‘Palladium-Perfect Procol Harum'
Tuesday 9 October 2018 • words and pictures by Charlie Allison for BtP
We gathered at London’s foremost West End theatre – the London Palladium in Argyll Street near Oxford Circus. It has always been renowned for hosting top musical theatre and that indeed is what we experienced on Tuesday – a summit performance by our dearly-beloved musical giants. I had been to the Palladium once before (to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: this Procol concert contained nothing ‘chitty’ but plenty 'bang bang’, especially those loud, dynamic moments in Conquistador, Whaling Stories and much of In Held 'Twas in I.
Procol Harum were in town to celebrate and reprise the 1971 Edmonton event, which spawned a recording which broke new ground (and did so well for the band, especially in North America). I don’t know anyone who was actually there (OK, I know Gary was there!) but we all know the record well and have read of the various problems surmounted to bring home this sterling performance. We may reflect on those Procol legends who elevated Edmonton – Messrs Cartwright and Copping and the dear departed Dave Ball and BJ Wilson. I am sure I wasn't alone in taking time on the run-up to the Palladium gig to look back fondly over what they achieved that epic evening and indeed on their entire careers with the band. I also took time to think about Allen Edelist, who has passed to that great celestial gig. Gary himself took the opportunity to pay full tribute to Al.
I just imagined One-Eye rounding up Dave and BJ for a beer to toast the intervening years and what they all did way back then!
The Palladium is a plush place – huge, yet warm and intimate. We had seats very near the front, so felt right in there with the band, with the orchestra and choir set out on the big stage behind, though the lighting didn't help us look around the orchestra as we might do at a classical concert. The sound balance however was superb, and it would seem the experienced hand of conductor David Firman assures the band that the alliance of Procol Harum and orchestra continues to be fairly seamless and enjoyable for all concerned.
The band trooped on at 7.30, looking fresh and eager. We were just glad they were all there (and with no bandages) this time, though I had heard in the bar that Gary's voice had given concern during the afternoon sound-check. Later he did remark on this and the remarkable healing powers of his Swiss Ricolas – even suggesting some company sponsorship might be appropriate (a lifetime of free samples?)
And we were straight into the orchestra's vigorous opening to Conquistador. This moved along with real pace, and Geoff and Josh soloed expertly at the appropriate times. The next track, showing no slavishness to sequence, was the quieter All this and More. Geoff played some tasteful counterpoint guitar towards the end and it all resolved rather nicely. Gary introduced the next, Luskus Delph as 'a simple song of love' and we wondered if it might pass the broadcast, indeed society's current censorship of some of its frank expressions of love. Gary enunciated everything so clearly and all the musicians (front of perspex and beyond the barricades) gave excellent support in a perfect rendition. I made a now-illegible note about Geoff Dunn and the choir on this one – he must have paced this perfectly and I recall the choir came through strongly, especially towards the end.
(It's one of the perils of a dark theatre and generous measures of Prosecco that the writer's notes are largely unusable the following morning!).
Shine on Brightly, not on the original album, was faultless as ever, with Josh spotlighted in the break and with a neat finish. I did write WHAT A DYNAMIC! in capital letters at this point.
It was all going very well and Gary was particularly jolly in his comments, especially when he mused about the Palladium bravely giving the theatre over to some rock musicians tonight. We enjoyed the subterranean, rather than the vaguely operatic, orchestral intro to A Salty Dog and the band played it superbly – Geoff gave us seagulls and those quietly moaning notes (which I heard first-expressed on DVDs with Mick Graham recently). Geoff Dunn rolled and bashed in the appropriate places and of course Matt and Josh did their bit too (there was no organ or guitar on the original studio version, was there?) The Commander’s voice passed this testing tune with flying colours. There are a lot of singers who could not handle this song.
In introducing the masterwork In Held 'Twas in I, Gary then reflected on his recent Prog Rock Lifetime Award and how, back in 1968, they were making progressive music before the term was invented! Glimpses of Nirvana developed the right Asia-continental mood with Gary’s 'Goodness, Gracious Me' accent and Geoff’s mystical guitar-sitar. Matt stepped forward as Keith and his “held close” accent expresses the lyricist’s quite contemporary thoughts about “fake” and "lies!” An orchestral bell heralded a jaunty (and loud) Teatime at the Circus, with this Palladium crowd fully familiar with the part they had to play. Their jollity soon ceased with that rumbling roll of thunder heralding the classic journey through The Autumn of my Madness. All of our ‘madness’ in loving Procol Harum all these years is encapsulated here! Band and orchestra combined for a memorable experience, with their full-depth orchestration heightening the screaming solo from Geoffrey. Superb guitar to the fore again in Look to Your Soul, but Matt and Geoff gave us a beating rumble and Gary’s vocal here is one of the best in the whole Procol catalogue. Grand Finale follows, first providing some peace, but then explodes into life with the guitar and choir before the last verse’s big sound missing nothing (except maybe fireworks or a building-rumbling Royal Albert Hall organ at the bottom end). Tonight Grand Finale is in its proper setting in In Held, though thankfully from time to time we get to hear it tacked on to other classic Procol tracks. It’s so well named – the grand last movement.
