You’ve heard their music even if you don’t realize that you’ve heard it.
When they issue the soundtrack for our generation, Procol Harum will doubtless be included, as they have become an icon for classic/art/prog rock at its best (even though none of the aforementioned genres actually represent the band’s music). Never exactly a household name, the band that started out some 42 years ago when Gary Brooker first put music to Keith Reid’s words is still vital, still touring, and sounding amazingly fresh, as this live recording will attest.
Since 1967’s release of A Whiter Shade of Pale, Gary Brooker and Keith Reid, like Steely Dan’s Becker and Fagan, have been the creative constant at the helm of this musical ship. The initial decade of the band’s recording produced a body of work that relied more on the quality of the compositions than on rock star posturing or pandering to the latest trend. Unique songs like A Salty Dog, Conquistador, Whaling Stories, Grand Hotel, and Homburg have no expiration date, and are as uniquely compelling today as they were when first written. Indeed, it’s the strength of these compositions that have given the band staying power even after the loss of seminal band members as potently memorable as guitarist Robin Trower, who managed to carve out an impressive career on his own, and the uniquely brilliant drummer, the late, legendary BJ Wilson.
After more than a decade off, Procol Harum returned to the studio and to the road in the early nineties, to the delight of their loyal cadre of fans the world over. Today, Procol Harum is a band that’s tighter and more musically sound than ever, with Gary Brooker’s signature vocals sounding richer and more expressive than they did forty years ago – still hitting even those high notes and soulfully phrasing those wonderfully enigmatic lyrics.
Procol Harum was one of the few rock acts to successfully record with a full orchestra and choir – in fact, it was 1971’s Live With the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra album that produced one of their biggest singles, Conquistador. Well, they’ve done it again – this time in Denmark, in the majestic outdoor setting of Ledreborg Castle, a concert stunningly recorded using state-of-the-art technology capturing each human and instrumental voice with amazing presence and clarity. The live mix used more than 100 channels into the PA system, resulting in the best balance of rock band, orchestra and choir ever produced (the concert was also brilliantly filmed for DVD release). Brooker’s piano and voice were in top form, and so were the rest of the band; the articulate bass playing of Matt Pegg, the sure-footed, signature Hammond playing supplied by Josh Phillips, the powerful and intelligent drumming of Mark Brzezicki, and the virtuosic guitar work of the amazing Geoff Whitehorn – each musician well-tuned to the rest, playing with precision and soul.
The set-list allowed for the band to play The VIP Room and An Old English Dream, two songs from their 2003 studio project (The Well’s on Fire) without orchestra and choir, displaying the rock chops that these veterans have developed through years of touring. The thirteen songs performed with orchestra and choir were culled from the band’s first decade, and a special treat, the impressive Brooker piece from his ‘solo’ period, Symphathy for the Hard of Hearing was added to the program. Songs like Grand Hotel and Something Magic essentially stick to their familiar arrangements while Nothing But the Truth, Simple Sister, Homburg, and A Whiter Shade of Pale are nestled in new arrangements that explore the orchestral possibilities of the compositions. The result is not a rock band fighting an orchestra but a rock band, orchestra and choir working hand-in-glove to produce inspired, classic rock music – the drums still thunder, the piano alternately pounds and flourishes, the guitar still wails and rocks, the bass still drives the music – all while the orchestra and choir join in, having fun while adding a measure of class seldom found in most other rock/classic attempts.
Procol Harum in Concert with the Danish National Concert Orchestra and Choir is available as a ten-track physical CD package or can be downloaded from 'Beyond the Pale', the Procol Harum website (www.procolharum.com), as the complete fifteen-song concert.
In his latter years, actor Boris Karloff explained that he kept making movies because, every time he did, he provided employment for scores of stunt people and assistants. The same situation also applies for many ‘classic’ rock acts that reunite to tour – providing employment for an army of supplementary players. Not so for Procol Harum, whose five members play their own music with energy, class and inspired soul. But this time, they just happen to do it with the Danish National Concert Orchestra and Choir, and a good time is obviously had by all.
Bert Saraco (see here and here)
Other Procol Harum recordings | Procol Harum record reviews | This concert on audio CD | More of this concert on DVD