Procol Harum

the Pale

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Procol Harum at Cropredy, 8 August 2003

Roland reports for BtP

To write an extended account of Procol Harum at Cropredy would involve explaining how my digital camera ended up in the bowels of the festival sanitary system and – worse still – how I got it out … so I'll go no further than a song-by-song commentary on the excellent Procol Harum set – they headlined on the second night of the three-day Festival – with a handful of pictures taken at the time and hygienically restored for public consumption.

Bringing Home the Bacon
On the US dates I saw (LA, San Diego, San Francisco) the opening organ riff was doubled vocally by Matt Pegg (‘Bloody difficult’ was his verdict about singing in such syncopation to his bass line): here at Cropredy, Gary and Geoff joined in with it as well. The song stormed ahead in grand style: a more dramatic opener than The VIP Room, I think.

The little ‘solo’ breaks went like clockwork: Matt got a clap for his bass pyrotechnics, Mark elicited a military salute from Geoff for his marching-band rhythm, Gary played a bit of Land of Hope and Glory. Matthew – despite his Magic Roundabout offering at Guildford in 2000 – is not currently sending up these little episodes: he glissandoed to a high note then engaged the fast Leslie rotor to suitably funky effect.

Beautifully-lit drums! Ombrageous bass-player, however

Pandora's Box
I looked around to see how the festival crowd was reacting to Procol’s most recent hit single, from twenty-eight years ago!

It was too dark – the band had come on stage about 10 pm as far as I recall – to see how this song was received further up the field, but there were delighted signs of recognition down at the stage barrier.

It has been strange to receive West Coast set-lists at BtP from fans who evidently haven’t recognised this song (‘something about a staircase?’)! Granted it was not a hit all over the world, but do these people not own Procol’s Ninth? Are they voluntarily denying themselves ownership of Fool’s Gold, for instance, one of the strongest of the later Chrysalis-era songs?

Shine on Brightly
A welcome inclusion of this grand song, with its centre-piece organ-solo, still the finest bit of Fisher we have on record. But does the song still have the lonely magic it diffused when I was 15? Gary’s voice seems to be the same, or better, but somehow I don’t get the same frisson from ‘some long road that goes nowhere’. Perhaps we Palers have all travelled a bit too far, down that long road ... but tonight there were probably thousands of people hearing it for the first time ... lucky souls ...

Certainly the audience reaction was excellent, but I was beginning to realise that the person making the most noise at the centre front, who was wearing a Procol Italy shirt, was a five-star Procoholic … the next day he identified himself as the multi-instrumentalist Alan Garmonsway (illustrated), who has contributed a couple of nice tracks to the forthcoming Palers’ Project CD.


Left, Gary at the Faux Grand : above, a Croppers tee-shirt spotted in the audience recalls Procol's 1995 appearance on the same stage.

Wall Street Blues
I have to confess that this was the track I thought the least exciting when I first heard the Well CD: it has changed a lot (in particular, the instrumentation of the opening) and it's always energetically played on stage, though it still sounds a wee bit generic to these ears. Geoff started this number by holding up the George W Bush talking toy to the microphone and allowing it to hector us about something suitably incomprehensible; Gary entertained us by singing ‘now you’re f*cked’ instead of ‘now you’re stuck’ as he first did at the Fillmore.

[By the way my reason for asterisking ‘f*cked’ above is nothing to do with coyness, and everything to do with the fact that some public-access browsers are interferingly set to reject pages that feature the full copulative. I don't think they've yet found a way of censoring pictures though ... by the way this churlish sign (left) was not exhibited on the handsome teepee above].

The Blink of an Eye
The previous number had been introduced by Gary as ‘the first of two political songs’ (if I read my note correctly, which is not easy) and the second was unsurprisingly ‘Blink’ – though it was a surprise to hear him announce it quite gruffly with the words ‘9/11’ as if that had become its new title.

OK, this was my other relatively disappointing song from the Well’s on Fire: it seemed a bit bland, harmonically and lyrically, though I did like the singing very much. However I have grown to enjoy the whole thing live, specially after seeing how warmly it’s received in the USA.

