Procol Harum

the Pale

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Danish Delight! or 'If Carlsberg did Rock Bands,
they’d probably sound like Procol Harum'

Charlie Allison reviews Procol Harum in Concert with the Danish National Concert Orchestra and Choir on CD

 I wasn’t going to do a critique of the CD at this time, as I did review the gig itself - which was an occasion to be savoured indeed! I have also been fortunate to download a visual portion of this concert in that brief window of opportunity, and didn’t want to crow about it – although one imagines anyone in Denmark or with access to the Danish TV on satellite will also have kept that golden hour transmitted on Christmas morning 2008.

I was therefore going to wait for the DVD release in May, but then I realised I was to be in New Zealand at the time ... so I’d better get a word or two in now! Maybe, just maybe, mentioning how it looks as well as how it sounds ... that’ll get you in a state of frenzied anticipation for the DVD (won’t it?). I have already ordered my copy plus a couple more for family and friends – so having a 'taster' actually encourages rather than discourages fans to buy the full product – a marketing ploy that McCartney and Elton John have employed to good effect in recent times by doing TV specials to promote new material.

The CD is pretty well the gig as transmitted on television. And it is probably 'the best bits' so to speak, if you’ve had to choose a varied and spirited programme from the complete set.

The sound is stunning. The clarity and power of the orchestra and the heavenly voices of the chorus combine to enhance the band, who are all in top form – with scarcely a glitch of tone or tempo. All of the tracks are excellent, some are wonderful – among the best live performances ever.

Illustration by Peter ChristianAnd before I run through the concert itself, I must commend Prof. Roland C (from BtP) for again producing wonderfully informative and well-written liner-notes – albeit (he tells us) with a mystery mistake somewhere ... I haven’t spotted it (yet). It was also good to be reminded of the happy occasion for Palers, both at the Castle and at Lejre, in the dairy that rocked (illustration, right).

We start with Grand Hotel ... a quiet opening, which brings me to my only slight quibble ... might it not have been better to commence with the rousing intro to Something Magic? The violin part has been more 'gypsied' on other occasions but Geoff’s re-entry into the song is strong and spirited, as one expects. Mark’s drumming is back to normal, after a restrained, sparer performance with the Hallé in Manchester – I note that in the liner notes he does say playing outdoors allows for opening out, so to speak.

Something Magic is wonderful, maybe better here than the recorded version – fuller orchestra & choir, and featured woodwind players are given a chance to shine in the quieter passages. Gary sings this particularly well – in fact is in fine voice throughout.  I found myself singing along with Geoff's excellent backing vocals

Homburg – a carbon copy of the orchestral version with the heavenly voices, first heard on the Long Goodbye album. Nicely floaty in the sylvan setting. Features a shot of an all-seeing gargoyle, keeping a watchful eye on the 12,000 crowd. Doesn’t he remind me of someone?

Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) is fantastic with an orchestra and choir, and it has never sounded better than here. It features a great extended organ passage by Josh, where you might have expected the orchestra to take the melody. I always thought this was BJ’s finest hour on drums, and Mark is almost strike-perfect here. Gary has an extra plaintive cry of “Oh Fires” near to the end which just heightens the song to a further level.

Nothing but the Truth is quick and almost throwaway, as the orchestra’s contribution is minor but the choir do well to keep up with the tempo.

Into the Flood is no longer a concert curio, but a mainstay of the orchestral event. This is the full-length version with that signature bit of Beethoven’s Vth, sawing violins hoe-downing in the break ... it all seems to make perfect sense and gets a big ovation.

A Salty Dog has never sounded better than here. Geoff’s guitar has insinuated itself right through this song now, from the first seagulls to the last, and even the orchestra doesn’t inhibit him (nor indeed Josh) from contributing significantly. Matt is tight, Mark B is BJ again (plus a lovely floor-tom roll at one point in the second verse) and Gary sings this powerfully and elegantly. Five stars. A landmark track.

Symphathy for the Hard of Hearing however is even better than this. This previously-obscure Brooker song is built from wistful passages through a fast section then furiously goes to a climactic finish. You hear a robust bottom end (Matt and the percussionists), there are incessant drums and crashing cymbals (both Mark and at one point the orchestra chap nearly off his feet!), there’s a delicious blending of Gary, Geoff, the brass and choir all seemingly competing in one narrow frequency so that each’s contribution squeezes out extra drama. Gary sings this WWII tale with complete conviction - his “Hard of Hearings” are wonderful towards the end. At the very last, Geoff improvises brilliantly before the final chord, when Mark just shakes his head at the enormity of what’s just been played. I reckon this will become seen as a magic moment for the band – something like that guitar solo in Quite Rightly So at Union Chapel which was then followed by a three-song spell to the interval (Wizard Man, Simple Sister and The Signature) that has never been bettered. This song is now a major part of the repertoire and deserves wider exposure and recognition.

AWSoP: pastoral setting, orchestral opening, first verse with piano, Hammond for the second (but not the big applause at this juncture) but loud applause at the end.

Conquistador – the orchestra, particularly the prominently-featured brass section, are flat out here. I have always thought that the tempo of this song has been greatly enhanced by Mark’s bass drum kicks in the verses which give it extra energy, and it really rocks along here. Geoff's guitar solo is a mite too intricate for my liking compared with many he’s done – but hey, every live performance is different.

Well this CD is a must to have (you can’t play DVDs in the car for a start) but we do look forward eagerly to the full-length concert in May. The sound on the broadcast fragment I have is excellent (just like the CD in fact) – but then I presume we’ll also have the 5:1 mix to hear on our cinema systems too. What a prospect!

The news of the band returning to the studio just adds to the feeling that the 2008 sabbatical was a good idea and that it’s a great time to be a Procol Harum fan.. What delights will follow? Tours, TV, new CDs? We can only hope and speculate ... .

Another new dawn and perhaps a greater recognition of their true worth to the history of rock and roll.

Shining On Very Brightly indeed

Thanks, Charlie

The Ledreborg CD | More reviews of this recording

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