Ensemble: Within Our House
St Michael and St George, Aldershot, 4 October 1997
Roland Clare © 1997
13 Steal Away
14 Gospel Train
18 Psalm 150
Most North European churches dedicated to St Michael are sited high on hills, while St George tends to be a lowland patron. How strange, therefore, to find that these saints had both lent their names to the Aldershot church we were hurrying towards on 4th October, to hear the second outing from The Gary Brooker Ensemble, Within Our House. What sort of landscape could have spawned this strange elision of high and low, I wondered?
Well St-Michael-and-St-George favours neither crag nor hummock: it looms colossal, utilitarian and stark, over the flat no-man's land that skirts Aldershot Military Town, its red-brick spire towering like a rocket-launcher. No surprise to learn (from Nikolaus Pevsner in The Buildings of England) that it was designed by military men, a Major Pitt and a Lt Michie, to be the Army's Anglican Cathedral; it was given over to the Catholic Church early this century. Pevsner dismisses it as 'large, reasonable and dull,' yet its west porch still proudly exhibits the very trowel with which Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone in 1892. As a venue, then, it does fulfil Richard Amey's fantasy (Shine On, February 1997) that the next Within Our House gig would somehow encompass 'a totally huge slice of England': only not quite in the way he was hoping!
Its inside is much more appealing: huge panel-lights, mounted flush to the yellow-brick walls, spill their glow over the nave's wide block floor and posh seating; military banners dangle here and there, even the stained glass glistens with regimental insignia. Unlike Gary's 13th century church, however, this one seems to need no restoration. What on earth had brought his ensemble here ?
Voci Cantanti's genial chorus master, Andy Phillips, explained that the church ... 'has become the 'home' venue for the choir in recent seasons. Farnborough, where we're based for rehearsal purposes, has no suitable concert venue, and we're doing what we can to build an audience at Aldershot. It suffers from being in the Military Town, but has the advantage of size, acoustic and facilities which we can't find anywhere else.' The choir has plenty of concerts forthcoming at the same venue, which they regard more as concert-hall than place of worship; he reminded me that it was a secular organisation, which a glance at their track record confirmed: as well working on Procol Harum material for The Long Goodbye and 1995's magnificent Barbican recital, Voci have done film work including The Young Americans, Lawnmower Man II, and a feature-length Beavis & Butthead, none of which has a very high piety-quotient!
Tonight Voci had hired Gary and his cohorts, not the other way round; their intention was to repeat the triumph of last year's inaugural Within Our House. But only about 250 seats had been sold by the time the doors opened, allowing the real Procol fans and Shine On staff to colonise the front few rows, a mere arm's length from the little daïs on which guitar, mandolin, drums and digital piano waited silently. No bells rang out, as they do on the CD, to welcome parishioners in: yet another 150 tickets had been sold to more casual customers by the time the tiny lighting rig came on, signalling the start of the recital.
The nave fell still as Voci Cantanti streamed from the vestry into the barrel-vaulted chancel, men central in wing collars and bow ties, sopranos and altos flanking them in mulberry-coloured gowns, all beautifully set off against the gilt mosaic reredos; Mark Brzezicki took his place at the kit. We waited a vain moment for some military Padre to step from the shadows; in that expectant silence we were briefly aware of the A325 thrumming behind us.
But the only introduction was a musical one: brushes and tom-tom whacking out the sprightly rhythm of Pastime with Good Company (reputedly by Henry VIII). Andrew Phillips conducted with infectious abandon, and there was much head-waving and smiling in the choir, who rightly believe in communicating their love of the music visually, as well as in the purity and exceptional refinement of their vocal performance. Drummer off, Linden Lea on, in Vaughan Williams's a capella arrangement; then John Rutter's Barbara Allen, the strings' bitter harmonies underscoring the cruelty of the narrative in the style Benjamin Britten patented in his own folk song arrangements. Country Gardens (arranged by Griffiths) was highly syncopated, ushering in more than a hint of the barber's shop: though the chorus-master's cascading mop suggested only a theoretical acquaintance with that particular world!
