Procol Harum

the Pale

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A “Novum, Oldum Edinburgh Festival”
- first stop on Procol’s 50th Year Tour

Saturday 6 May 2017 • Queen's Hall
words and pictures by Charlie Allison for BtP

It’s been forty years (yes really!) since Procol Harum last played in Scotland  – but now Edinburgh has been chosen as the opening venue on this fifty-year tour to promote Novum. We were entertained to a first half largely populated by new album songs and a second half of mainly old standards from the repertoire. We therefore had both the new and the old in the mix  – so how did all pan out? 

We gathered, a thousand strong and in eager anticipation, crammed into the compact Queen's Hall  – a horseshoe room with a slim-pillared balcony. We had foregathered to collect our long-service medals from Roland and Linda on merchandise - “Fifty Years of Unique Entertainment” being the message for us to proclaim proudly at lapel level. Our family had already run into Jens and his Scandinavian friends at the Argentinean steakhouse and indeed a number of regular Palers too in and around the theatre  – Peter Cohen, Alick Leslie, Axel and Juliette, and John and Gordon from Mull, whose tee-shirts proclaimed their own three-date mini-tour - Festival Hall, here, and Berlin to come! I even met a couple of guys I knew from home  – Les and Hazel Oag from Brechin, and Brian Boardman from Newport (whom I was at primary school with in the late '50s!)  – I never knew any of them liked Procol! Roland and Linda are working at every gig so will probably hear all of the new album over the course of the next fortnight. Those of us there for just one concert pondered predictions on how much of Novum would make the setlist tonight.

It was also be interesting to judge how the audience would view the new material, including younger folk like our daughters who, years back, travelled down South to hear the band (Jen at Catford, 2003; Liz at Bramhall, 2002). For son-in-law Chris it was the first time for this big Frightened Rabbit fan!

The band trooped on the small stage, with a new Novum backdrop  – maybe a better idea than the recent piano/Union Flag banner, which might be ‘unloved’ in some parts of Scotland! Gary (who would comment on that very subject later) looked sprightly and fully-recovered from the traumas of the Festival Hall. The lads brimmed with enthusiasm for the night ahead  – a chance to impress with this anticipated mix of old and new to this Scottish audience starved of Procol Harum for a very long time. Our family group was well stationed in the front of the back stalls, raised up in a wee box, just behind the sound desk and with excellent sight lines, though not ideal for good photography (sorry  – I had to put them in a collage).

A final soundcheck mélange “Just setting up. Sorry, won’t be long” contained aural clues that we were about to start with Novum opener I Told on You. This was paced exactly as on the record, and is a showcase for Gary’s bluesy voice, which sounded clear and full of energy and expression (as it did the entire night). Geoff’s guitar was mixed more in the meld, and not quite so forward as it is on the record. I noticed this the entire first half. We had BVs from Mssrs Whitehorn and Phillips and then Matt Pegg, and good solos from Geoff and Josh, each backing up the other expertly. We had that abrupt finish when the audience seemed to respond well to this catchy, well-constructed song. It is a good album opener and worked just as well in concert in this lead position.

Homburg followed, with Gary announcing they would go back fifty years, so the audience would know who they were! A faultless classic, a favourite over AWSoP for some. Was Gary wearing that polka dot shirt he had in the second half at the Festival Hall? Some very fine organ figures on the second verse and an interesting new drum roll from Geoff Dunn were more noticeable to me. The sound is sublime now. Big applause.

Gary asked if everyone is all right, then apologised for having lots of bits of paper tonight, with really small writing. “I don’t usually wear specs!” He explained they had new album out called Novum from which they would like to play a few in the first half. “I’ve only sung them twice  – once in the studio and then this afternoon.”

Image of the Beast: a sustained QRS organ chord preceded that great guitar riff from Geoffrey, as we embarked on this cool, jazzy number with a groove set by Geoff Dunn and Matt Pegg with sometimes waspish guitar by Geoff W. A great piano break by Gary, very clearly not handicapped by that hurt hand, then we had solo spots from Geoffrey then Josh, with counterpoint by the others and really fantastic drums. A different, quieter finish. This is a brilliant track and very good live. Quite dark  – I think it would have been right at home on Home.

Don’t Get Caught was next, preceded by Gary saying this song was “anything you wanted it to be.” He made some remark about the Montage synth replicating Quo’s Rick Parfitt, probably a homage to this high-rolling musician. Lots of words to read here for Gary, but the song is much improved live, as it’s louder and has greater impact. Wondered if some of the high Don’t Get Caught BVs were either on a sample or omitted, but we saw the lads doing some of them, though maybe not in the soprano register. Good choppy Geoff guitar towards the end. Again, well received and the band look happy to the crowd. 

“Lots of bits of paper. I’ll be glad when we’re on to the second half,” gets a laugh, then Gary introduces Neighbour about “a nasty man next door”. We have Gary and Geoff as Chas and Dave (“do me a favour!”) but with Gary still playing his piano tonight. Gary’s accordion has not been strapped on tonight and is instead provided by Josh on his Montage. The audience seem to lap up this comic interlude, and it gets a good clap!

