Procol Harum

the Pale

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Broadway Theatre, Catford (Lewisham)

Charlie Allison reviews Procol Harum


Charlie Allison writes to BtP:

'On Broadway..... they say there's always magic in the air'

VIP Room / Pandora's Box / Robe of Silk /Grand Hotel /Wall Street Blues / Homburg / Robert's Box /Fellow Travellers / As Strong as Samson

Shadow Boxed / The Question / The Piper's Tune / So Far Behind / The Blink of an Eye / Beyond the Pale / For Liquorice John / An Old English Dream / Weisselklenzenacht / A Salty Dog / Conquistador

The Emperor's New Clothes / A Whiter Shade of Pale

After a successful Scandinavian sojourn, Procol Harum returned home to premiθre material from their new album The Well's on Fire to a London audience. Gary thought Norway a country they loved to work in – clean (no litter), smoked salmon and prawns to eat all the time, and beer at £17.50 a pint! For much of the recent past, Procol had been domiciled there, or in the Cape Verde Islands, just off Guinea Bissau, sitting somewhere in the main shipping lanes. UK gigs, meanwhile, have been limited to the same 3.5 square miles – Croydon, Guildford, Catford – as these were the only places to ask them and pay the money upfront!


Photograph by Peter Christian

This beautiful Art Deco palace looked fit for a Harum homecoming, blessed, as it was, with more than a hint of Grand Hotel in its oak panelling, ornamental cornicing and crimson walls. There was even a discarded cinema organ at the front of the Hall – I wondered if Matthew was going to come down and play it (he never did).

At five to eight I was a mite concerned by empty spaces, but then the Palers piled in, pints in hand, (as they always do!) to join a mixed audience containing a few kids and some senior citizens – Gawd, we're all rapidly becoming senior citizens now! I suppose we were over 3/4 full – maybe 500-600 folk?

The Band got a good cheer coming on and started up with The VIP Room, which was raucously played and showed the sound balance to be just perfect. One was aware of the greater power of the live performance and the immense contribution of Matt Pegg, resplendent in the longest suit jacket ever seen in the UK?

Pandora's Box's Latin rhythms seemed easy-meat for Mark, and Matthew was considerably animated in his tweed suit, like Kenneth More in Genevieve. Geoff meanwhile was hamming it up to a French party in the front row.

No surprise to us who had seen earlier set lists that the popular bass drum intro was to Robe of Silk, but the band feigned surprise and confusion, not because they expected one of these first album tracks, but that Wall St. song, which was to appear later. Gary reminded them that the set-list was only meant to be a guide! Geoff's and Maf's solos were suitably cheesy as the band got this classic lost song down in the repertoire.

A 'mid-period song' followed – Grand Hotel – where Gary lost the words for a moment and we were treated to a double helping of profiteroles and peach flambe. There was no mucking about with the piano bit and Geoff powered in right on cue. A big clap.

Gary introduced Wall Street Blues with mention of pension plans (ouch!) It was much gutsier live, allowing Gary considerable room for bluesy improvisation on both voice and piano. This is slowly growing on me.

A very tight rendition of Homburg brought the biggest ovation of the evening – there were obviously some Procol virgins present.

My first really huge treat of the evening was hearing Robert's Box live. The good doctor has evidently been living in exile in the aforementioned Cape Verde Islands. It was great hearing an old friend in such robust good health, with those rhythms, those 'Alohas', Gary's Hawaiian piano and an enhanced bottom end making the whole thing sound wonderful.

Matthew was then invited to lead off his Fellow Travellers which again was better live – maybe a shade faster and certainly louder and more stately. Some people obviously love this.

Last before the break, now "from the War Trilogy in 18 Parts", was As Strong as Samson (new version). Geoff was now on his third guitar of the night, though his garb and cheery demeanour has changed little over the years!

Back with a beer, we started with the terrific Shadow Boxed, with Matthew sending out those xylophone sounds from a Roland clear, (not to be confused with a Roland Clare, out dispensing Procol souvenirs front of house).

Gary then warned they were going to play 85 songs from the new CD. He briefly read a peace note, saying they didn't want a war now as they just had a new record out! Mark even had an ad for it on his bass drum – the first time I'd seen Procol Harum on a drum-skin for a very long time.

The Question was described this week as 'perfect late-night Radio 2 material'. We heard great improvisation on both piano and voice from Gary, looking every inch the Commander of the British Rock Force that he is.

Gary then described similarities in impenetrable speech between Nordic nations and the Scots – possibly trying to wind up both groups in the audience? This was a prelude for a heavy, bagpipe-laden Piper's Tune – they all played a storm and looked to be having a great time doing it.

We were then introduced to a special guest – "Eminem" – an M&M toy voice recorder who had been programmed to repeat the mantra So Far Behind – another catchy song destined to become a single soon? Certainly a big favourite and one played with an easy enthusiasm by the band.

At the time of 9/11, Keith Reid lived only a few blocks away in Tribeca – Gary explained the origins of the sensitive The Blink of an Eye – beautifully played and sung, and very well received.

It was then we had the Norway travelogue, prior to Beyond the Pale, with the last bit reprised so the audience could "help" with the 'Hoi!'

Then For Liquorice John, unannounced, but full of depth – another old friend we loved hearing. Oh we'd just had a call for requests – and a snatch of Smoke over the Water, which no-one had asked for! (A request for In Held 'Twas in I was met with the reply -when is the last 'bus?)

We were straight into An Old English Dream, another bright and commercial song, with its topical ecology message and good guitar bits. Geoff was getting warmed up for what was to come . . .

Gary then introduced Matthew's follow-up instrumental to his masterwork of 1967 – The Signature (no mention of the German title) – quite brilliant with Matthew leading the troupe and the others contributing with much energy. I was however slightly disappointed that Geoff's entry, like a rapier to the heart in the mix on the CD, was here a little less dramatic and in fact early bars of his solo were decidedly less wonderful than on the record. Geoff then scaled the heights quite brilliantly (more like it!) and brought this new classic to a close. There was loud and sustained applause for Matthew, who remained in the dark for some seconds before the required spotlight gave him his moment of real triumph.


AWSoP photo by Peter Christian

We then finished with two barnstorming favourites – the beautiful A Salty Dog (heard new variations in the bassline this time) and Conquistador, which bowled along merrily with the whole band finishing the set with great gusto.

After a long and persistent ovation, the lads returned for a quiet and most wonderful Emperor's New Clothes (dedicated to Martin Clare) which is right up there in my ratings for all time favouritism. It has tricky piano chords, sensitive quietly-creative drumming and Gary's wistful singing. A lovely song lyric, a sad tune, a classic.

That more established classic AWSOP then (inevitably) followed – the two familiar recorded verses, great rendition, though Matthew didn't play that usual variation in the last organ passage as he always seems to have done in the past.

We had lots of loud, sustained applause and thanks from Gary to what he described as 'the best English audience ever' (Without being too churlish, they should maybe try an enthusiastic Scottish audience, or two, sometime soon?)

A long and generous set – so much so that my daughter Jenny and I had a mad dash to make the last train to Charing Cross and so missed out on the drinks and post-show 'craic'. Jen was 'quite impressed' and actually asked for the new CD in the car today! If the views of a 17 year old count, she thought the VIP Room her favourite song ('so contemporary!")

Next? I hope they go down a storm in Germany and the U.S.
Hopefully in peace . . . .

Thanks, Charlie for text, Peter for pictures


Have a look at other set-lists

Procol Harum concerts in 2003: index page


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