Tonight's strings were not the Chameleon Quartet, as featured on the CD, but a specially-booked larger ensemble, fitting the more cavernous venue. The players were sited off-stage left (there is no transept, the church not conforming to traditional cruciform layout) and they had to work quite hard to match the volume of the choir, whose sound was bolstered by walls on three sides. These youngish players (Richard George and Liz Norton, first violin; Claire Wilson and Marla MacLennan, second violin; Geoff Cole and Vince Green, viola; William Routledge and Ed Jefferies, 'cello; Julian Walters, bass) made a wonderful job of their solo showcases but, having seen their music for the first time only that day, might have benefited from a little extra rehearsal with the rock Ensemble.
The Vaughan Williams that they played now, for all its Welsh title (Rhosymedre is very likely a river-valley name) further emphasised the resolute Englishness of the programme. 'I'm not sure that I can make much sense of the instrumental choices,' Andy Phillips commented later. 'For St Mary's we were putting together a 'sacred' concert for the church and Rhosymedre seemed to fit in rather well. The spiritual element was easy to put in, as was the pastoral English music of Vaughan Williams. The extension to folk music was not far away and the Warlock seemed to come out of that ... .' The Warlock, of course, was not to come until the second half, when they played the whole Capriol Suite, very much a repertoire staple, with delightful verve, politely weathering the stubborn audience clapping in every gap! Perhaps, as only the vigorous Mattachins is featured on the CD, people assumed the suite consisted of four separate numbers. We had already heard a number of pieces that had not featured on the CD, but the two Ensemble concerts in fact had identical menus. 'Gary's CD version was edited both for space and for some elements which didn't quite work live,' Andy Phillips explained.
Now the rock contingent took the stage, dressed variously but all with some concession to the formality of the occasion. Gary Brooker, looking tanned and healthy after his Swiss holiday and his All-Starr American tour, punctured the Englishness of the occasion straight away: 'Evening everyone, guten Abend!' He claimed to be confused after 'a very long tour, taking in most of eastern Europe', a claim some listeners must have believed, and which others simply wished would come true! 'Are we in Hampshire?' he asked (remember how scrupulously Gary wondered whether the Barbican were in EC1? Conversely, the Within Our House CD (on his own Gazza label) goes to some lengths not to reveal the whereabouts of his home church, offering 'in rural Surrey' as its only hint; and tonight he even referred to the previous Within Our House 'in Sussex'!)
Nothing But the Truth was equipped with a new string prelude, rhythmically free and varied, concluding very attractively in waltz time. The fact that Gary has been able to edit this cleanly out of the CD, however, emphasises that it's merely grafted on to the song, whereas his Bernard Herman Psycho string-writing in the middle section seems thoroughly integral. This song has really benefited from its slight harmonic spring-cleaning: I love the choir's shrilling descent as Icarus falls (a Reid obsession, from Rambling On through Learn to Fly, via For Liquorice [Fall-Icarus?] John); and I like the new tension-maintaining bars sandwiched between the middle 16 and the final verse. It was intriguing to watch the two keyboardists maintaining eye-contact via the organ mirror as they counted these displaced barlines by: Michael Bywater had no choice but to present his back to the Ensemble, and he looked very much the 747 pilot, flying with his feet, grappling with his draw-stops and the other arcane mysteries of his console. The choir obviously enjoyed performing this number, echoing 'nothing but the truth' in joyful and uninhibited fashion.
Fine as this song is, however, it does highlight the occasional difficulties inherent in the Procol writing method, which brings together finished words and finished music. So does the expanded A Salty Dog, which followed. In the former, 'nothing' 'common' and 'harder' are stretched to four syllables, making them difficult to hear; in the latter, the superimposition of a polysyllabic Latin text on the highly-detached backing chords makes it hard to differentiate the words, let alone, of course, understand them!
But Gary seems to have been content for this chanted text to take effect at a subliminal level – 'It would be more interesting to let people find out [the sense] for themselves' he told Shine On in February. On the CD he throws us right off the literal scent by announcing that Peter Dix has translated 'many of the phrases that we use in this one' – whereas only the three-word coda, animadvertis verba mea, corresponds to Reid's words ('your witness my own hand'). Gary presumably approaches Latin as a musician, rather than as a scholar, primarily valuing its sound. He won't be the last composer to use Latin simply for effect: I believe that Nicholas Dodd (who introduced Gary to Andrew Phillips) is looting the Roman Mass for the next 007 soundtrack.