As for the whole suite – perhaps only Whaling Stories is K2 to this Everest? “The birth of prog rock” represents about the least you can say about In Held. It reaches among the highest points in the Procol canon when marked for drama, artistry, stretch – whatever you want to employ in assessing musical excellence. It works superbly in a band-only setting, but peaks further in an orchestral collaboration. It is quite simply a masterpiece, and we enjoyed a superb rendition at the Palladium. Full credit to the orchestra and to the chorus. (Who was on the original SoB album - a bunch of art college students and friends of the band? Amazing!)
The second half opens with a very loud, fast one from Novum, an album which (in 2017) showed that Procol Harum is far from finished! Businessman is a searing satire on the corporate world and musically allows our five-piece band to weave a deep-melding musical tapestry, contemporarily displaying the long-established Procol formula of a whole band supporting the current principal instrument (including of course that voice!)
We then hear we should expect a couple of tracks from The Prodigal Stranger – first Holding On, the ethnically-strong number about global nations and individuals under the cosh. As a piece of music it is very strong in the choir and band/orchestra symbiosis. The second “PS” number was Into the Flood, not actually on that album. It has been a setlist stalwart in orchestral shows and really gets everyone going with its hoedown and Beethoven's Vth moments where Gary often seems to be the second conductor here. (he waved his hands around a lot tonight!) It’s a track which has grown into a most respected part of the repertoire.
The quiet Within This House was the unexpected 'rarity’ of the night, and worked well with the choir “taking over” at one point. Good for Gary to sing this here with a “big treatment” and thus have one his ‘minor creations’ brought into a mainstream setting for recognition.
Pandora’s Box with its jazzy finish followed. I remember the quality of the orchestra’s flautist the best. Something to do with half-time drinks, methinks! Gary then retold the story of his PoW neighbour, and we embarked on Symphathy for the Hard of Hearing, which entered the PH repertoire through orchestral collaborations (rather like Into the Flood). It has got a good war story to tell (though sometimes hard to follow – we really need the lyrics in front of us as he moves to Poland!) but the building musical dynamic is fantastic. Gary ensures we get wound up into a frenzy when it breaks then Geoff’s guitar pings into that orchestra note to heighten one’s pleasure, before we get his tour de force at the end.
Their more jokey Neighbour has added impact for me at the Palladium after the recent death of Chas Hodges. The song is pure tribute to the Cockney-chummy style of Chas and Dave (who might have had a Number 1 covering it?)
Sunday Morning (also from Novum, of course) has been a favourite of mine since Day One, as it invokes a rare emotion for a recently-retired working man. It has improved a hundred percent with Josh’s Hammond treatment, which requires him having a long span to play two keyboards simultaneously. It might be worth a re-release as a remix (all the vogue these days). Gary finds some variance in the sung notes (maybe to save the cords?) but for me it’s Geoff’s guitar entry in the third verse which hits you right in the heart. I just loved it. I replay it (loud!) all the time. Brilliant. And great with a orchestra too.
"One forgotten in the first half” (“déja vu or véja du?” asked Gary) is the least you can say about the epic Whaling Stories, which first demonstrated band-orchestra teamwork back then at Edmonton and now (like at Ledreborg) shows it’s one of the very best Procol tracks for this genre. The growing pandemonium of its always-amazing arrangement (anvil anyone? hissing! a piano/bass/drums/organ mélange of sound to support another blinding guitar solo from hell) finally resolves in a sublime moment of peace after the storm. Just an epic, here heard at its very best.
Gary then takes time to eulogise the much beloved Allen Edelist – One Eye – who would have been attending his 99th Procol event, had he been able to attend the Palladium. I have not recorded a quality of notes to quote Gary’s comments, but I recall them hitting home for sincerity and capturing the essence of Allen’s love of the band and its music. His tribute track was to be AWS0P, and the beautiful sylvan arrangement we’ve come to love as a near next-best to the original 1967 rendition. The orchestra are great at the start and the choir have a starring role at the end. Wonderful. Al would have loved it (but maybe not the man to sing it!)
Where to go from here – take a bow time! Huge cheers and rapturous roars and it is clear Gary and the Band seem so pleased with their evening’s work. The audience seems to be 2000+ core fans, with three tiers of acclaim and aristocrats [sic!] like the Clares in their Royal Box, rattling their tiaras!
What to do now? Let’s reprise Edmonton and do Conquistador again! They truncate the arrangement, accelerate the tempo and Gary forsakes his piano for some Tony Bennett microphonic vocals (I mention Tony as I saw him perform as a very fit 90 year-old, as I’ve high hopes for Gary’s longevity fronting the band!)
The Palladium show was a triumph. I was lucky to be at the after-show party (meeting a lot of old chums – as well as in the bars before and during the concert) and have never heard everyone so complimentary and (best of all) Gary so chirpy. It augurs well for the future and I am sure I am not alone to support Josh's assertion (on the BBC, after the Dominion) that it should the Royal Albert Hall next!
Last thought: I looked up the element Palladium. It is a platinum-like metal which is “rare, lustrous” and “silvery-white”. That pretty well sums up Procol Harum and Gary Brooker. There is nothing else to say really except “very well done, do it again and travel safely in both Europe and the US.” There are a lot of people who live for your music and love that you are still most willing and able to share it with us.
This report has been somewhat late and chaotic. I had terminal laptop problems the day before I left home and after London flew on holiday to that great musical city Vienna, in preparation for the Procol concert here on Sunday. None of the classical/opera stuff has come close to what I heard in London last Tuesday and I can’t wait for tomorrow night at the Gasometer here!
Procol dates in 2018 |