'Gary in the House'
Bill Wyman's Rhythm
Kings, 29 May 1999
Clare reports from the opening night of
The heavens above my native Bristol decided to celebrate the
Brooker birthday with a cloudburst so protracted and unrelenting
that common-sense would have cried off an engagement half a mile
away, let alone the other side of the country. Our small street
became a torrent, dyed yellow with gravel swept from the studio
opposite; as we battled our way to the car, windows peeped out on
these mad neighbours, and fire, brimstone, boiling oil and
shrieking steam all seemed to come in on cue. All that was
lacking was a screaming guitar solo and Gary himself hammering at
the piano: we embarked soddenly in search of exactly that remedy!
Sedate and smiling, Royal Tunbridge Wells had been nestling
undisturbed all day in the cradle of The Weald, bordered by North
and South Downs: the sun had ceaselessly shone, and prosperous
serenity was still the watchword as we located the Assembly Rooms
among the many large, ostentatious public buildings that throng
the top of the town. 'Habitat' sells its homewares from a
structure that resembles the Parthenon; the old Opera House
serves its drinks and snacks to customers relaxing in the
Victorian sumptuousness of theatre boxes all draped in maroon and
railed in brass: but they wouldn't serve children there, and we
had two with us: one, at seventeen, a veteran gigstress with her
own band (more of which below) and one, at thirteen, looking
forward to his first big rock'n'roll night out. So we went
elsewhere to warm up, dry out, and while away the hours until
The Assembly Rooms, for all the grand title, looks like an
architectural afterthought: bricky, square and uncompromising, it
sits next to a Police Station obviously built with left-over
materials from the same construction set. And Bill Wyman
his famous mnemonic skills evidently undimmed in his sixty-third
year opened the show with a pertinent question: 'How many
of you were 'ere on 17 March 1964?' A roar of affirmation goes up
from a forty-, fifty-, sixty-something crowd. 'Liars!' grins the
bass-man, who goes on to recall how the Stones, in their only-ever
Tunbridge Wells engagement, had ripped up a riot so devastating
that they'd been obliged to abandon their second set. 'I don't
want that to happen tonight!' he drily informs us, as the band,
assembled behind him, launches into Let the Good Times Roll,
led by that oh-so-familiar voice.
But I'm filing this report far from home, on an oh-so-unfamiliar
keyboard, ergonomically-designed to confound the prestissimo
two-fingered typing-style that I'm trapped in: so let's go to
note-form copied from my tiny notebook for a survey
of the evening's music:
- Let The Good Times Roll
Same opening as Chiddingfold
/ Guildford gigs!
Dιjΰ entendu as Brooker leads bunch of mates.
Beverley Skeete takes second verse: she's up at the back
with Janice Hoyte and Keeley Coburn, backing-singers:
they balance the two saxes on a riser the other side; Graham Broad drums middle
back. Third verse, Georgie Fame: vocal a bit foggy
compared with GB; mix in general not quite right yet (lot
of players!) and follow-spot operator not picking up
right soloists fast enough.
- Walking One and Only
Georgie Fame introduces number by Dan Hicks and his
Hot Licks. Why am I surprised that Fame speaks with an
American accent? He's in very good voice but not doing
much yet on his sticker-covered C3. Amazingly fluent solo
from Martin Taylor, 'the acoustic guitarist of his
generation' according to Acoustic Guitar Magazine,
on his jazz-toned semi. Contrastingly electric solo from
Albert Lee, only player retaining rock-star haircut,
which he doesn't shake about while playing!
