Procol Harum in Manchester, 8 May 2017
Words and pictures by Claire Margerison for BtP
Procol Harum at the Bridgewater Hall.
Despite being orchestra-free, it seemed fitting for Procol Harum to play at the Bridgewater Hall, the home of the Hallť Orchestra. The hall is a fine building with a striking glass prow, its own simple but graceful fountain and an auditorium with earthquake-proof bearings. If the band were to be without an orchestra tonight at least the surroundings were there to emphasise some of the remarkable qualities of Procol Harum Ė elegance and strength.
This would be my first band-only concert and I was a little apprehensive particularly as, compared to others, Iím a relatively young fan Ė born midway between Something Magic and The Prodiegal Stranger Ė and the only Procol concerts I had seen until this point had been orchestral: so I was already exceptionally spoiled. (I suppose there are plenty of fans younger than me but don't want to make anybody feel more vintage than they should! What I really mean is an emphasis on being 'new' rather than 'young'.)
The first half of the show looked to the future and consisted mainly of new songs. Some bands do not suit playing many new album tracks but Procol Harum are always so fresh and vibrant that they have the confidence to present the music as if they had been playing it for years.
I Told on You opens Novum and had been the standout performance at the Royal Festival Hall for me, so it shouldnít have been the happy surprise it was when it opened the show. The recorded version doesnít do the song justice and itís a mark of brilliance that a recent track is already the perfect opener. A new classic.
Hearing Homburg on record never matches hearing it in person. When it's performed live it takes on a whole new aura of beauty, especially in this performance where the organ was particularly gorgeous.
More new songs came next: Neighbour was pure joy; I can see this track being looked forward to a lot live. There were some excellent backing vocals and Gary said "That's about as happy as we get"! Last Chance Motel wasnít one of my Novum favourites but, like Homburg, it needs to be experienced live. I was surprised to be utterly absorbed in watching Gary tell the story in the song, and Iíd say the audience hung on his every word.
Sunday Morning, a new classic and A Salty Dog, an old classic, made a fine ending to the first half. The merchandise stall looked considerably busier during the break than before the show: evidently any ambivalent audience members must have been persuaded by the music to try out the new LP. Already it was impossible to tell the new songs from the old. The latest tunes sounded so good when mixed with the more vintage ones which is certainly down to the balanced live performance of them.
The second half was heavier and had the feeling that all the hard work was done, Novum had been showcased, and now it was time to rock. Wall Street Blues opened and on record this is great but it's even better live. This is in no small part due to Geoff Whitehornís guitar and proves that Procol Harum are not a band to copy songs straight from an LP: they expand and improve on songs live and this is one of the great things about them.
It was exciting to hear Pandora's Box, a contender for highlight of the night, as I had impatiently waited two gigs for this classic. Josh Philips was a particular stand-out here
Before An Old English Dream, Gary talked for a moment about Manchesterís homeless problem. The track had some excellent and subtle guitar work which was as Procol is Ė interesting, exciting and inventive. Geoff Whitehorn was the outstanding musician here again and I donít think you can hear the album version in the same way after hearing this live.
Next came Grand Hotel, where Gary ruminated for a while on Manchester's lost Grand Hotel, and someone called out for what the Commander mischievously called 'Come Kiss the Door'. I know no other song like this by any other band in its subject or scope for musicianship.
I had deliberately not looked at the set list for the Edinburgh gig the night before and I'm glad I didn't because then I'd have been expecting another concert highlight. Three years ago, when I first fell in love with the band, there were some things I wanted to experience in real life Ė 1. to hear Gary Brooker sing A Salty Dog; 2. to hear Gary sing A Whiter Shade of Paleí; 3. just to hear the great man sing the word 'profiteroles' (I love that word). Now all my wishes have been granted but that night I ticked off another, and that was to hear my favourite Procol Harum song, As Strong as Samson.
Cerdes (Outside the Gates of) was very much a standout track of the night. I have to concede that the tracks I had been anticipating most were totally blown away by a song that I never knew could be performed in such powerful way. You get so completely lost in the quality of the performance that you forget that itís such an old song. It was incredible. I know no other band that can improve on a fifty-year-old track and make it something so different. Itís another element I love in the band. (But Iím still convinced that Gary sings 'Geordie retail legends'!)
Whisky Train was next, featuring an enormously enjoyable drum solo from Geoff Dunn which seemed to go on forever. It was so incredible I had forgotten we hadnít heard Conquistador yet.
Of all the highlights of the night I have chosen I am certain that The Only One trumps them all. It was a magnificent performance of a magnificent song, beautiful in its simplicity. I hadn't really paid much attention to it on the album but it really was surprisingly moving. A striking ballad with impassioned and absorbing vocals, it was Gary Brookerís amazing performance that made this song so extraordinary. What a way to end a show ... and we still had a classic yet to come.
A Whiter Shade of Pale that night was a special treat. This time all three verses of the song were played and I felt lucky to hear it. Overall it was a concert full of surprise and joy and a fitting example of how to celebrate a fiftieth anniversary.
The audience seemed milder than at the Royal Festival Hall yet the band played with enough power to rival Iron Maiden, who were performing across town (Gary commented that all the wild people were over there). Despite never seeing Procol Harum without an oboe, I didn't miss the orchestra (too much). Indeed, they even seemed to have an invisible symphonic aura behind them. I can say that the only difference between concert types is the choice of music played and perhaps a slight change in energy. Not that Procol are ever formal or anything less than tight, but there is an evident change in tone from orchestral grandeur to looseness and informality when the band are alone on stage.
As each member of the band had a chance to shine it was hard to say who was the star of the show: they all were. Watching Matt or Josh or either of the Geoffs excelling at their art is fascinating, and it makes you appreciate just how much talent goes into performing each song. Nothing can beat Garyís vocals, which transport you to another place: and Procol are particularly blessed with Geoff Whitehorn who is always a subtle player doing the maximum amount of work with the minimum amount of fuss.
It was a great night for chat too, which may have been the reason the concert overran the estimated end time. Gary mentioned his Ricola sweets again and had to be corrected by Geoff W when he said he was a "chanteuse" ("that's a woman!"). The interplay between the band members was great. There was a lot of humour throughout the whole group. Procol Harum are a refreshing change to the sour-faced posing of many younger bands who think they have all of the style yet have no sense of humour. To see a Procol Harum concert is to enjoy a relaxed night of good company and great music.
It might be that some people were unhappy with the concertís emphasis on the new album. Perhaps they expected more vintage songs, this being Procol Harumís fiftieth anniversary. But it's to the band's credit that they did not focus on nostalgia. Where other classic bands might look to the past, Procol Harum look to the future and are not scared to fill a concert with unfamiliar music Ė and it says a lot that they have an audience thatís not scared to hear it. I'm too young for nostalgia anyway, so maybe thatís why I particularly enjoyed the latest tracks.
All the tracks mixed so well together. The band has a relaxed approach to new songs, making them sound as if they have been in the repertoire for years. And in the performance of older songs you forget that some are half-a-century old (though quality has no date) as they are played so vibrantly with new elements. Unlike other vintage groups they do not rely on the vintage sound. Procol Harum are always moving and never depend on the past; they take it and make it better. Just like the beanstalk in the song, there must be growth.
Procol dates in 2017