Procol Harum

the Pale

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Broadway Theatre, Catford (Lewisham)

Ken Willis reviews Procol Harum

Ken Willis writes to BtP:

I arrived at the theatre in good time and was in my seat by 7.50. Previous experience had taught me that sitting too near to the stage might give me a good view but it also gave me an unbalanced sound-picture, so on this occasion I went from one extreme to the other and sat right at the back, high up in "the gods". As I settled into my seat, the first thing I noticed was that there were two organs. One of these was Matthew’s Hammond with a synth on top but the other was the Compton belonging to the theatre, and it crossed my mind that we might be given the treat of hearing Matthew play this as well. However, common sense soon prevailed, which was just as well, as I would only have been setting myself up for a disappointment! The next thing that I noticed was that, high overhead in the middle of the theatre, unobserved and unobtrusive, a mirrored ball slowly rotated, perhaps a little larger than a football. On both sides of the proscenium arch is a shield surmounted with a visored helmet and flanked by two lions clutching spears – sort of leonine Conquistadors.

When I had looked at the BtP list of who was coming, there had been only about sixty people on it, and I had wondered whether the theatre would be full tonight. However, the theatre is now filling up very quickly. I glanced at my watch and found that the time was exactly eight o’clock, but still people are pouring in. Very soon it is possible to play "spot the empty seat", but just before that, at 8.05, some figures had wandered quietly on to the stage unannounced and were preparing to play the first number. I looked up expectantly and noticed, for the first time, that the front of Mark’s bass drum is now decorated with part of the design from The Well’s on Fire, including, of course, the legend "Procol Harum". And then we are in The VIP Room.

My ploy of sitting right at the back has paid off, as I can hear everyone clearly; what I have lost visually is more than made up for by the use of binoculars, which actually give me a bigger picture than the front row would have done, and from a higher vantage point. From here I can clearly see that Matthew, who is hanging on to one note, nice and loud, is wearing glasses. Perhaps he always wears them and tonight just happens to be my night for being observant. Maybe not, though, as the second song is Pandora’s Box and he is now again bereft of face-furniture. It is very good to be able to see clearly that Matthew starts off on the lower manual but performs his excellent solo on the upper one. The Leslie speaker is never at one speed for long, constantly being switched from ‘Chorale’ (slow) to ‘Tremolo’ (fast) – and then back again. Gary sings "… and brought our magic carpet / to a marble-staircased plain" and on the word ‘marble’, Matthew reaches across and the Leslie begins yet another descent towards ‘slow’. I apologise for concentrating on the organ more than the piano, but that just happens to be the side of the house that my ticket took me to, and I ain’t complaining!

Gary then introduces the next song, they are led in by Mark and the band starts to play. And stops! Gary looks up (probably at Mark : why do we always ‘shoot the drummer??!’), and says "Well, it sounded all right to me!" A pause, then "Sounded like another song." Cue Mark, once again, and it is not Garden Fence, neither is it Repent: it is now A Robe of Silk – fast becoming a favourite of mine, and I am not alone, I am sure. Everything is tight and smooth, and very ‘together’: this is Procol Harum at their very best, and they continue to demonstrate this throughout the evening. Once the music stops, an’ there was only us alone, Gary says "Got there in the end!"

After another Gary-type intro, it is now time for "Grand Hotel", beautifully played, as ever, with the mirror-ball now revolving quickly in the spotlight, acting as a Carrousel-chandelier and sprinkling everyone with crystal-clear droplets of light. It’s serenade and Sarabande, and Mark’s drumming is reminiscent of that on Magdalene. This effect is continued subtly by the closing brass sounds which Gary generates vocally in a Magdalene-ish way. After the longer applause, Gary looks up and says " Now we’ll do that other one that you wanted to do," looking at Matt and Mark, and Wall Street Blues follows, during which Geoff gives us an excellent solo, squeezing some amazing sounds out of his guitar. After they’d taken our money and our shoes for the last time and everything is quiet again for a moment, Gary looks up and says "Everyone feel all right?" This is followed by a loud affirmation. "This should mess that up, then" he replies, telling us that it was never on an album : it was just a little single that they had. It was, of course, Homburg. Again, it was good to indulge myself with the bins and watch Maf playing the melody on the upper manual while playing the chords on the lower one. A great song.

This was followed by a particularly imaginative flight of fancy from Gary, in which he told us how they all live on the Cape Verde Islands, but made sure that they still had a good doctor available. This all by way of being an introduction to Robert’s Box! This was a special treat, for me at least, as I had never heard it played by Mr Fisher, who stood up at the end, in order to play the coda on his synth. After the last, ringing chord had faded, Gary said "OK Maf, you can start this one. It’s called … it’s a story about life’s long journey." Matthew again stood up and led us into Fellow Travellers, again accompanied by his spectacles. I had not realised that this song is a blend of Gary and Maf, both on electric pianos or similar-sounding synth patches. I had wrongly assumed that Matthew had the Hammond and Gary played the joanna. However, there is work for the Hammond, and on "all of us needing," Maf’s hand descended to the organ keyboard, the fast Leslie being switched on for "something to believe in," only to be switched off again at the end of the line, giving that glorious, typical, swoop down again to the ‘Chorale’ setting. I wonder how often the motors need replacing?! This song was absolutely perfectly delivered, every note carved out of the air, Geoff’s guitar blending in seamlessly with the two keyboards, Matt and Mark supporting the entire creation sensitively. Strong As Samson then rocked us through to the interval, Geoff giving us a cracking guitar solo in an extended middle-section. As he brought his solo to a close, Geoff spread his arms wide in a T-shape, but then began to lose his balance and just managed to regain it, recovering his composure and dignity by saluting us – with a broad grin on his face. Then Gary said "Thank you. Just going to have a tea-break. We’ll see you later."

