Procol Harum

the Pale

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Procol at Cullen Auditorium, Houston Texas: June 1972

Mike Morgan, for 'Beyond the Pale'

Procol Harum returned to San Antonio (see here) in summer 1971, with Robin Trower on his last tour of duty with the band. However, because of a family trip to visit my brother at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, I was unable to attend. Perhaps I consoled myself saying there's always next year, not realising the tenuous and nefarious life of musicians and their bands.
In Spring 1972, Procol Harum issued their ambitious and grandiose collaboration with the Edmonton Symphony. From it, they scored a hit single in the States with Conquistador.
During this time I had met a fellow guitar player, to whom I had given the chords to Rocky Racoon when we were in high school. We would play together and try to write songs for years to come. We shared a lot of influences: The Beatles, Rolling Stones, old blues and rock 'n' roll, and I had turned him on to The Kinks. I was also trying to get him interested in Procol Harum, but with not much success. When summer 1972 rolled around, I learned that Procol Harum would be appearing in Houston, but not San Antonio. Houston is a five-hour drive from Kingsville, and I needed a ride, so I was trying to convince Rusty that we needed to go see Procol Harum in Houston. Again, he was not much interested. ("Well, I don't know ... maybe ... we'll see, etc.)
Well, the day of the concert came, and I still hadn't gotten an affirmative reply from Rusty, and so I had all-but given up hope of catching Procol in Houston. Then, around noon of that day, the phone rings and it's Rusty! He said, "Hey, I just heard Conquistador on the radio. That's a pretty cool song! I changed my mind, I think we should go to Houston."
Hallelujah! Within the hour, we were headed up Highway 77 en route to Houston, Texas. You take 59 around Victoria, and taking in the sights along the way, we saw an old 30s and 40s-style tourist court motel, with the rooms fashioned to look like Indian TeePees! Then, there's an old wooden church in Tivoli, a black and white drawing of which I think features prominently on the cover of an International Artists compilation, The 13th Floor Elevators' old label. Also, there's an assortment of old abandoned pick-up trucks and 1940s model cars, all reminders that the peak of American civilization had already come and gone by the 1970s (not to mention that the American landscape and cars of Humphrey Bogart movies had actually once existed thirty years earlier!)
Miles from our destination, the Houston skyline appears on the coastal plains, with its modern glass skyscrapers looking for all the world like The Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz. Then, you go through Sugartown, the location of the penitentiary from which, legend has it, Leadbelly wrote The Midnight Special.
Blending in with the freeway traffic, we found our way to Cullen Auditorium. We arrived quite early, an hour or two before show time, so we walked around exploring the grounds. Around back, we could see that Procol Harum's equipment had arrived via Ryder Trucks. (I guess I expected them to travel by British lorries!) The back of the auditorium was wide open, so we took a little tour of the proceedings. I remember staring in awe at Chris Copping's organ (the legendary Hammond B3 I guess, favored by American jazz and R 'n' B artists). "So, that's the magic machine that helps create such wonderful musical landscapes in my imagination!"). It was in a beautiful maple cabinet, with a double deck of keyboards, all kinds of interesting stops, and atop it was a little keyboard, perhaps a Mellotron?
Well, before long it was time to find our seats, and they turned out to be in the balcony. Cullen Auditorium is spacious, yet fairly intimate at the same time, and the view from the balcony (as well as the sound ) was quite satisfactory ("Once I stood on Olympus")!
Opening act was Robert Fripp (was he already on his own in '72? I don't remember. I was not much of a King Crimson fan. Although Fripp did some work with Brian Eno in the '80s that I enjoyed and he also appeared in a double interview in Musician magazine with Joe Strummer of The Clash, a musician and a band that I greatly admired (so perhaps I missed the boat on that one). Anyway, Fripp sat down to play guitar (ostensibly because what he was playing required Segovia-like concentration or something) but it didn't fly for me.
So, bring on Procol Harum! The curtain opened, and I swear Gary Brooker was wearing a black naval Captain's or Admiral's jacket (four stripes on the sleeves)! That may be just my imagination, but nonetheless, that's how I remember it!