Nevertheless a glance at the words (though the syntax is occasionally obscure, the overall sense is clear) confirms what Brooker went on to tell Shine On: he has not used arbitrary Latin words, but has commissioned a subtext of pure New Testament piety. [Introduction and final verse: non navis acta hieme portum posse capiet nisi dominum patrem filiumque et spiritum sanctum: a ship driven by winter storms will not reach port unless it will take, as its master, Father Son and Holy Ghost. Verse one: si quidem gubernator veritate cursum tenebit ad caelum profecto navem itinere recto reget: if indeed the helmsman will hold his course by the truth, then certainly he will steer the ship by a straight course toward heaven. Verse two: ventus veritatis semper navem diriget ad portum: the wind of truth will always lead the ship into harbour. Coda: animadvertis verba mea: what you are hearing is my word.]
Did Gary simply want to impose a redemptive sheen on the song's 'tortured course' ('a twisted path' reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's nihilistic Hunting of the Snark)? Or does the new text reflect religious convictions he has always harboured, and puts 'on hold' at other times, when offering to blacken our Christmas, waylay our daughters, and so forth?
In 1967 he told the New Musical Express, 'All I know is that only a small part of the brain in used in life, and there must be something else. I know your body rots in the ground and I don't think you just go sailing up into the air. But there must be something.' His practice of dedicating Procol Harum performances of A Salty Dog to 'those who watch us from above' may indicate that this belief has persisted. Tonight, however, he did not invoke Barrie Wilson, but rather introduced the number as '... this Ancient Mariner song ... '; and the reference to Coleridge's poem underlined a penitential aspect of the sailors' voyage which the sound of chanted Latin may also have been intended to heighten.
Well ... thus the intellect pores over scores and records, fossilised music. Live, it's something else! Here's Bellman Brzezicki clangorously summoning us on deck; the choir are luring sirens; Robbie McIntosh's finger-picked guitar sends a tingle up the spine; and the BJ drum-entry, now played with brushes, wreaks havoc with the heart-beat. Everything is working on the emotions: Bywater's dramatic organ chords break like a tide over the choir's heads from the swell-box up behind them; Brooker simply floats clear. Verse three's still, small guitar-scales (both phrases this time: much better than the recording) prime us for the final storm. Oh to be succumbing to this song's magic for the first time, now, like a good half of tonight's audience are! Their erupting applause validates the new treatment; Brooker smiles at the triumph of instinct. He may be well over twice the age at which he wrote and recorded A Salty Dog: its mystery, gravity and grace are undiminished.
Part of the Brooker showmanship is to build up the evening's spell by constant self-deflation. He interrupted the ensemble's retuning with a mock-impatient 'What time's the last 'bus?', nodding and winking to the front rows, joking that it was a relief to play to a few folk who actually liked the songs already. Yet he was by no means preaching only to the faithful: new converts positively fell on the Gazza CD at the interval, once he'd drawn their attention to it. Oddly enough all CDs for sale on the night had been pre-signed by the Aldershot Five: we faithful who had brought our clean mail-order copies, hoping to collect signatures, found ourselves in possession of the truer rarities. Even the choir were buying CDs: I thought they might, in some roundabout fashion, be boosting their own royalties by doing this, but in fact they don't get a percentage. 'All the proceeds go to us!' Gary quipped. Nothing goes to St Mary's, rural Surrey, then? 'There was no charitable fundraising component for this concert,' Andy Phillips explained, 'But, sad to say, we have still managed to make a financial loss: ticket-income was less than 3,000 pounds, and expenses (including 10,000 full-colour A5 fliers) exceeded 4,000. After twenty years in the business I'm still naïve enough to believe we should be able to make live music pay for itself!'
Tuning accomplished, Brooker then solicited 'a very warm Aldershot and south-of-England welcome' for Robbie McIntosh's Hide and Seek, a gentle lullaby riding on the understated Hispanic rhythm of Dave Bronze's five-string semi-acoustic bass guitar. Ovation must have thanked their lucky stars, or at least thanked MTV, when the 'Unplugged' movement took off! Dave does have a genuinely acoustic double-bass at home, Bavarian, 125 years old, but understandably he finds it awkward to lug around. 'Anyway it's not my first instrument,' he adds, 'not something I can play in this company.' (Among his enthusiastic reminiscences of Redhill, he vouchsafed that Alan Cartwright was actually playing unplugged in the three-bassists AWSoP finale!) Gary Brooker joined in very lightly on the piano towards the end of Hide and Seek, contemplating the keyboard as he felt for the sharp seventh chords, major and minor, which you'd be hard-put to discover anywhere in Procol Harum's music (even if, to quote Michael Bywater, Gary actually 'knows more chords than Scriabin!').