Here Geoff and Mark again supplied the third-verse harmony vocals that add a lot of warmth to the song, but Matthew didn’t play that long, held note through the entire verse, which seems to me to make it so much more Procolish, live, than it is on the album. That's a detail I was sorry to miss.

A consequence of the band’s using the Faux Grand was that Geoff could not ordinarily see the Commander’s hands, and at the end of this song he had to walk to the very back of the stage in order to coordinate his final notes with the piano. Interesting to find out that it's not all done by ear.

As Strong as Samson
This was, as ever, the upbeat Samson … only the Palers’ Band goes on obstinately attempting the stately, original version. As on the preceding American dates, Gary did not bother with much patter between the songs, but for this one he did remind the audience that Procol Harum had been going even longer than the Cropredy Festival has, and that the coming number’s words referred ‘to how the world has always been, so you won’t enjoy it’ … though people evidently did enjoy it, specially the Whitehorn guitar workout.

Grand Hotel
This song also got a vocal introduction, in which Gary explained how the band used to live stylishly on the road, but now they had to endure vegetarian suppers from Leon’s. Leon’s is a Cropredy fixture, a superb canteen specialising in wholesome and exotic fare, served on edible plates to boot. Gary doesn’t see much point in vegetarian food … he once brought me what he described as ‘your plate of nothing’ when everyone else was wolfing down the chili con carne … and on this occasion he commented to the festival audience that ‘we don’t like roasted sandals’ – though strangely I don't recall seeing any leather-based dishes in Leon's cookbook. Geoff and Matt took the harmonies in this song, which is becoming more and more poised, perhaps more and more arch. The piano solo in the middle went down specially well and the return of the guitar was splendid. I don’t remember if Geoff did his Freddie Mercury vocal stylings, but I did note that the final ‘Ritz’ sung before the middle section had real music-hall style consonants … ‘Ritzah!’

Whisky Train
Whereas Gary’s ‘Hey Bartender’ introduction used to be played and sung solo, Geoff is now establishing a guitar part for it too; the signature Trower Whisky Train guitar opening … such a huge departure for Procol Harum when we first heard it on the Home album … recedes further and further into history.

In San Diego Gary was talking about Last Train to Niagara and its myriad Procol references, and agreed with my observation that that song’s main riff was quite closely related to the piano part (‘I’m basically playing a cowbell’ he said) that he contributes to Whisky Train. In the past we’ve heard this Trower song played with the piano quoting A Salty Dog momentarily, whose opening chord is derived from a train siren: but now we have the real thing, since Mark’s extra percussion kit includes a locomotive whistle, which he deploys with suitable drama. The song is now a vehicle for Mark's amazing drum solo, however, and consequently I was not watching the pianist until he caught my eye by lobbing what looked like a gigantic spliff across the stage in a great arc. Sorry not to have been sufficiently quick-off-the-mark to get a photo of this enigmatic piece of theatre.

Fellow Travellers
’No talking!’ Gary instructed us, as he began to introduce a pair of ‘mellow’ numbers. Matt Pegg was fastening the monster spliff to his bass at this point, to Geoff’s loud amusement, so it didn’t seem entirely fitting when Gary went on, ‘Everyone needs someone to lean on,' (paraphrasing the Stones’ Let it Bleed) 'and we’re going to lean on Matt Pegg if he doesn’t stop fooling around!’ I did notice Gary shaking hands warmly with Matt at the end of the show, however … no hard feelings, I’m certain.