“If you get up tomorrow and find these songs are getting into your head there’s only one thing to do  – go out and buy the CD... ”  – possibly The Commander’s most direct marketing message ever! We move straight into the country feel of The Last Chance Motel, again louder than on the CD and with Gary bluesier in tone  – I thought at times he was thinking of Willie Nelson when voicing the track on the record  – and rockier, driven by Geoff Dunn’s great drums. Good piano soloing and GW’s improvising in the second verse. Very well received  – I am sure some here must be some missing the old songs, but the audience is giving the new material a really positive response.

Gary then told everyone that “They say I’m accident prone” (some quiet interjections from Geoff!) and recounts his fall at the Festival Hall. “Feeling better now ... head a bit funny ... going to do a few Deep Purple ... (cue Geoff doing a short DP riff), then looks at the setlist and pronounces, “Good! You’ll like this!”

Sunday Morning, this tale of the late middle-aged guy who works hard and values his weekend, has given some of us genuine emotional moments. Is it in recognising the lyrical sentiments, or the poignant sounds and falling bass line in the arrangement which tug at our heartstrings? Tonight it starts marginally slower but majestic and powerful. Gary sings this strongly, even better than on the CD where some commented on his mature edge and getting up to the high notes in the chorus (not me!). Like later (in A Salty Dog) the song is handled beautifully and indeed comfortably. There was a lovely enhanced swell from Josh’s Hammond in the second verse  – perhaps as we heard in the orchestral performance in London. Geoff’s guitar was sensitive throughout, but I felt his important cutting notes in the last chorus should have been heard much further forward and lost some of the stunning impact they had on the recording, where they were definitely loudly to the fore. Those big waspish guitar notes are a real hook and a cue for air guitar if ever there was. Sorry to miss something of that anticipated moment of high pleasure in Edinburgh. Just a detail for the next gig  – turn him up, please, at that point!

A spacey introduction followed before moving into the recognisable Can’t Say That which was musically excellent with pace and power. My only criticism (other than Geoff's guitar above!) was that some of Gary’s lyrics here were not too distinct (to my ears). The title Can’t Say That was largely lost, leaving “Make my name a mockery” more prominent. Maybe that didn’t matter as the song progressed, pacier than on the CD, with great soloing up to the Brontosaurus bit and the following jam, in which the thunderous Dunn and creative Pegg are superb.

After all these new songs, we concluded the first half with Gary announcing an intermission ... but first that dedication “to those who look down on us from above” before the faultless A Salty Dog. Gary has his glasses off now and sings as well as he did on the original album  – reaching the high point with absolutely no effort, clear as clear. All the band have just honed their contributions to this great song over the decades. Geoff’s guitar, from first seagull through all his whining counterpoint to the last seabird, was beautiful; Josh sometimes on two keyboards with arms akimbo, Matt Pegg provides a solid bass line and Geoff Dunn gave good rumbling tom-tom rolls as well as firing the gun impeccably. People were now on the feet cheering and applauding with hands above their heads. A really good session! Time for a pint (and take a few soundings in the bar?)!

We returned refreshed, looking forward to a Greatest Hits second half. I therefore felt the choice of Wall Street Blues was a missed opportunity, as its tone (for strangers) was one of continuing the first half “new songs experience”. It might have been better to start with Shine on Brightly or some other better known classic song. In fact I met a lovely old fellow from Ayrshire after the gig who said his only disappointment was that Procol played nothing from that second album, his favourite. He did put forward the excellent idea they might do a single album anniversary tour in 2018 for SoB’s fiftieth anniversary (what a good idea!)  – as some other bands have done. As for Wall Street Blues, Geoff got some interesting whammy-bar sounds near the end when he appeared to have his hands folded over his guitar. At one point I thought he did a “Dave Ball at Edmonton” when he continued to solo when it appeared Gary might want to sing again. It was OK, and I know Gary likes its social comment, but I felt it was a missed opportunity not to have a starting song with greater stature. Helpful suggestion?

Pandora’s Box, a hit single for the band, got a great reception (a sign of greater recognition), played with consummate skill throughout, with excellent improvisations like the jazzy bit at the end and great interplay of all five musicians throughout. The Hammond had a particularly throaty sound here. 

Gary introduced the band individually, and in turn Geoff remarked Gary could be the 'Understudy to The Duke of Edinburgh' (who announced his retirement this week)! Gary said something about the Duke in Melbourne and then wondered if there were any Procol Harum fans at 95? Gary told the audience the band loved coming to Scotland and hoped we could always be friends, humorously exhorting us not “to follow the big fish with the dark spots on its back!” (took me a wee while to work this out!). [The next night he proposed her being burnt at the stake, like Joan of Arc]

Appropriately An Old English Dream followed, which I remember when it was brand new, but it is now an established part of the repertoire. It has always been a very accessible listen, in which I have always loved Matt Pegg’s bass notes, chiefly in the last verse, and of course this was one of the first Procol songs of the millennium era when the band did prominent backing vocals.