At the Barbican in 1995 the choir was the Chameleon Arts Chorus, which consisted of Voci Cantanti in its entirety plus a selection of Andy Phillips's professional colleagues: they were responsible for making Holding On one of the high spots of that extraordinary concert, with their spine-chilling holler of 'Zika nor nama!' and its sibilant retort, 'Hesah!' By the time the Gazza CD was recorded, however, this supposed Swahili (it isn't!) sounded a bit hesitant; and tonight it threatened to collapse – so much for practice! But the song ('part of our anti-war trilogy: you'll have to imagine the other two songs yourself') went beautifully once the Ensemble came swinging in, overlaying Gary Brooker's incongruous 'plunge and dump' piano style. This combination of mandolin, rototoms, and church organ is highly unusual: one would be hard pressed to explain why it contributes to a Serengeti/Serendipity atmosphere, yet we are duly transported. It's a superb arrangement of a superb song – apart from anything else the melody is lovely – and it's busy without clutter, unlike TV Ceasar for example. Here the instrumental colouring is deftly tailored to the text, so that the hostages' plight is emphasised by fiercely-scrubbing strings and an outpouring from the great organ.
A bit of horseplay followed between Gary and the strings. He asked them to introduce themselves, but he heard 'Marla' as 'Mahler', which derailed him into pondering what the girls in Germany say when you ask their names. 'Heil Hitler!' was Dave Bronze's dry riposte: I don't suppose that phrase is often heard in British Army churches.
Just before the interval came the title song of the show, placed where A Whiter Shade of Pale had been at Redhill. Describing Nicholas Dodd's arrangement of Within Our House as 'a great tome', Gary affected to read from the score a moment. 'What's this? Don't forget to put the cat out?' was an off-the-cuff remark not calculated to reassure those who remember what Procol Harum were named after. 'We haven't played this one since last year,' said Gary. In fact the Ensemble hadn't met since last year: this show had been put together on the day, although the choir had been preparing their bits during the previous three weeks; a brief band-rehearsal had even been punctuated by Dave Bronze disappearing to record a Clapton session.
This time Gary explained that the song referred to any house which offered us protection and sustained us at a time of personal or public grief, 'such as recently, when we lost our dear princess.' He then prefaced the song with 'we'll play this one for her' which (even if you could believe that Nostradamus Reid had predicted Diana's death in Grand Hotel) came as a bit of a surprise! My neighbour in the audience, observing how much larger the present auditorium was than Gary's thirteenth-century church, had been wondering where the next concert could logically be held. This royal dedication made me wonder whether to answer, 'Westminster Abbey'.
But many a true word ... Andy Phillips later revealed that 'it is acknowledged by all involved that we should work together again. The fusion between the various elements seems to work very well and we are all keen to sell the idea to a wider audience. A bigger London venue (St John's Smith Square) has been mentioned, as has a series of concerts in Cathedrals throughout the country.' This would be like the Cathedral Classics tours, which were subsidised by British Gas. As Andy said, 'All we need is a sponsor and a whole lot of energy!'
Somewhere out there is a Procol fan with the cash or the contacts to sponsor such an enterprise: please don't read any further, but contact Andrew Phillips now [telephone (44) (0)1252 873313; fax (44) (0)1252 871517]! It would be brilliant to see the Brooker ensemble polished to perfection by touring, and its repertoire expanded. It might prompt Gary to do some new 'Ensemble' arrangements of numbers such as Look to Your Soul, Fools' Gold, Something Magic, As Strong As Samson, or Salad Days (Are Here Again): songs which deserve to resound across the Cathedral squares of Britain, Europe and beyond.
