Words and pictures : Roland Clare
Just six days after Procol Harum's stately Millennium Concert at Guildford, members of the band regrouped in a village a few miles away to play a sweaty Millennium Show in which their R'n'B alter egos let rip for 140 minutes of raucous, passionate fun. No fewer than seven Procols held the stage (Gary Brooker, Mark Brzezicki, Matthew Fisher, Frank Mead, Matt Pegg, Henry Spinetti, and Geoff Whitehorn) along with the likes of Steve Brzezicki (bass), Andy Fairweather Low (guitar) and Alvin Stardust (guest vocal).
There were very few Palers in the audience: the hall was far too small for this to be anything other than a village-only affair; though Michael Ackermann was present in spirit, and Stephen and Mandy from Australia were present in person … Melbourne may not exactly be 'local' but they will be living in Surrey for most of the coming winter, and the Shoes gig was a superb introduction to the peace and quiet of a rural English way of life … not!
We arrived in a dark, dark village and homed in on the glow of a broad marquee from which came the sounds of a good local duo, Promises Promises, who play to backing-tapes. Following the spit-roast meal (and tasty vegetarian alternatives) we found ourselves in the tiny village hall under beams and cast iron chandeliers … there's even china on the shelves at the back, which may well not last the evening! … and the proceedings start with an auction (right). Not sure I would want either of these identical prints of fighter planes leaving an aircraft carrier on my wall, but they go down well with an audience whipped into purchase-mode by a capable auctioneer.
And then, without ceremony, but to much whooping of delight, local hero Gary Brooker takes to the stage. 'I've been his neighbour all these years and I've never heard him perform,' says a local farmer, several times. He's a Hawkwind fan himself but he seems to enjoy the evening. Gary's gardener is up the front with the rest of us but he has to step outside a while to take the Brooker dogs for a walk … such is the rustic end of rock'n'roll.
Mary Ann kicked off, with the core personnel of Gary (piano and voice), Frank (saxes), Andy Fairweather Low (guitar) Henry (drums), and Matt (bass). Henry had earlier remarked that Matt Pegg (left) was too young to know the Shoes repertoire from hand: nonetheless it sounded as though Matt had it in his blood and his walking bass lines in particular were an attractive feature of the show.
I didn't recognise the next song, which I wrote down (no tape-machines here!) as You Got me Peeping. Gary shared the vocal with Andy, who came to the front and allowed us to witness his unique finger-style chord-lead guitaring, his upward-strums on his highly unusual guitar – all very interesting in fact. At the end Gary announced that it had been a Jimmy Reed song, and 'if anybody knows what it's called, let us know …' No-one did, but I noticed, by a bit of teacherly upside-down reading, that he had it written as Peepin' Hidin' on the soon-to-be-abandoned song-schedule. [Ross Taylor later informs me that the title is surely Baby What You Want Me to Do … thanks, Ross].
Too Much Monkey Business followed ('in A,' the Commander commented, perhaps for the benefit of anyone taking notes!). He took this song mostly on maracas and tambourine, from a percussion chest down by his piano, near a little refreshments tray on a stand, with the words 'Salty Dog' stencilled on it … this was never used. Also in the chest was a motor horn, whose rubber bulb Gary squeezed mischievously from time to time.
At this point we noticed Matthew Fisher standing motionless in the tiny wingspace … and the tenantless VK7 (a Roland Hammond substitute) ready for him opposite.
'Here's one of the early Rock concertos, in C, Opus 21 …' says Gary, launching into a very exciting, though saxless, Great Balls of Fire. Then he announced 'one of my best friends … a champion organist …' and Matthew Fisher took the stage, to quite a cheer, and the band romped through Knock on Wood. The next song, No Money Down, did see Gary directing Matt Pegg a little, who comically mimed an uncertainty about the arrangement that the actual notes he was playing did not reflect! It was good to be so close to the front and be able to study Gary's right-hand flutter-and-stab technique: inimitable, highly effective. Again the motor-horn came into play.
The hall was already very hot: Carol Bellantoni appeared in the audience now, in a very summery dress: the rest of us perspired unashamedly! Geoff Whitehorn had been looming in the wings and now he came on stage, to a little bit of Nutcracker from Gary at the piano (the same excerpt he interpolated into Bringing Home the Bacon a few nights before). 'You're not calling Geoff a Sugar Plum Fairy, are you?' quipped 'Doc' Wallace.