Bill Wyman (front)
with Albert Lee, Terry Taylor, Georgie Fame,
Graham Broad, Beverley Skeete, Gary Brooker
- Too Late
Again a Brooker lead vocal: he's now a bit low in the
mix. Odd to see Gary stage left and the organist stage
right. Could be my imagination but Brooker seems to look
naturally upstage as he sings: has to make conscious
effort to look over the left shoulder of his floral shirt
instead of his right, to sell vocal to audience. All
songs well received despite a hint of saminess: all so
far have been in G major: Procol gigs more carefully
planned from that point of view: more ear-drama. Frank
Mead, excellently exciting harp solo. My son taken aback
by Mead's bodily convulsions: should see him at
Chiddingfold when he's six feet away: that's when it's
alarming! Nick Payn solos too: both these reed players
credited in tour programme with 'flute' but no flutes
- Walking On My Own
Excellent rhythm laid down by Terry Taylor. Do we
need three guitars in this band? TT is Wyman's business-
and writing-partner as well as a founder of the Rhythm
Kings. He will spend whole evening playing rhythm, as far
as one can judge. Beverley Skeete in fine form and fine
hair: a commanding presence, too. Great harmony slide to
conclude song, three female voices oozing up into the
final chord. Evidence of a lot of careful rehearsal in
these detailed arrangements: more so than No Stiletto
Shoes: Shoes = energy, Kings = laid-back, unexpectedly
'A composition allegedly by Mick Jagger, Keith
Richards and ... Billy Preston,' announces Georgie Fame
to much laughter. Duet here with Beverley, sounds as good
as (and very much like) the record. Everyone now in their
stride. Graham Broad, very businesslike. Lot of finesse
in his playing. Seem to recall that this hall also
produced one of the best gigs on Procol Harum's 1995 UK
- Jump Jive and Wail
Albert Lee out front, Fame and Brooker join girls for
five-part harmonies. Singing really excellent in that
respect: real 40s effect with tight harmonies. Lee
fantastic on guitar. Gary's piano solo agreeably mild,
not out to duplicate Dave Hartley on the Kings' CDs:
Roland 600 digital piano sounds very good. GB not
competing with hundred-notes a minute style of the two
guitars, he picks notes judiciously. Small movements of
hands, looking relaxed from the waist up. High-albedo
shoes catch the light, his feet dancing on their own
under the keyboard. Cf duck on pond: much activity below
surface. Song ends with exciting arrangement: honking of
two saxes, full-neck glissando on two guitars. A noise
effect more than a musical one. Applause doubled for this
song and rightly so.
Gary to talk: he has lion's share of the introducing
duties and naturally addresses crowd when there's a gap
as is not uncommon between songs (first night
effect, I guess). GB: 'It's very nice to be back in
Tonbridge ...' Immediate genial correction yelled out
from otherwise sedate burghers to remind him that he's in
Tunbridge Wells it broke away from
Tonbridge proper, changed its spelling so that people
wouldn't get off at the wrong railway station, and added
a 'Royal' on the front that it's obviously very proud of
Gary immediately apologises, 'Pure, pure ignorance
on my part!' ... remember that he usually knows the post-code,
local history, tries out the local language. Someone
onstage calls out that it's GB's birthday 'and he's been
in the pub for three hours'. Brooker exhibits birthday
card standing on piano. 'As it's my birthday Bill said I
might be allowed to do one of my own songs.' Excitement
of Procoholics in neighbouring seats ... 'A little bit
R&B this one,' he says. What am I hoping? Chances are
they'll play Conquistador ... no, it's not like
the Ringo 'One-Starr' band: the accent is not just on
hits, but on choice and unexpected material, as one might
expect from Wyman.
In the event it's not a Procol Harum song at all, but a
new number (to my ears), and a highlight of the evening:
wistful, bluesy, harmonically-slightly-intricate with the
usual unusual Brookeresque chord-inversions, not quite
R&B at all from that point of view. Words
conventional, perhaps: chorus delivered over pounding
bass drum in particular, 'Heartbreaker, I'm down on my
knees, heartbreaker, I'm begging you please'. Not a
million miles from Layla: I wonder if (like
several other gentle Brooker songs) this dates from his
days in and around the Clapton band? Verses are long,
very melodic: opening words 'No complaints about the way
we parted'. Sadly I haven't got a tape-recorder up my
jumper! It shares a mood perhaps with The Cycle,
and features cycling chords aching for resolution: Gary
waves his hand at the end to bring it to a close. Lovely
song, hope to hear it again: much more like a late Procol
Harum number, in fact, than the rowdy A Real Attitude,
as premiered at Guildford. Hope to hear that again too.
Graham Broad afterwards: 'He won't go out with Procol
Harum again without new material ... I'd love to do it
again ... such a great gig to play ...' But Gary
has a lot of unheard material, new to the punters, which
we'd all love to hear: Heartbreaker a very good
example. I'm begging you, please!
- Happy Birthday To You
Now Beverley comes downstage and leads the band:
audience joins in: then another verse with Georgie Fame
in particular singing 'Gazza' for 'Gary': band go to
calypso feel, and it ends perfectly neatly. Gary
graciously acknowledges the sentiments and generously
deflects them also on to anyone who shares the birthday,
and towards Colin Hodgkinson, who opened the show with a
highly unusual, highly effective set of voice and solo
bass guitar! I missed much of this ... wish I hadn't!