Fellow Travellers was listened to respectfully by the crowd but there was no show of waving lighters as one might have expected … perhaps next time, when it’s familiar? [Martin Clare informs BtP that there was sparse lighter-waving, higher up the field]

Several Clares and Jeremy Gilien

I was planning all along to pick my way back to the top of the field to witness – for the first time – what Procol Harum looked like over 15,000 people’s heads: but I could never quite pull myself away from the centre front position that several Clares, with Jeremy Gilien from the LA Palers’ Band, had colonised. The following day, though, Franky Brooker reported that she had patrolled all around the site and that the band had sounded good from all angles

Carol Fisher (bottom right) watches Matthew Fisher (top left) at the start of a marvellous Weisselklenzenacht

Weisselklenzenacht  (The Signature)
My notebook for this piece has only one word, signifying that the number was, as ever, excellent. Gary forewarned the crowd that they would seem to recognise the song 'for about seven nanoseconds' and, indeed, the first AWSoP-like note brought forth a burst of delighted applause, hastily stifled the moment the second, unexpected note, rang out. However the slow build-up, the harmonic excitement, the final bombast ... all worked marvellously on this huge crowd in the warm dark Oxfordshire night. My favourite bit is the piano / organ interplay section before the guitar solo starts … but as with the best music, it works because of its context … which is equally marvellous in a different way. As the Well’s on tour setlists have settled down, Weisselklenzenacht has become the first-half closer, but here of course Procol Harum were taking no interval … so we went straight on to …

Shadow Boxed
The Faux Grand provides no stand for Gary's ‘Book of Orchids’ so I was not certain how the complicated words of this song would come out. In the event, I didn’t really notice whether he 'remixed' them or not, as there was a number of other interesting things going on: great lighting, including some unexpected strobe effects of which more later; Gary flung something that I didn’t quite see over his left shoulder, and at one point a stuffed toy pig fell out of the piano. I should also mention a sinister mannequin, or childequin in fact, which, since the morning's Procol soundcheck, had adopted a woebegone Goreyesque stance, its head propped against a large onstage speaker tower. From time to time in the darkness it caught one’s eye and looked alarmingly real … and somehow complementary to the equally-frozen postures with which the band traditionally choose to finish this number … the closest Procol have really ever got to a stage act, and very effective in its understatement.

‘We’re going to drag one out of our murky past,’ said Gary next. ‘One of the great opening lines of all time.’

Homburg was received like an old friend by the crowd, and the ornate counterpoint from Matthew was as wondrous as ever.

He was playing his own Hammond C3 of course, with the Roland keyboard neatly mounted on top for the provision of xylophone sounds and electric piano when required.

' ... the closest Procol have really ever got to a stage act ...'

Beyond the Pale
Even in these days of reduced patter, Beyond the Pale seems to attract a story. As Gary said at this point, ‘We have fewer stories than Fairport, but we tell ’em better!’.

This one was another variant on the tale of how Procol were in Norway, dropped some acid, and saw Valhalla. Sometimes he alleges that they "met Valhalla" ... it was obviously a confusing time ...

As the song unfolded, people started to bob up and down in time, which was pleasing … though I was shocked when a voice boomed out of the crowd to my right, ‘Stop taking so many notes!’ Thanks, Jutta.

'Tis a rare Procol gig that Jutta misses

Whaling Stories
This song has often had variant openings, often featuring elaborate Copping fandangoes (only the Palers’ Band stubbornly aims to recreate the original piano chords from the Home version … with its curious tape-edit: we had to wait the best part of thirty years to find out what Chris Thomas has cut out there, but it’s plain for all to hear on Westside’s Home … Plus! CD).

Appreciative members of the Palers' Band

Whaling Stories at Cropredy started with an unusual piano motif, while Mark played yet another instrument from his arsenal concealed behind the Pearl kit, some kind of siren whistle. The effect was dramatic, and more pleasing to these ears than the tweety noises he inserts before ‘Daybreak’ … and which we also heard at the end of the song on this occasion. However it would be churlish and contrary not to applaud mutations in the songs, since they clearly imply that the band is having fun!

This song developed with great power, assisted by the flashing of the strobe light inside the piano during the ‘fire and brimstone’ section. Geoff in particular was amused by this, I noticed: apparently it was a surprise for members of the band as well as for the audience. Another considerable surprise was Gary's vocal in the song’s final moments: according to my notes we heard (sung) "Those at peace shall see their …" (spoken) "… ashes to ashes … " (sung) "… wake …" (spoken) "… dust to dust." Which was oddly chilling.