I don't remember much about the setlist, but I do remember that the show had a very intimate feel to it, owing no doubt to the intimacy of the auditorium. And it had the feeling of a concert as opposed to a rock show. The band played together marvelously and their communication with one another seemed intense. It was almost like a continuation of the Edmonton Symphony LP in spite of the glaring absence of the orchestra. Chris Copping's Mellotron or synthesiser and his organ-playing were an adequate cover for Gary Brooker's scores. The sound seemed to hark back to the earlier Procol Harum albums. If you look at the setlists from 1972, you can see that – yes indeed – they were playing some of the earlier songs in combination with some well chosen nuggets from the third, fourth and fifth albums, as well as the brand new songs that would appear on Grand Hotel. (I wonder if they had even recorded them yet?)
All in all, it was sort of a taking stock of the repertoire/inventory period for the band perhaps brought on by the departure of Robin Trower, and the addition of the two new members, Dave Ball and Alan Cartwright.
Dave Ball's cherry red Gibson SG sound on the album had been somewhat problematic for me (not as satisfying as Robin Trower's Les Paul playing) But, now in concert, he was making an outstanding contribution to the band's overall sound.
At some point, Gary Brooker announced that they would be débuting a song or two from their forthcoming album which I heard as Grant Hotel. I have no idea what song or songs those may have been, and it was another nine months or so before that outstanding album was released (Grand Hotel). I went home though, my imagination peaking, and tried to do a rendering of what I imagined the album cover would look like. I used the picture on the inside of the Travis Club Senators cigar box (of an old 1920s or 30s-era hotel complete with black 1929 phaetons parked and passing by) as the template.
 The concert was very satisfying and in deference to A Salty Dog and Whaling Stories, we decided to take the coastal route home to Kingsville (a little out of the way, but we were in the mood for adventure!). As we sped off into the moonlight, we were searching in vain to find something on AM radio that wouldn't blow the buzz we were feeling from hearing Procol Harum's real music. Suddenly, miraculously, we tuned in some kind of authentic and extended blues song! Perhaps we were picking up New Orleans or Shreveport on "the skip". Whatever, for the next ten minutes or so we were having a ball! No idea who the artist may have been.
The next night, we were still stoked by the concert, and got together over at Rusty's house to jam. He had a baby grand piano in his room and some kind of organ on loan plus a Sony two-track tape recorder. We tried to write a song that captured the ambience of our Procol Harum adventure conjuring some imagined sleazy waterfront saloon perhaps in Galveston (not quite in the same league as Procol Harum, but we had a lot of fun trying)!
Although he genuinely enjoyed the concert, Rusty never did become a big Procol Harum fan. It's worth noting though, that the year before we met, we had both taken piano lessons. I with my church organist, and Rusty with Dr Jan Drath, a charming and diminutive Polish expatriate and then music professor at Texas A&I University in Kingsville who somewhat resembled Van Morrison in his countenance. Dr Drath had escaped from behind the Iron Curtain while on tour no doubt, as he was reputedly one of the top five interpreters of Chopin at that time.
Anyway, Rusty struck up a friendship with the man, building him a nice wooden shelf for his music, and paying occasional visits just to talk and so on. He was a pretty cool guy. He went to see Chinatown with us one summer night in 1974 and one time we showed up at his apartment unannounced and we heard some rustling about inside before his "personal secretary" Miss Hildebrand finally answered the door and said sheepishly, "We were just doing some yoga exercises!" Dr Drath greeted us cheerfully saying, "Welcome gentlemen! You've come at a very good time! (we were still just around twenty at the time and somewhat unversed in the social graces.)
But the anecdote that really sticks out was one time when we went to visit and I brought along Procol Harum's A Salty Dog album to see what this classically-trained, old-world piano master would think of it. We played the opening track, A Salty Dog, and he was duly impressed. But, while listening to the next track, The Milk of Human Kindness, during BJ Wilson's incredibly syncopated drum rolls in the instrumental break, Dr Drath got so physically involved in keeping the beat, that the ice cubes in his drink actually went flying out of his glass and on to the floor! It was hilarious!
Mike Morgan, Kingsville, Texas: more from this correspondent

Thanks, Mike!

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