'We're going to play Green Onions, always one of my favourite instrumentals,' said Gary, though he didn't actually stay on stage for the number, which Matthew Fisher directed from the organ, allotting solos with a nod and taking some great ones himself. Unsure how to conclude the piece, the band faded themselves down to nearly nothing, and just as it was all ending Geoff struck up again and the music welled up afresh. Definitively, the band had gelled … To hear Matthew playing a cracking Green Onions on record, of course, you can get hold of A Salty Dog Returns …
Gary now ushered yet another guest artist on to the stage … how many more could it hold? … whom he declined to introduce, such was his local fame. It was not until we were well past Jailhouse Rock and into Hound Dog that I recognised the (well-preserved!) fizzog of Alvin Stardust (left), long absent from the charts, but still in good rocking voice. That's all right Mama (someone will write in and tell me if that's not the real title … the setlist I later gathered is no guide at all!) followed, with Frank Mead on maracas and the towering Mark Brzezicki on tambourine in the doorway. Matthew took a particularly fiery solo on this one. The Stardust insert set concluded with Johnny B Goode, and with suitably rabble-rousing showmanship he got us all singing along … Franky Brooker could be observed in the wings behind the organ, doing some intricate hand-jiving.
Woolly Bully, which followed, saw the crowd participations continuing. It was hard to imagine how all the diners and revellers from the early part of the evening could possibly have got into the tiny Winn Hall, and for all I know they were all dancing away outside … but I certainly wasn't about to make a foray to find out. Steve Brzezicki was now welcomed to the stage (Matt took off his five-string bass, which I'd been watching in some perplexity, never able to figure out what notes he was playing from my humble four-string point of view, and Steve brought on a redoubtable looking six-string, which he played with a pick: the effect was very different from the fingered Pegg-style: not sure which I preferred).
With brother Mark on small percussion and Frank Mead on mouth-harp, the band launched into Little Wheel, very solid and thundrous. For the record, Gary was playing his Roland RD 600, Geoff his personalised 1957 Les Paul replica by Sid Poole … a very nice instrument. I could never quite get a glimpse of the maker's name on Andy Fairweather Low's guitar (see illustration), on which he played a most unpredictable solo with capo on the third fret, but I have never seen anything like it, and by the time I had edged into position to inspect it properly it had ceased to work and he was playing a black Strat instead.
Now it was Geoff Whitehorn's turn to sing a lead vocal, which I have not heard before, except on his enjoyable solo album, Big in Gravesend. But before this occurred there was much joshing and merriment. 'Gary had a dream …' Geoff began … upon which Brooker interrupted, in cod-Martin Luther King tones, that he had a dream 'That Surrey County Council will fix our roads …' underpinned by some gospelly chords from Fisher's keyboard. There followed quite a bit of banter about the road-surface in different Southern counties, Geoff complaining that at least Surrey had tarmac, while his native Kent had only concrete … you could tell you weren't at a Procol Harum concert. But what a treat when he did eventually start to sing (after saying 'Is it on. Tommy?' of course) the supposedly-unrehearsed Reeling in the Years … the complex song delivered in great style by all, and with joyous backing vocals contributed by a posse of Steely Dan fans in the front row in particular (thanks, Carol!).
In the Midnight Hour started with a spectacular difference of opinion about the key … Gary stopped it quickly and explained to the crowd that there had been a Stargate moment, a bit of 'digital interference' … but in fact the song went fine, even when he disappeared into the wings to renew acquaintance with his pipe for a moment or two. 'We rehearsed three weeks for this gig, but I was the only one that showed up,' Gary said, while Geoff mimed Pinocchio proboscis-extensions with a wicked leer.
'Here's a number by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and we're going to completely ruin it,' said Gary, though in fact nothing of the sort happened at all, and Tears of a Clown, riding over Steve Brzezicki's nimble bass, came to an extremely neat cut-off that sounded very well-rehearsed indeed. There were cries for the excellent Wide-Eyed and Legless from time to time, but we were not to hear it on this occasion: Andy came to the mic, with his Strat, to lead us through Goodnight Irene (with seven-piece backing) and we were into the brief interval.
The second half started with two titles suggested by the public, neither a song that the Shoes would ordinarily tackle. The Lady in Red doesn't sound too bad in this sort of setting, with Mark laying down a rhythm from the front and Matt Pegg, Andy, Geoff, Frank and Matthew accompanying. The same percussion instrument, however, sounded rather odder on the next request, from the absent Whaler-in-Chief Michael Ackermann. This was the hymn Morning Has Broken, which Gary and Matthew certainly knew, and which Geoff noodled away at without ever quite breaking into a fully-fledged solo. Nobody else played on this one, except Henry Spinetti who kept it going with some eloquent tambourine: audience participation, on the other hand, was full-throated. It was explained that Michael, though unable to be present (he had not been able to get away from his desk for the Procol gig either) had sent some money over ('probably enough to pay for the toilet-paper' said Gary, implying that his fellow-villagers had been getting through quite a lot of this commodity), and I remembered that there had in fact been a request-auction, which Michael had presumably won. Matthew helpfully established the European ambience by playing a few bars from the second movement of Haydn's Emperor Quartet opus 76 No. 3, known to some as Deutschland ueber Alles, and to some as Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit ("unity and right and freedom") (thanks, Nik)
Now Steve was back on the bass for a rocking Good Golly Miss Molly, with Andy, Geoff, Henry, Matthew and brother Mark on tambourine again. Gary played some impressive piano and sang like there was no tomorrow. Then we were treated to the heaviest number of the evening, a sinister and lengthy Hoochie Coochie Man, in which Frank Mead's mouth harp made a significant contribution (even the occasional howl of feedback seemed to add to the heavy effect). A very springy Hit the Road, Jack followed, with Frank back on tenor sax, and Gary taking a slow-burning solo which built up in moments of fractal excitement … Geoff looked on admiringly. When the song dipped to its quietest instrumental accompaniment, the crowd sang over a solitary organ bass line from Matthew's left hand, allowing his right hand to fend off a daddy-longlegs which eventually came to rest in his hair (newly styled for him by Beverly Peyton). Frank was in his most spasmodic mode on this song, a far cry from his serious demeanour on the Harum stage a few nights before. He amplifies tenor and alto with a little clip-on bug in the bell, which allows him full and vigorous movement, whereas the soprano constrains him to remain by the microphone.