The Salty Dog Latin had worked best as a wash behind the vernacular vocal, rather than as a patter-style chant: in Within Our House too we were responding to the choral texture at a sensual level. The mind can't really decode four independent melodic voices, which is what Nicholas Dodd's complex quartet (uncredited on the CD) offers us in the middle of the piece. Karen Kershaw (soprano), Ghislaine Dixon (alto), Simon Williamson (tenor) and Peter Totterdell (bass) sounded tremendous, but they could have done with a touch more amplification: their voices had a long way to travel over the seated band. Mark Brzezicki was playing down, worried about swamping the strings, and Dave Bronze also kept himself in the background: you certainly need such ego-free players to make this delicate Ensemble work.
Where I was sitting, Brooker's high notes (in the Samson-like pitching and yawing melody that concludes the verses) didn't quite come across; the piano, by contrast, sounded a bit ploddy and loud. Such flawed balance is the price you pay for sitting up front: elsewhere, I'm told, it sounded excellent. Pip Jones, veteran of many Procol/Brooker tours, was at the sound console: he had positioned his cabinets unobtrusively down the aisles, interpolated among the Stations of the Cross, to give the ensemble some 'lift' and help counter the time-delay problem. Anyone with miked-up lapels or a VCR in their hat could have done very well, but this wasn't a wired-up Redhill-type audience. Sadly I didn't even see a reference DAT running from the sound-desk ... .
Dodd's quartet-writing makes this probably the most elaborate Procoloid music to date, but its beauty can't disguise the predictability of the underlying harmonies, nor the fact that the song truly is 'son of Pale' for the first few bars. Nobody begrudged Brooker the way he derived the original Conquistador intro from the first four notes of Poison Ivy: it was a witty link between the Paramounts and Procol Harum. The present song also harks back to a previous musical call-sign, but without really transcending it. Having offered that criticism, though, I have to admit that familiarity pays off at another level: Within our House is the one Aldershot tune I can't get out of my head three ... five ... eleven days later!
What of the words? It seems probable that they were written to order, with the St Mary's concert in mind. For once the musical structure appears to have dictated the verse-form – where does triplet rhyme ('feast / cease / peace') feature in Keith's unforced writing? – just as the occasion demanded something acceptable to a Christian meeting, but not limited by it. In trying to meet this demanding brief, however, hymnodist Reid has hedged his bets and, to my way of thinking, produced a compromise that lacks the questing spirituality of much of his secular, rock work. Think of Barnyard Story. Think of Crucifiction Lane!
The text, while its global sense is clear, does not reward local scrutiny in the way that so much of his other writing does. If the 'house' is the church ('... a metaphor perhaps for the house that we're in here ...') then perhaps the 'fires that burn so bright' (a stock Reid image!) can be candles and the 'joyous feast' the Communion. If, on the other hand, they represent hearth and supper in an ordinary home (' ... that makes us feel warm, welcome and safe ...'), then it's not really clear who is to 'be our guide at every turn'. Certainly Within Our House is 'warm, optimistic and religiously circumspect' as Ron Smith has written. But alongside the unaffected joy of tonight's gospel music, its archaic 'enrich thee' and liturgical exhortations ('give thanks and prey' urges the CD insert!) are not entirely convincing.
Huge in pinstripe trousers, Mark Brzezicki beamed his way through the half-time scrummage in the centre aisle. 'Is it all right to learn the drums when you're a married lady?' joked a fan whom he offered to give lessons to. Mark was obviously moved by the whole concert experience. 'Something spiritual happens when you put strings and choir into a place like this, but it's very spiritual playing Gary's stuff anywhere,' he told me. 'His music is just the best.' I didn't find out why he hadn't played at the Barbican – I know he and 'Bronzey' were in the audience – but I did ascertain that he greatly regretted missing Redhill, having ruefully honoured his commitment to Whitesnake in Hamburg that night. As for The Prodigal Stranger album: Mark assured me that his parts were 'all live playing', not dubbed over Matt Noble's sequenced percussion as has been reported elsewhere.
Tea, coffee, wine, biscuits, Shine On apparel ... then we were back in our seats for a trio of very attractive Voci Cantanti traditional numbers, beautifully arranged by John Bawden, a singer and conductor of amateur choirs in the Hampshire area. The sopranos found the perilous first note of My Lord What a Morning flawlessly; Steal Away was simple and effective; and any suspicions that Voci were wearing their sacred hearts on their sleeves were shunted aside by the droll locomotive effects in Gospel Train: Casey Jones himself would have been proud of them, and there wasn't a po-face in the house. This would be a choir well-worth seeing in their own right.