Gary introduces this as Beverley's 'big hit': she
sings it with great feeling makes up for the
disappointment of getting up to watch the band on
hellishly-early breakfast TV recently, only to find that
they were miming. I notice that Gary is now wearing the
beret that he wore on TV on that occasion: quite certain
he was not wearing it before! Frank Mead comes down
centre stage and plays his solo right at Beverley,
as if the sax were possessed by some carnal instinct!
Great playing: audience, initially uncertain whether to
clap solos jazz-style, do so with some gusto.
- Green River
I was wondering how the girl singers felt about being
rhythm 'Kings': Beverley leads Janice and Keeley
downstage and announces that they are 'The Rhythmettes':
song goes very well: band extremely relaxed, it seems:
real swing. Most sit to play: Wyman, however, stands up
for this number. Must be the most reticent band-leader
ever, a slight, bespectacled figure in dark shirt,
apparently not making onstage decisions, nor counting in,
nor allotting solos, just laying down solid but
unobtrusive line on headless bass, smiling wrily most of
the while. Slight disappointment that he doesn't hold
bass in Stones-style perpendicularity. If you didn't know
who was what, you'd guess that the tall silver-haired man
in the patent leather shoes was directing most of what
went on, from the piano.
- Any Way the Wind Blows
Title-track from their second CD starts with long,
exciting build-up of shuffle-beat from Graham Broad. 'By
JJ Cale, celebrated for his extensive vocabulary,' quips
Fame. This is a muted performance, accent on laid-back
dynamics, the gradual fade / resurrection game. Works
well if you're a really interested fan of detail. I
wonder whether it will seem too protracted if you aren't
listening with x-ray ears: but people seem to enjoy it!
'Hey drummer drummer will you gimme that beat?' Graham
'the' Broad is the star here, even more than Lee and the
exquisite Martin Taylor with their curlicued fret-nimbling.
Band goes right down to a whisper for the real
end, with spooky pitchless exhalations from the saxes.
- Hit the Road, Jack
Gary asks us if we've been listening to Georgie
Fame's radio programme, then announces a number in
connection with Ray Charles: 'not that it's got anything
to do with Ray Charles, except it made him famous.' Sung
by Gary voice suitably commanding, PA sound now
sorted three girls, back on their stage-right
riser. My children can see the autocue reflected in the
bass-drum head (parallax prevents me from doing likewise)
and they reckon the song-words and the solos are
specified by this device. Gary nonetheless has paper
words on the piano, and in this number it seems he allots
the solo, to Frank Mead, extempore. Then Gary
takes long solo himself, building it up from brief
answering phrases, rising in pitch, to a burst of
artfully-voiced jazzy chords; all consciously-matched to
the backing chords and bassline, distinct contrast to the
method of the guitarists who let fly with more abandon,
and sometimes less emotional effect. Guitarists, I note,
playing strictly as soloists: it would be nice to hear
more interplay, Lee and M Taylor trading licks and
responding to each other. Nick Payn takes next solo,
wrestling huge python of a baritone: sonorous depths of
tone. Number winds right down, then starts up again.
Great fun though it's much the same trick as featured in
the previous number: It might be worth adjusting the
running order for another night.
- Mystery Train
Nick Payn wanders downstage to start this off with a
triple-toned loco-whistle sadly not tuned to C#, F
and G like the Swiss siren that inspired A Salty Dog!
then he plays mouth harp while his fellow-saxist
makes free with two tambourines. Evident good-humoured
fun between Brooker and Fame who share the vocals and
have to watch each other carefully to consummate a vocal
slide-up into the harmonies of the final chord.
'What's the time?' asks Gary. 'Early!' we all shout.
'We've played everything a bit fast tonight,' explains
Gary, in his now-traditional tone redolent of plaintive
mischief. We learn that 'Bill wants to go off for a spit
and a draw': stage is left to Martin Taylor and Georgie
Fame who will 'hold the fort'.
This number, not on set-list, back-announced as 'totally
off the cuff' by Fame. He looks a bit like Dirk Bogarde,
hands-in-pockets, white suit: superb control of his
breath, warm, full voice: obviously enjoying the jazzy
latitude to stretch, condense, and otherwise toy with the
note-lengths and verbal rhythms. Oddly substitutes
'George Melly' for 'Georgia' in the final line, then
breaks into Heading Back to Dixie for a tiny coda.
Taylor: absolute mastery of instrument, sure-footed
fretting, every note delivered with some feeling
inflection: sounds to me like Joe Pass ... they come no
|How odd that the picture of the band in
the tour programme (see above) shows Martin Taylor in the
middle, yet on the flyer printed earlier he
has apparently been edited out of the very same image (see
left). Was there some doubt about his participation? It
would have been a huge loss if he hadn't been there!