Matt Pegg returned to play bass on Can't Judge a Book by its Cover, which was followed by Blueberry Hill … by now I saw no sign of a set-list at all and it seemed that the band was running entirely on telepathy. The crowd was dancing in the extremely confined space and midnight was imminent. Gary embarked on the village thank-yous ('Enticknap' is one of the most unusual and appealing English surnames I've ever heard) which included 'I'd like to thank my wife for booking the band' and it was finally into Little Queenie (a song Procol Harum played in the Utrecht set that has just been released, but which didn't make it on to the new CD).
Matthew turned in a few aggressive organ breaks, hands crossed, stylishly building to a squall at the top of the keyboard; Andy came to the microphone to share the vocal and contributed the solo of the night, thrashing and thrumming in inimitable fashion, earning a grinning thumbs-up from the ever-generous Whitehorn. Matt Pegg's walking bass was great fun, as was Gary's slightly-spoken very-English novelty verse. In fact Matt took a solo, perhaps not as exciting as he would have liked … so he took another, just when Matthew was getting ready for his, and it was a corker.
Then the band left the stage and we all clapped for quite a long while. It was almost midnight and it seemed likely that the Shoes would not re-appear … after all, they had started on the dot of nine-thirty. But eventually back they came, and A Whiter Shade of Pale took its place among the other classics of our era. This was played by just Gary, Matthew and Frank, and very stirring it was too; somehow, though, I long to hear just piano and organ on this famous song … with the Brooker voice too, of course. Brooker and Fisher together would surely make a startlingly good duo to book into clubs … they wouldn't need to play to the converted, I am sure: simple musicianship would carry the day.
Someone had been yelling for Homburg, and there were a few Procol albums in the crowd waiting to be signed, but primarily this was a non-Procol audience, though they are clearly proud and fond of their village celebrity (there was no sign of the other local celebrity, Anthea Turner … not sure what she would have contributed in the absence of a Millennium Lottery). It was interesting to hear the song without drums, though I have always been impressed by the way Henry Spinetti (shown, right) plays it: in fact I have always been delighted by Henry's playing, period.
He was once again the foundation on which the final song rode: L'il Liza Jane, with Matt Pegg on bass and the stereophonic Brzezicki brothers on percussion. Andy, Frank and Geoff contributed the backing vocals: Gary, alternating between his normal voice and a screaming falsetto, took the lead as ever.
And so the gig ended … and the local people quickly departed. Could this hooligan evening have been much more different from Sunday's Procol Harum concert, majestic, controlled, open-air, with its evocative words and profusion of moods, harmonies and textures? It was hard to believe that the same musicians could be putting heart and soul into such different work on consecutive weekends … but it was true … shades of Jekyll and Hyde, perhaps, though without the sinister overtones!
Slightly dazed by the front-row volume, and impressed and moved by the Shoes' enormous energy, we few Palers stood to say our post-Guildford goodbyes-until-the-next-time … Matthew paused to say that he hadn't heard from BGO whether the delay to his 2CD re-release had been resolved, and that it didn't make much difference to him one way or the other. Franky Brooker gratefully received all the money raised for the BJ Wilson Memorial Fund by the sale of Brooker/Reid signed AWSoP CDs and repeated that BtP and the Palers were doing 'a fine job'. And Maestro Brooker, not even looking tired despite a very long hot evening, smiled and shook our departing hands.
'I'm retiring now, of course,' he smiled. 'As of now, I've retired.'
Well the last time you retired, Gary, it was the end of the Paramounts … and next thing we knew you were conquering the world with Procol Harum. What will this present retirement consist of, I wonder? An end to the Ringo/Wyman circuit, some Procol writing, judiciously-chosen 2001 gigs with the new open-personnel Harum that we all enjoyed so marvellously the weekend before?
Let us hope so: Procoldom is keeping its many fingers crossed!