Procol Harum: Barbican Hall, London
In late-fifties Southend-on-Sea, Procol Harum began as The Paramounts, a primitive R & B band. Despite the patronage of the Rolling Stones, success kept its distance until the singer/pianist Gary Brooker met the lyricist Keith Reid, and the unit metamorphosed into Procol Harum. In 1967, the enigmatic Whiter Shade of Pale seared them into the history books.
So much so that 29 years later, Procol Harum seem neither old nor out of date, just the same teasingly intangible presence they’ve always been. Never a band to trade on personalities (although Brooker makes a pleasingly facetious master of ceremonies), they have proved that what they do best is make surrogate-classical music stronger on atmosphere than on literal sense.
The success of their 1972 live album, recorded with Canada’s Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, proved that Procol were virtually unique among rock bands in having a repertoire which might actually be enhanced by massed brass, strings and woodwinds.
This Barbican appearance was the logical counterpart to the group’s new album, The Long Goodbye, which features (among others) the London Symphony orchestra playing Brooker’s new arrangements of Procol classics, alongside a smattering of new songs. Under the energetic baton of Nicholas Dodd, a full-scale LSO, plus the Chameleon Arts Chorus, almost crowded the five-piece band off the stage. Since the Edmonton adventure, Procol have teamed up with orchestras from as far afield as California or Japan. Still, the speed with which the Barbican tickets sold out evidently amazed all concerned, although perhaps not the committed Procol fan Douglas Adams, who delivered a eulogy before the band took the stage.
The fans watched the proceedings with a kind of analytical approval, as if aware that tearful outpourings of nostalgia would really not be appropriate for Brooker’s men. In full-blown classical style, the concert brochure listed the pieces to be played, while Brooker emerged from the wings in a dark suit with his grey hair in a tidy ponytail.
But this was more than 'these you have loved'. The songs had been artfully refurbished and expanded. Grand Hotel cut an elegant caper with its antiphonal vocal passages, accelerating waltz episodes and intimations of old Vienna. The instrumental piece, Repent Walpurgis, revelled in its Gothicky exclamations, while the newish The Long Goodbye played off neat choral effects against a rowdy electric interlude.
A Whiter Shade Of Pale inevitably drew the most rapturous reception, especially when Matthew Fisher’s skirling organ sliced in underneath Brooker’s supple vocals. Nevertheless, I suggest that Procol’s finest song is A Salty Dog, freshly kitted out with an orchestral prelude. The song’s stately cadences, poignantly incomprehensible imagery and droll nautical effects sum up the essence of Procol Harum. Long may she sail.