- I'll Be Satisfied
Band re-assembles. 'It's very quiet out there,' says
Gary. 'We're getting ready to riot,' alleges some Kentish
wag. 'We're just trying a few things out,' says Brooker
as the organ starts up a high triplet-motif. For a moment
I'm hearing the intro to a PH number, just can't place it.
But of course it's the orchestral Barbican gig replaying in my
head, when I'll be Satisfied was heard twice. Gary
back in his element: not quite as abandoned as he was on
that august occasion, when he really let rip in
- Real Gone
Beverley invites us to dance in the next number: a
few are out in the aisles, but it's an all-seater
auditorium and it would not be easy to fulfil this wish.
Have the impression band must have talked offstage and
worried that they were going down a bit coolly. Not so, I
would say! In fact I didn't write anything more about
this number: must have been rhythmically transported ...
- Tear It Up
Albert Lee handles this one. Very engaging demeanour
on stage. 'Where do you live, Al?' asks Brooker, always
keen to establish the human geography of the situation.
'California? He comes a long way every night!' Lee now
tears it up with six-part harmony backing! Now for
the first time the two lead guitarists do trade
licks, and very effective it is too. After a while Martin
Taylor unplugs, goes round behind Lee: they jointly play
the one guitar, two hands strumming, two hands fretting.
I haven't quite fathomed the geometry of this feat.
Suddenly the song cranks up a semitone, and plays out in
F major ... a splendidly exciting finale. The band now
depart and much hollering and stomping ensues, far wilder
than the reaction to any of the music, yet still not
exuberant enough to attract any unwanted visitors from
the Police establishment next door.
- Work Out
Listed as 'Full Company' in the onstage setlist: but
it nonetheless didn't feature a Wyman vocal. 'Open yer
mouth and sing, Bill!' someone shouts. 'No, I'm too shy,
I really am!' Bill replies. A pity: his intimate style on
the records would have been interesting to hear now. At
least he didn't give us Je Suis un Rock Star which
would doubtless have been de rigueur had this been
the Ringo All-Starr package. I don't remember much about
this number expect that it broke at one point into a rap-rhythm
over which Gary chanted the first couplet of AWSoP in a bizarre
looking-glass variant: this prompted cries of 'Gary in
the House' from the backing vocalists!
- Land of a Thousand Dances
The show ended with another Stiletto Shoes staple,
Wilson Pickett's Land of a Thousand Dances: Gary
took a big, chordal solo of the kind that really suits
him best, and led us in the massed na-na-naaing, first
the boys, then the girls, in true Panto style. I'd rather
have been bellowing 'Fade away ... fade away' but it
certainly made a great end to the evening. 'Big hand for
the boss, Bill Wyman ...' said Brooker, and the king of
the Rhythm Kings waved a engaging beer-bottle at us
before retiring into the wings.
- And so it was that later we found ourselves wandering the
backstage corridors in search of dressing-room 6
memories of Spinal Tap as we meandered the warren
of indistinguishable corridors. Spinal Tap also
prepares us for debauched backstage scenes, primadonna
squabbles over the contents of the canapιs, roadies
gargling Jack Daniels and the air thick with some white
powder stronger than talcum. Dressing-room 6 was a relief
or a disappointment! an indescribably
stuffy purlieu ill-suited to the stellar company that
jostled for space round its bare table. Beverley Skeete
is clearing a costume-rail: Bill Wyman sits impassive on
a tubular chair; Georgie Fame ... Terry Taylor
sure which is which, close to!
- Franky Brooker smiles a welcome, shows us to the drinks:
she beckons Gary, who promptly negotiates the crowd,
clutching a brown manila envelope. Birthday greetings
given and received, he calls out for 'Ms Clare'. Our
Jane, just seventeen, comes forward, receives the gift
with beaming apprehension: soon she and Gary are resuming
a conversation started in the Shepherds Bush Empire bar
back in August 1995. She's moved on from my humble AWSoP
transcription for strings and oboe, played with
classmates in her early days: now first-violin in an
ambitious ensemble comprising rock band, strings,
woodwinds, brass, and concert harp, she has turned to
more experienced arrangers: Gary is lending her the Edmonton orchestration of Conquistador,
but I've put a harp part in there for you too,
from the Barbican
should work OK. Let me know.'