Now the tenors and basses, and seated altos, accompanied Gary on the hyper-parenthetical (There Will Be) Peace in The Valley (For Me) which Elvis took into the charts on a gospel EP released in April, 1957. Brooker's voice sounded unexpectedly low on this number, and he made a real Elvis face as he negotiated the problematic rising chromatic 'well there will be' which leads into the climactic title-phrase. Thomas A Dorsey's lyric, unreserved in its Christian commitment, nonetheless contains a few Harumesque echoes: 'Well, I'm tired and so weary but I must go along' '... and the night is as black as the sea' '... and I'll be changed from this creature that I am.'
Although half the enjoyment of a full Procol Harum concert comes from the visceral drama of electrified volume, I'd love to hear a Procol set, unplugged, in a setting which encouraged the players to show off some licks. When Robbie and Dave ended the Presley number with little flourishes, we were reminded of the great restraint that the evening obliged them to practise. McIntosh had no complaint, however: he told me that he loves Gary's music and playing, and he loves gigging unplugged. In fact the only amplification he was using on his 1925 Gibson Junior mandolin, which was to deputise for concert harp on the next number, was a Radio-Shack tie-mike stuck on the back of the scratch-plate.
The Long Goodbye and Ghost Train are two of the great Brooker / Fisher / Reid songs from Gary's 1985 retro-flavoured Echoes in the Night set that have osmosed their way into the Procol Harum repertoire. The Long Goodbye even became the title of the Symphonic CD, albeit in ironic commemoration of the way those classic songs refuse to fade away! Gary's leisurely orchestration on that CD, however, ironed out some of the attractive metrical irregularities of the 1985 Long Goodbye, and, in changing the melody and excising the BJ beat, he emasculated it somewhat. The Ensemble's version unfortunately doesn't revert to the original tune or rhythm, but its reduced scoring restores a tension lost in the overlong orchestral version. Its instrumental break also benefits from reverting to (part of) Tim Renwick's scrupulously-constructed guitar solo. (My brother judges this the most soulless contrivance in the whole of Brookerdom; but to my mind its academic flavour sits very well between the Bronze bass runs and characteristic Fisher counterpoints).
Tonight that solo was chiefly carried by the strings, though the mix on the Gazza CD gives it chiefly to the organ. It's impossible not to be excited by that lovely tutti run up to the final vocal, reminiscent of the scalar passages at the end of Grand Finale. Brooker was in good voice, rightly pleased with this honourable setting of Keith Reid's yearning, courageous words; the 'celli may not have made the grade in the last bars, but Michael Bywater's pedal organ (which you don't hear on the CD) put an effective final touch to them.
Perhaps The Long Goodbye earned its place in the Ensemble's repertoire because it already had a choral part (not that this could have been used without adaptation: perhaps in deference to the mandolin, the Ensemble transposes the song down a semitone, into G). If so, we might hope one day to hear them tackle other choiry numbers, like Whaling Stories or Fires (Which Burnt Brightly). I'd like to hear a Voci soprano take on that Christianne Legrand solo: at the Hollywood Bowl the organ stood in for her, and at the Barbican it was the piano; mail us if you can remember what happened at the Rainbow! It might be argued that the words of songs like these make them unsuitable for a church rendering: but they're no more bleak or uncompromising than Nothing But the Truth!
'You know that bit when the vicar asks you to join in...' asked Gary, turning a mock-threatening eye on the congregation. There being no vicar to hand tonight, he took that rôle himself: 'We've all been to a rock and roll concert in a church, haven't we? Well we've all been to church?' Was this any more serious than his other asides, I wondered? We can't read any specific Christian conviction into Gary's good deeds, such as the charitable Christmas No Stiletto Shoes gigs. (By coincidence my brother, having missed Aldershot to hear the Endellion Quartet, happened to meet someone in the interval there who had been kindly rescued, fed and watered by Gary and Franky after driving a car into a ditch.)
