It seems like an unassailable idea: take an aging but
well-respected classic-rock band, pair it with an orchestra and choir, film
and record the concert given in front of an audience of appreciative fans,
and put together a nicely assembled DVD. Certainly, Eagle Rock has delivered
a typically impressive technical package. The anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer is
crystal clear. Even if you attended the show, you probably didn't see it as
clearly as this DVD looks. The audio mixes, especially the DTS 5.1 Surround
mix, are all impeccable. There's plenty of volume to test the toughest sound
system, but there's also enough perfectly balanced separation to make a
grown man weep. Plus, Procol Harum, the '60s progressive rock outfit
responsible for a series of ambitious and inventive singles and albums in
the late '60s and early '70s, is a worthy band to commemorate in such
fashion. So, Procol Harum: In Concert with the Danish National Concert
Orchestra & Choir is a good DVD and that's that, right?
Not exactly. Let's start with the particulars. In Concert was filmed in August 2006 at Denmark's Ledreborg Castle. Here is the set list: Grand Hotel / Something Magic / Butterfly Boys / Homburg / The VIP Room / Fires (Which Burn Brightly) / Nothing But the Truth / Into the Flood / Simple Sister / A Salty Dog / An Old English Dream / Sympathy [sic] for the Hard of Hearing / A Whiter Shade of Pale / Whaling Stories / Conquistador.
At first glance, this would seem like a no-brainer since Procol Harum's music has always had a classical element. After all, A Whiter Shade of Pale, the band's biggest and most celebrated hit, is based on a Bach melody. Plus, Procol Harum was one of the first bands to record a live album with an orchestra. Back in 1971, an earlier incarnation of the band recorded In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, an album that not only helped pave the way for subsequent orchestral collaborations by Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Metallica, but was also one of Procol Harum's biggest albums in the United States. So this isn't entirely out of character for them.
However, considering how much Procol Harum has done this before,
it's genuinely perplexing why the band doesn't really mesh well with the
orchestra and chorus. In too many places, the orchestra just adds unnecessary
padding, making the music sound muddled when it should just sound full. The
string arrangements don't uncover new dimensions in these songs; instead, they
just rehash the melodies that the band itself is already playing, resulting in
an unsatisfying hodgepodge of sounds. The choir is even worse – the vocal
harmonies are so cloying that they end up sounding unintentionally comical. A
Whiter Shade of Pale, one of the most haunting and evocative songs ever
recorded, should not sound like it was written for a corny death scene in a
low-budget animated movie.
The orchestra and choir are especially redundant when you realize that the band itself actually sounds quite solid. As fans know, Procol Harum was never a band of brothers united to take on the world. Lead singer/keyboardist Gary Brooker co-wrote virtually all of the band's songs with lyricist Keith Reid and then assembled a rotating cast of musicians to perform them. In the past, that's resulted in immensely talented musicians like guitarist Robin Trower and drummer BJ Wilson playing with the band. For this show, Brooker has put together a solid band, including former Big Country drummer Mark Brzezicki and ex-Back Street Crawler guitarist Geoff Whitehorn. They actually play quite well as a group together even if they've essentially been cobbled together piecemeal [!]. Of course, Brooker holds the limelight and his rich bluesy voice is in fine form, but the rest of the band members provide reliable back-up as well. Plus, the set list is well-assembled, drawing on most of the best songs from the band's career and mixing hits like Conquistador and A Salty Dog with more obscure but no less worthy album tracks. This concert would have been quite enjoyable without the intrusion of the orchestra and choir; why add needless clutter?
Fittingly enough, this DVD actually includes an even better example of just how great Procol Harum can sound just playing as a five-piece. In 1974, an earlier line-up of the band filmed a six-song set at a Danish TV studio for a special that only aired in Denmark. This disc includes the entire performance as an extra. Here is the set list for that show: Bringing Home the Bacon / Toujours L'Amour / Grand Hotel / The Devil Came from Kansas / The Idol / Butterfly Boys.
This is a spectacular performance, easily worth the cost of the disc for fans. Playing mostly material from the albums Grand Hotel (1973) and Exotic Birds and Fruit (1974), Procol Harum sounds phenomenal, cranking out fiery versions of guitar-heavy rockers like Bringing Home the Bacon while giving the gorgeous Grand Hotel the beautifully sensitive performance it deserves. It's likely most viewers will maybe give the orchestral performance one or two plays but return most frequently to this one.
Then again, who could blame them? This is a technically impressive DVD but the concert itself was simply a misguided idea. Procol Harum could have delivered an interesting performance by itself, but the additional musicians and singers add little of value. Hardcore fans will want the '74 material, but it's hard to see anyone else really getting much pleasure out of the main concert. Track down the band's classic albums instead.
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