After the interval, Gary re-seated himself at the Roland RD 600, whereupon someone shouted out Salty Dog!. "Oi – Steady!!" retorted the Commander, his finger pointing at the culprit. The first song of the second part was actually Shadow Boxed with Matthew supplying the ‘marimba’ sound on the synth. After it finished, there appeared to be a pause, or at least a longer wait than GB anticipated, for he then said "Any time! … Don’t worry about what’s written down there : it’s only a …" I’m sorry to say that the last word escaped my ears, but Maf led us in by holding down one note, right at the bottom of the keyboard. It was The Question. This came across even better than on the album, with Gary soloing over the top of the shifting chords, Matthew giving us a tasteful solo, and Matthew and Geoff swapping phrases near the end.

Introducing the next number, Gary embarked upon a tale whose finer details, sadly, elude my feeble-sick-and-weary (but he might have mentioned a lift!). Apparently, we were going to be treated to something from one of Gary’s collection of books : not the Book of Orchids, nor yet the Trilogy in Four Parts, but this time it was to be "from our Book of Scottish Reels and Laments … Jigs." It could only be what it was: The Piper’s Tune – not one of my personal favourites, but played none the less competently for that. After that, we were introduced to "a Special Guest … come all the way from ….. where he came from : Eminem!" For the benefit of those who do not regularly visit BtP, I will simply say that ‘Eminem’ is a little digital recording man. He had been programmed to start the next song, and this he did by repeating "So far, so far behind. So far, so far behind." By a mighty strange coincidence, So Far Behind was the title of the song, Matt, resplendent in a two-piece suit, coming forward to the mike to assist with the vocals (as he had been throughout the evening). Mark was picked up by the spotlight, his cymbals ringing through clearly.

The following song was introduced by Gary as follows: "Our good friend Keith Reid wrote all the lyrics on our new album." This was interrupted by a spontaneous burst of applause. Gary continued by telling us that Keith lives only about 3 blocks away from the scene of the catastrophe on 9/11 … It was time for The Blink of an Eye. Matthew gave us a small solo and the spotlight picked him out, crouching low over his keyboards, the spotlight remaining on him even after Gary had taken over the lead on piano. Beyond The Pale was introduced by GB talking about Norway, then Croydon, Catford, Selhurst, Penge – some navigational problems had apparently been experienced. However, they were going to Milton Keynes tomorrow : a land where all the roads are either horizontals (H) or verts (V), and the band were "getting very excited about going there!" Having played this lovely song through, Gary said "I think we’d better have that one again – just the last 4 bars." The reason for this was that the audience had failed to give a sufficiently rousing "OY" at the end – something which we corrected second time around. For Liquorice John followed this, catching the audience out with its delayed final chord. As if this were a cue, we were then given another song with a ‘false ending’: An Old English Dream, Geoff giving us another mighty solo at the end.

And then it was time for the introductions: Geoff, Mark, Matt … and then Gary introduced Matthew by saying that it had been a long time since 1967 when he gave us his previous masterpiece, but now we had another one. "He’s been a long time producing it, but it’s well worth the wait …" The applause that followed drowned out the opening notes of Weisselklenzenacht, note-perfect all the way through, with moving performances from everyone, not least its composer. As the final chord rolled away, the stage was in darkness.

The Commander introduced the next number by referring to Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water, which Maf and Gary immediately started to play a few bars of. Gary called out for requests (not that he had any intention of honouring them!) and someone shouted out In Held 'Twas In I!". Gary looked querulous, and said "What time’s the last 'bus?" What they actually played was A Salty Dog – again beautifully rendered. It was a pleasant surprise to see and hear Maf playing the Hammond for this, since he had declined to play on the original track, believing that he could add nothing to it.

At this point I noticed that Matt was also wearing glasses. I began to wonder whether my drink had been spiked with something that painted glasses on all the faces I saw, but I decided against this, as there were no moustaches where they shouldn’t be. Matt had surely been wearing them all evening. Still – I digress! A Salty Dog was absolutely delightful, Geoff’s playing complimenting all that was happening. I swear he now has real seagulls somewhere inside his guitar! Without any intro., or much of a break, the band went into Conquistador: crisp, clear and clean, this just cooked and rocked, Maf giving us the final line from both hands together. The End. Procol Harum bowed in their usual way, and left the stage.

We clapped and clapped etc (you can imagine this bit!) and eventually they all returned, Maf groping his way on in the dark like a sleep-walker. "I have in my hand a piece of paper … " intoned Gary, and then dedicated the song to Martin Clare. It was The Emperor’s New Clothes. This was absolutely beautiful, and very moving, Maf again playing the organ, in contrast to the album track, and giving us some more tasteful work. This track then led us into AWSoP – how could they not play that??! Matthew still managed to play some variations that I, at least, had not heard before – and then the evening was over. We had been treated to no fewer than twenty-two songs – and not many of them were short ones. This had been a memorable evening, and another time of great value for money. The band are definitely stronger and tighter than ever.

Shine On, Procol Harum!

Photographs on this page by RC

Procol Harum concerts in 2003: index page


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