At the end of the show I put it to Gary: 'Mark tells me he's a Catholic, and used to be an altar-boy,' I began. 'I wondered if something similar applied to all the members of this band.' 'I just chose great players, the right players for the job,' Gary replied, going on to speak warmly about Robbie McIntosh's guitar instrumental. As to his own beliefs, his answer went something like, 'Higher beings? Yes! Going to church regularly? Nah!' His Christian upbringing, he said, simply involved Scouts and Sunday School, 'the places you do your music before you're old enough to be in a rock and roll band!'
|Gary and Franky Brooker|
Interestingly, however, he dates his admiration of gospel music to a teenage visit to the Aldwych theatre, where he saw the British tour of The Black Nativity by Langston Hughes ('the poet laureate of Harlem' as he was known). This 1961 'Christmas song-play' about Jesus and the manger is part gospel choir recital, part dance theatre piece, and part revival meeting. 'It blew me away,' said Gary, 'that huge choir, organ, tambourines ...'
Back to Jesus on the Mainline, which did indeed feature tambourine, mounted Ringo-style on Brzezicki's hi-hat. Robbie McIntosh played some nice slide guitar and the strings enjoyed their blues excursion over brushed drums. Gary's evident enjoyment, as he sang, made up for the repetitive hammering home of the message: I may have criticised Within Our House for seeming woolly, but at least it sensibly avoids the hectoring chauvinism of lines like 'If you're one of His kingdom, tell Him what you want'. Nonetheless we sang 'tell Him what you want' with fuller throat than the CD audience – I wonder what Gary was telling them in the cut-off fragment that ends 'do you doubt it, ladies?' – Andrew Phillips, who had held choir and band together so well all evening, nicely judged the timing of the conclusion.
Now it was time for Psalm 150 ('Psalm for St Mary' as the Gazza CD calls it), the last psalm in the book, set to music by Brooker because 'when we were first invited to play in a church, we thought, you can't just go in and play Rip it up – well you can, but it would be a wasted opportunity.' He briefly explained what had been going through the mind of King David, his 'other' text-monger: 'Basically he's saying, praise God for the Fender gee-tar,' (though Robbie was using an F46 Guild), 'praise Him for the Hammond organ' (we'd been listening to an electric-action Walker two-manual, rebuilt 1973), 'and praise Him for the digital pianos which are in tune all the time!' (on this occasion Gary was using a Yamaha, 'borrowed from a blonde in the choir').
I'd slightly resented this piece on the CD, thinking it had usurped a Brooker / Reid number; in real life, however, it was very exciting, even if it did seem poised to turn into Drunk Again or even Nothing But the Truth now and then, and I shall return to the recording with new enjoyment. Gary ended by saying 'Psalm 150, a new arrangement': perhaps referring to a startling departure from battle-plan in the piano solo which excitingly proved that the band were not constricted by the presence of 'dots' but could follow their noses and ears when they felt like it, or when necessity called.
A Whiter Shade of Pale began with the nonet's cut-down Darryl Way minor-key introduction, much more appealing tonight, in these decorous George Martin proportions, than in the full orchestral lushness we hear on the Long Goodbye CD. And this song is indeed enjoying a most protracted goodbye: I wonder how many times Gary has sung it? He introduced it with a humble 'We don't normally get away without playing this one,' which might suggest that he doesn't want AWSoP viewed as the apogee of his song-writing achievement. It's certainly the sole number in the concert that the whole audience knew; but the fact that all Procol's Top-30 singles date from Gary's very first burst of songwriting reflects ill rather on the public than on his material. Tonight's excellent Brooker music spanned almost thirty years: songs published in 1967, 1969, 1975, 1985, 1991 and 1996.
There wasn't the same applause we'd heard at the Barbican when the famous organ melody burst in, but then it wasn't being played by its creator tonight. We might assume that a church gig would not appeal to the man who once went on record with the (typically direct) lyric, 'Some folk say they're religious, but what do they believe in ... I don't need no phoney shield for me to hide behind ...' Yet I believe that Matthew Fisher played at the Brooker wedding in 1968, and his ecclesiastical Repent Walpurgis is one of the highlights of the Long Goodbye album: I should have enjoyed hearing him play his famous parts on this church organ.
Not that Michael Bywater was deficient in any way. It was fine to see and hear him executing the glissando, down the swell manual and up the great. His counterpoint in the verses is played from a score in which Gary has notated a fair, but by no means pedantic, approximation to the hallowed original: he clearly doesn't see that organ-line as being written in stone. This particular song had a handwritten score, but others were generated with 'Notator' on Gary's old Atari: he is yet to produce scores on his Apple Mac. He may not have had any formal training, said Andy Phillips, but his arrangements are 'very user-friendly'.