Gary commented this was from the last album fourteen years ago, but reassured everyone the band had been working hard since then. He looked out and thought the audience were from the Procol Harum generation “judging by the haircuts”, qualifying this by remarking ladies could always dye their hair and not look like Mary Berry (needed a prompt from Geoff to get her name right!) A fashion moment! We knew what he meant. Everyone laughed.

Gary then reflected on changing times and the various luxuries they enjoyed yesteryear (we knew what song was coming!). He said they used to play the Pink Palace in Edinburgh (the Usher Hall) and stay somewhere other than last night’s accommodation at The Seaman’s Mission in Kirkcaldy - at least he had arranged to have the top bunk (well, he is the Commander!).

Grand Hotel was again brilliant in execution, both in detail and as a wonderful whole delicious confection. Gary’s piano interlude was brilliant, with Josh as the gypsy violinist on his Yamaha Montage. Geoff Dunn drums to perfection  – he has added something fresh to this track over the years, though we know the drumming on the original album was amongst BJ’s best work. We had Matt and Geoff here as The Gondoliers on BVs and Geoff playing all his various parts with both sensitivity and impact (as well as moments of humour  – I am sure as he was doing the balalaika bit he and Matt started some brief dance moves!) It was “Scottish girls who like to fight,” as Gary delivered every line as freshly as the day it was recorded. A huge ovation and cheering at the end. Another concert highlight!

As Strong as Samson has always been as strong a song as one would wish lyrically and the band have evolved the arrangement to make it more interesting musically in the live shows. The more recent “Ain’t no Use” bit at the end is a good way to enhance the finish the song.

Discussion between Geoff and Gary about a gin shop near the hotel had absolutely nothing to do with the next song, whose introduction brought inner whoops of delight to long time fans... Cedes! This was a wonderful surprise  – a real treat, played with such depth and majesty. Marvellous band sound, great soloing. Geoffrey deeper and possibly bluesier even than the original Trower. Josh most inventive. Gary singing it brilliantly. Arrangement pared back in the second verse where he enunciated all those bizarre people so distinctly and again at times in the third verse where we heard almost just bass and drums for a moment. And a new Whitehorn ending. A fifty-year song which sounds utterly fresh today and thoroughly defines Procol Harum for the generations. My young ones just loved the vibe on this. We all did!

Gary was then asking about the time of the last 'bus (it’s gone?), warning the end was near. Requests could be put in a box in the foyer for the next time they were here (I like the sound of that!). He asked if we would like a drinking song and we were into the 'Barman' intro to Whisky Train, which all the band played without flagging  – well except, of course, when they all downed tools to loiter, while Geoff Dunn played a medium length but top-class drum solo. A senior couple (he in hat) were up dancing in the stalls throughout this one  – I have since heard them identified as Scots who have followed the band since the start (you have, Mr Leslie, haven’t you?)/

They were not finished.... it was Conquistador next. It rolled along like a big cruiser, with some tasty solos from all the principals. Who would have predicted from the rather bland 1967 first version, that Edmonton orchestration could then produce such a massive, vibrant concert piece for the band. (Incidentally, there are a lot of good new fast ones on Novum). Brilliant the way the band showcase each other’s contributions and we all infectiously bounce with pleasure. Fantastic!

Gary thanks those “who might have coughed up for the new album” (a tee-shirt discussion then also follows!) and then asks permission to do one more song from Novum. We then enjoy The Only One, which to me is the third song tonight which sounds more powerful in the live setting. The singing is louder and even more plaintive and the volume and blend of instruments builds through the verses to something more convincing. I think it’s a song that needs an observed performance, rather than listening on a record, to optimise its dynamics and gravitas. I think I can now go back to the CD and enjoy it more.

They were not really going to leave without playing it  – after Gary pronounced “What a Night ... Thanks” and read a note about a couple in the audience getting married, remarking that this record was certain to get you a girlfriend back in 1967 ... and dedicated it to them. It was just '3,4' and we were straight into A Whiter Shade of Pale, organ from the start (no piano intros, no Marley etc), but three verses with a super piano solo and then a great, sensitive guitar solo before the second and third verses. The small knot of Palers cried “More” in the first verse and then the whole crowd were on their feet cheering at the end of what had been a superb night of music.

The whole band, particularly Gary, did not look in any way tired. They played all the new music with great power and all the songs were well received. But the big ones from the past, where Gary was freed from his lyric reading duties (“specs-off mode”), were performed with a greater freedom of spirit. It was a brilliant night and (as you have read) I have very few criticisms, though I would drop Wall Street Blues at the start of the second half in favour of Shine on Brightly and turn Geoff up towards the end of Sunday Morning. This was an extremely well-constructed, generous programme and the singing and playing (and sound/lights) was impressive, even to strangers to the music.

 The last words must be Scottish  – “Haste ye back!”

Thanks, Charlie!

Procol dates in 2017

PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home