stage.
Rather than the nonsense of trooping off the stage and making the audience wait five minutes for an encore, the band agreed among themselves, after a consultation of their watches, to do one more. Gary went through his Air on a G-String / When a Man Loves a Woman/ No Woman, No Cry descending chord routine (which he didn’t do at Birmingham) and Ann started to panic as she thought they weren’t going to do you-know-what. I told her to relax and sure enough the piano and organ went straight into the unmistakeable opening sequence of a three-verse A Whiter Shade of Pale, providing the perfect end for a perfect evening.
It has been my privilege to see Procol line-ups from the Grand Hotel era, through the Something Magic era to the Novum era and I can honestly say that the current line-up has to be one of the best (maybe the best ever?), regenerating old classics and grandstanding new classics with polish and panache, while having a ball at the same time. Fingers crossed for many more opportunities to see them live over the forthcoming years.
PS At one point Gary said he would take any requests out in the foyer. Please can I request A Christmas Camel, She Wandered Through the Garden Fence and TV Ceasar for the 2018 gigs?
PPS. I have incomplete set lists for Reading Festival on 25 August 1974 (mostly Exotic Birds and Fruit I would guess) and also for Hammersmith Odeon on 26 February 1977 (mostly Something Magic?) Sadly these do not yet feature on the BtP setlist pages, so if anybody can help fill in the gaps please …
Procol dates in 2017