There was no chance of hearing A Whiter Shade of Pale at the special Procol Harum concert [2 August] at Fairfield Hall, so it was said before the event. The shadow of that smash-hit has always loomed over their subsequent music and understandably the band have been reluctant to play it at concerts.
But on Friday – to the thrilled delight of the packed audience – there was a change of heart. As a fabulous encore finale to their superb 90-minute set, they actually did play their most revered composition.
And what a spine tingling moment it prove to be when Gary Brooker broke into those sensational opening lines: 'we skipped the light fandango / and turned cartwheels 'cross the floor'! Here it was – unquestionably one of the top rock classics of the Sixties – been performed live by the band that made it famous.
Now – seven years since A White [sic] Shade first zoomed to the top – Procol Harum have, it seems, built up a repertoire so rich in music of comparable force and imagination that they no longer feel it unwise to play this great number.
It's a move I'm sure most of their fans will applaud. They've certainly done enough since 1967 to prove that they are more than just a one-off band.
In fact, though A White Shade undoubtedly is immensely powerful (as well as nostalgic), I myself feel that both lyrically and musically it's more than matched by several of their later compositions. The star pieces now are surely Grand Hotel, Conquistador and Power Failure. These are their characteristic numbers – urgently powered by a single forceful musical motif on piano and elaborated by organ variations and rippling steely rhythms from guitar and percussion.
When Procol Harum do live concerts, the focus of attention is almost invariably to stage left [sic], on Gary Brooker. In dishevelled white suit and tousled dark hair, he cuts the figure of a man at the end of his tether. Maybe he looks dissipated, decadent even, but the effect of his music is – yes – shattering.
Almost in harassed tantrums, it seems, he forges the characteristic burning Procol Harum tunes from his piano, at the same time rasping out fevered lyrics in his rough-edged asbestos voice. It is Brooker who gives the set its tragic, toweringly majestic flavour, makes it seem like music of the gods.
In effective contrast, the rest of the band maintain a relatively low, almost deadpan profile. But they are all superb musicians, each with his own vital contribution to the tightly organised music.
The great thing about Procol Harum is that they never let their music or their stage manner burst out of control. The energy throbs and thrusts in every direction, but it's never allowed to escape into frenzied screaming or senseless instrument-smashing.
Intermittently the limelight shifts away from Brooker and it is one of his colleagues who holds the show. First it's a searing lead on guitar from Mick Grabham, a thin, long-haired figure garbed in black. Then it's a percussion solo – floor-lit from behind in green and yellow – from the group's ungainly but brilliant drummer, BJ Wilson.
A word too for Chris Copping on keyboards and banjo. At times it seemed he was overcome by the euphoria of the music and happily leapt to his feet for a spectacular tambourine lead.
Supporting Procol Harum was a four-piece, Bowie-influenced group from Yorkshire, Be Bop de Luxe. Their 45-minute set was much too loud and sent several people seated near the speakers scuttling for the bar. At present, despite the promise of Bill Nelson, their lead singer and lead guitarist, Be Bop de Luxe have very little to offer in terms either of music or showmanship. But their interesting last number, No Trains to Heaven, suggested that they might develop into a band to watch for the future.
(Thanks, Chris Groom, for letting BtP have material from your 'Local Procol' Croydon exhibition)