This was 'only' a two-verse AWSoP, with the Brooker vocal hanging well behind the beat, and his eyes fast shut all through 'although my eyes were open'. The song rang gloriously round the church and seemed to end (after that double-handed trilling piano insert, something you don't often hear from a rock man) on exactly the same chord as Grand Finale.
'Thanks to everyone for playing so well,' Gary exclaimed in valediction. 'Except a few in the choir who were singing a bit flat: I'll have a word with you afterwards!' Ladies in the choir tittered, and Dave Bronze capped the mockery immediately with 'Any excuse!' Many of the audience knew he was off to Korea and Japan for a month with Eric Clapton, Steve Gadd, Andy Fairweather-Low and Chris Stainton; and that Brooker was off the next morning to rehearse with Bill Wyman, Georgie Fame and the other Rhythm Kings ... including Procol's excellent Graham Broad on drums. But we clapped and we clapped on the off-chance of bringing the Ensemble back.
Though the evening had not run in the same order as the CD, we had heard exactly the same Within Our House programme as last year. Gary had vaguely intended to come up with something new for an encore, Andy Phillips revealed later, but it didn't materialise. 'He's extraordinarily laid-back, but it's good fun working with him,' was his summary. 'He's such a star!'
Suddenly that star was back at the piano, treating us to a mischievous blast of the previously-forsworn Rip It Up: Little Richard, of course, is the paradigmatic migrant from 'the devil's music' to Christianity, not that he wrote Rip it Up himself. Then he announced, in response to yelling from the front row (I've never yelled in church before!) that the Ensemble would have another crack at the fantastic Holding On. 'Douglas Adams says this should have been a single,' said Gary as he carefully gave the choir their 'Swahili' note, 'but it hasn't come out yet'. In my naïve way I used to assume that the artist had some control over the material that was released in his name: but later Gary was saying that he'd had no prior warning of the Westside 30th anniversary re-releases ('Where'd they get a '67 Magdalene from?'): the band weren't sent copies of the Repertoire discs either. There seems to be no strategy at all to these never-ending re-issues: 'More cock-up than conspiracy,' was John Grayson's summary.
This second assault on Holding On was simply magnificent. By comparison the first attempt had really been Holding Back; here everyone played for all they were worth, choir jubilant, Brooker jubilant, Bronze in a rocking trance. The song's bewildering profusion of textures seemed to be somehow epitomised by the Army Catering Corps memorial, peeping over his shoulder. I don't think I've heard anything finer from Mr Brooker on any stage, and that's saying something!
Then, alas, it was goodbye to St Michael and St George, that strange meeting-place of high and low, high art and popular culture, Voci and Procol. I remember Gary Brooker on Radio Luxembourg, promoting Broken Barricades, explaining that the roots of Harum music lay in 'the blues ... or in the lungs of some giant organ', apparently satisfied with that outright contradiction. Perhaps we should be so too. Yet in fact these opposing saints also feature together in a decoration awarded for the highest achievements in public life, the Order of St Michael and Saint George. Roll on Gary and friends ... after that royal dedication, you never know!
And we were off into bleak army land, dotted with military churches of other denominations, following some long road that goes nowhere past lines of unbroken barricades. 'The Army descended on Aldershot in 1854. It created miles of great dreariness.' (Pevsner again). But those miles of dreariness are relieved by the little haven of the North Camp Fish Bar, which advertises itself by a rakishly-angled Union flag. Here, as well as fish and chips, you can buy the evening's final great contradiction, battered Mars Bars. The insides don't melt in the scalding fat, apparently, if you slop enough cold mixture on them before they're immersed. 'We experimented with Aero, Cadbury's Creme Egg, and KitKat as well,' the fryer informed me. 'KitKat works quite well but it affects the fat, specially when you've got a new block in. But Mars Bars in batter are a winner. Squaddies love 'em.'
Thanks to Linda Clare for the photographs
Order Within Our House (recorded 1996) from Gary
Visit Voci Cantanti's website
Musicians' resumés from the Aldershot programme