Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale

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'I was in Heaven'

Mirek Plodzik on Procol Harum and the LSO
in Poland's Tylko Rock No 5, 1996

Polish / English translation Monika Kozak


London Barbican Hall, 8 February 1996.

Barbican Hall made a great impression on me. When I darted in panting, with my travelling-bag on my shoulder, I saw marble floors, enormous pillars, space filled with yellow light from huge chandeliers, in one word bliss and majesty. The hall was empty. Only policemen and attendants. The first one to greet me was ... Gary Brooker. With Homburg. His voice sounded flat in the abandoned hall. The voice and music separated from the external world by a double wooden door. It took me three minutes to convince the attendant that the copy of the ticket which I was waving in front of her nose was an authentic reservation. I think that it was my desperate gaze that convinced her. The Heavenly gates had opened. When I took my seat (sector III, seat 59) I was ten fifteen minutes late! But about that later.

At first I was in shock. That was because of the crystal-clear sound and the amount of musicians on the stage. The London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Dodd is a big orchestra. The Chameleon Arts Chorus is a quite large chorus. All together about ninety people and ... the five members of Procol Harum. The most important one Gary Brooker was sitting in front of a Steinway in the middle of the stage (almost on its edge), hitting the keys gracefully, singing and entertaining the audience with fine jokes for over 150 minutes! He was dressed in a dark, elegant suit; his shirt was 'crimson lake' (a shade of red), with a platinic brooch instead of a bow-tie and he had a subtly-braided tress. He looked more dignified than prince Carol himself.

To his left the violins, harpsichord, drum and tubular bells located themselves. To his right the contrabass and cellos. The next two levels were filled by the choir. At the top brass instruments (they were said to be exquisite in Conquistador) and the rest of Procol Harum: Geoff Whitehorn (guitar), Henry Spinetti (drums), Matt Pegg (bass) and Matt Fisher (Hammond organ). The conductor, Nicholas Dodd, with an effective pony-tail, was standing on an elevation, right behind  Brooker's Steinway.

The acoustics in the hall were brilliant. After all, Barbican Hall is the abode of LSO. Sounds melted in ones ears and the harsher beats of the band only added spice to this musical feast. This concert which was promoting the record The Long Goodbye Symphonic Music of Procol Harum (recorded in Dolby Surround) proved to an over two thousand people audience that PH is still maintaining a high level in music, stage culture and ... what can I say ... they have an artistry that compares with the greatest, not only in rock. To me, from then on, songs like A Salty Dog, Strangers in Space, Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) or Repent Walpurgis stopped being only rock classics. They could surely be in the repertoire of any classical symphonic orchestra.

It is hard for me to describe what I have seen and heard that evening because the variety of sounds, tones, emotions and the omnipresent nostalgia require a wider commentary and a bit of literary skills. One thing is sure I was in Heaven! I have always wanted to go back in time and take a seat in the Jubilee Auditorium on November 18, 1971 in Edmonton, where PH played with a symphonic orchestra their most famous concert. I think that on February 8, this year I have experienced a part of that happening. I have witnessed the performing of fifteen of the band's greatest pieces. They were arranged in an extended way, played with verve, the lightness of a virtuoso and the fantasy of an extravagant genius. 'This type of moments happen once in a million years' that was the commentary of T Beksinski to PH's concert at the Congress Hall in Warsaw, in 1992. That is also my commentary to the London concert. The ultimate sensation of symphonic rock.

What was next?

During the second half of the concert, PH & LSO played three pieces from the record The Prodigal Stranger: Holding On, Man With A Mission and Into The Flood. I must admit that those songs from that unappreciated record come out sensationally on concerts. That evening I was the witness of a wonderful, rock-symphonic performance of those songs which come up in my opinion to the biggest hits of the group (earlier there was (You Can't) Turn Back The Page). The last part was a feast in the Heavens: Repent Walpurgis, Grand Hotel and A Whiter Shade Of Pale. The applause would not stop and nobody wanted to leave the auditorium. Bielszy Odcien Bladosci only poured oil on the flames (played and sung superbly by Brooker) because I found myself in ... Edmonton in 1971. And so it happened. The Grand Finale ... vigour, profoundness, power and ... nostalgia. Geoff Whitehorn gave a show on his guitar (Fender Stratocaster). The 'spicy' ending of the song lifted everyone to their feet. There was a standing ovation, bows, thanks and the famous 'goodnight'. Luckily the 'good night' was not over yet. As an encore, Gary Brooker selected two rock'n'roll standards, played freely but with the full engagement of the orchestra, with the swinging choir and the audience clapping in the rhythm of the songs. It was amazing. Fifteen minutes of symphonic rock'n'roll of the highest class and of common fun.

The audience stood up two more times. Brooker thanked all the musicians of LSO, called the tiny dancer which performed in Simple Sister on to the stage, hugged his close friend Nicholas Dodd, presented the members of his band and ... went off the stage for good. The satisfied and a bit tired audience slowly started leaving the auditorium and filling the hall. The age average was 3040. People were dressed differently, with thick concert programmes in their hands, a lot of fans were dressed in original band T-shirts, beautiful women with opera-glasses, journalists and ... I, dirty, tired but happy.

My trip to London was not less interesting than the concert itself.  First a strike in Calais delayed the departure of my ferry-boat from the shore of France for a few hours, then the scrupulosity and sluggishness of the English customs officers detained me in Newhaven for over an hour. That was the reason I was late for Conquistador and Homburg. While travelling I was in torment, I truly agonized and doubted a thousand times in the purposefulness of my spontaneous trip to London (I learned about the concert literally in the last minute).

And yet everything turned out wonderfully. Well, as they say: 'the road to Heaven leads through the purgatory'.


The article's writer Mirek Plodzik says: 'This edition of Tylko was a great matter for Procol Harum 's publicity. You can find there the special insertion [10 pages!] dedicated to Procol's career titled Tylko Procol Harum [it means 'Only Procol Harum' in English]. Every edition of Tylko includes such a special
insertion dedicated any famous rock band. In my calculation Procol was about 60th next. But our Gods got ahead of such famous bands like King Crimson, The Yardbirds, Frank Zappa, Kansas, Free, Whitesnake or Talking Heads. It is a good result, I think.

I remember ['it seems as clear as yesterday'] the next day after the Concert  I bought the Evening Standard that was the only newspaper in which I had found any mention about this great event. But after reading it I was crushed with grief of this nonsense include there. I called Rick Jones, the author of review, the 'block-head' and 'stone-deaf-man'! During my home back I had a feeling of disgust that there are some people who lie in one's throat on the Earth. But really I didn't believe that Mr Rick 'Blockhead' Jones, considers oneself a higher culture's advocate, was so much disgusted with the Concert, I didn't believe his cynicism and critic's acrimony, and his deafness. And even today I don't believe his opinion about Procol Harum. And you?'


More about the Barbican concert


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