- Gary gravely greets trumpeter Peter Clare, at 13 by far
the youngest in his sister's band. 'You've got an
important part there
' then he sings the Hispanic
fanfare, one hand fingering mimed pistons. Peter thaws
and grins: both children seem amazed that the great man
has time for such young musicians: yet the pages of BtP
are heaving with accounts of the Brookers'
courtesy, generosity and imagination when it comes to the
families of fans, their friends, and other musical
enthusiasts of whatever accomplishment. Such an encounter
seems to me to be educational in the very best sense:
Gary is taking turns in trying to pass on something of
true value: not just his music, but also his democratic
attitude to it. A charming note in the envelope informs
Jane that there's 'no charge for the loan of the parts'
but they need to return to the Brooker library eventually.
They're not even photocopies! She can be seen clutching
it delightedly the rest of the evening.
- Geoff Whitehorn has come
backstage: though the Sunday gig would be far closer to
where his 'manor', he has come down to hear the Tunbridge
Wells show 'as it's the old man's birthday
take us out for a curry!' Geoff is as eager as ever to
play Procol music. 'Give us a call next week and I'll
give you some reactions to the
Poland business!' he calls across the room. Watch BtP
I ask Graham Broad how he felt about the cancelled festival
appearance. 'Were you fed up?' 'Fed up? No, something stronger.'
Graham weighs his words. 'I'd say
I was peeved!' he
impishly concludes. He was longing to work with Procol Harum
again, though the Poland gig would have clashed with three
months' work Roger Waters had offered him. 'I rang Gary and
explained the difficulty, said I could find him another drummer,
just my style. Gary really puts me through it,' he laughs,
'telling me "I might not like this bloke!" and so on
and so on. Only after we'd been talking half and hour does he
actually tell me the gig's been cancelled!'
We wipe our sweating brows as Graham recalls the 1995 Harum
tour, learning the songs as he went along. 'We rehearsed sixty
numbers, but never did any endings, you know. And there's never a
setlist! Gary'll suddenly say Grand Hotel and Matt Pegg and I look at each other,
"Whats that?".' I tell Graham that the 'informal'
recordings of that tour chart his rapidly-growing familiarity
with the material. He explains that Gary likes to keep his band
on their toes, and his approving tone reflects a conviction that
this is the mark of a good bandleader!
Our Peter confesses that he doesn't much care for the use of
brushes on the first Kings' CD: Graham explains that they
recorded as many as seventy tracks for that record, before Bill
decided that he didn't want it to sound like a big rock band. 'He
wanted it more intimate, so we did one with brushes. Then
he liked that, so we scrapped the lot and went on. Each time I
would say, "What this one needs is a bit of sticks!"
and he would tell me it didn't. So it become a bit of a standing
joke.' Peter seems pleased to be in on this joke!
And how had the Kings' gig felt in the drummer's seat tonight?
'OK. They were a nice audience. Polite!' But if Graham had felt
'a bit edgy' with his monitor mix, nothing had shown amiss in the
hall. BtP will talk to him in September, all being well: working
with Roger Waters then Tina Turner, he won't be home until then!
Finally, on the last few molecules of oxygen in the dressing
room, the Commander himself, and some traditional questions:
'Your CV mentions that you're writing new material. Is that for
Procol Harum?' 'Who says that?' I explain that I'm referring to the document recently put out by his office,
you know, 'the one that says your luck started with AWSoP.'
'Well that's not true, is it?' Gary challenges. 'I wasn't run
over by a bus before that, was I?' And with this deft, comic
evasion, the important question is neatly passed over.
'Tell us about Heartbreaker.'
'It's a number.'
'Yes. But we rehearsed it.'
'Your own song?'
'Dating from when?'
But the effort of this impassive stonewalling overcomes him,
and he bursts into a broad self-mocking grin.
'It's for my new solo-album, you know!'
Markedly less exhausted than he was after the Guildford
concert, Gary continues to chat most amiably, asking if we're
heading back to Bristol, then recalling that it's half-term break
in my profession. He makes warm references to BtP: he sends his
good wishes to Jens, and to all the community of Palers he says (and
I quote!) 'Hello Palers!' I pass him a paper copy of Beverly's poem, in case he hasn't been
able to check in to the website during the day. I finally ask if
he's online himself yet. 'I think I might be. I was sent a disc.
But when I pressed the button, nothing happened. So the answer
is, yes, I think I am. I'm online without knowing it!'
And there we must leave Dressing-room 6, The Assembly Hall,
Royal Tunbridge Wells, and the Rhythm Kings, and a fine evening
capped, as ever, by Maestro Brooker, El Gubernator, generous,
humorous, an undisputed master-musician: yet effortlessly
mysterious to the last!