The VIP Room
As we heard at several gigs on the West Coast, Gary started this song by invoking John Entwistle, whose sad death had initially been attributed to heart failure, and was latterly rumoured to have been precipitated by the ministrations of a brace of strippers.

Carol Fisher voiced some misgivings when Gary said that the VIP room was ‘where [he] died, and where we’re all going out.’

This sybaritic lyric seems to have come from the same part of Keith Reid’s verbal well as Luskus Delph and Playmate of the Mouth.

I learnt afterwards that the band were not particularly happy with the sound onstage – ‘Felt as though I was playing up there on my own’, said Gary (who has the most monitors!) – but they sounded great out front, and evidently had no difficulty in giving this song a suitably rousing performance, with all the vocal harmonies spot on.

There was a degree of dancing on the field ... not quite headbanging or crowdsurfing, but a pleasing show of physical engagement!

Simple Sister
In San Diego I remember Geoff starting this song in teasing fashion, just playing the first five notes then leaving a long pause for people to whoop and cheer in, before playing on to another halt and only eventually launching into the full tempo. Here, however, he played it rather straighter – given that the English audiences don’t seem to be quite as excited by it as our US counterparts. The resolute back-beat in the New Testament version gives this song a bit more of a routine feel than it had in former days: but Gary was in really good voice here and his piano was absolutely crunching out those chords … still, I found the middle ‘Cool Jerk’ section the most engaging part, with the Whitehorn mandolin-simulation and Matthew’s fiery Hammond interpolations. 

An Old English Dream
This song started on a segue with the drone that concluded Simple Sister, and it confirmed itself as a real Procol song, though when we first heard it – at Croydon – it sounded much more like a Brooker solo piece. It’s odd, though, that the band no longer seems to favour the trick ending, since at a festival one would particularly have expected that to work well.

A Salty Dog
Another change for recent dates has been the re-emergence of the dedication of this masterpiece to ‘all our friends who watch us from above’ although on this occasion Gary puzzlingly added something like ‘and for that bowl of ashes that’s rolling around down here somewhere’, which had something of the macabre tone with which he'd earlier ended Whaling Stories.

Although the band felt that the final few numbers had not gone over so well with the audience, I have to say that this song was splendid and, although one has heard it a great deal, it was marvellous to hear it streaming out to such a crowd in the open air … beautiful drum fills, understated guitar, superb vocal … and it was mighty odd to look across to Gary as the song ended and notice that, once the much-delayed final chord had been sounded … he was clutching a stuffed toy seagull to his forehead in an attitude reminiscent of prayer.

Gummo and Django

Undoubtedly not the dog in question

This final song of the set was received with great enthusiasm … perhaps, after AWSoP, it’s the one Procol tune that a crowd can really be expected to remember. No doubt, this or Shine on Brightly would have made a great second or third single … but one could play ‘what if’ forever. Matthew and Matt are now both pointing fingers in anticipation of the quirky couple of high notes with which Geoff habitually concludes the second ‘orchestral’ episode. After this rousing finale Gary then introduced the band, seeming to forget the drummer’s surname for a moment: when Mark stood to take his applause he gripped a nearby cymbal as if it were a steering-wheel and for a moment he was transformed into an HGV driver.

Seems like standard festival behaviour, yet in fact we saw this sort of thing only when Procol Harum were playing !

A Whiter Shade of Pale
All bands at Cropredy get a statutory encore, usually elicited by the compère on the crowd’s behalf. On this occasion no proxy intervention was needed, and the response to A Whiter Shade of Pale was really immense. An unexpected bonus came during the line after ‘the truth is plain to see’, which Gary sang while showering a pack of playing-cards across the stage (many of these were retrieved by fans and presented for signing in the 90-minute Procol autograph queue the following day).

Jeremy gets a key moment on film. That's the full moon above him

Geoff flips one of Gary's playing-cards into the audience. That's a stage light above him

Repent Walpurgis
And so the band went into their dramatic finale, the last tune they were to play in an eventful season approaching forty gigs since their twelfth album came out (who would have imagined such a thing, even a year ago!)

Repent started with great solemnity yet two people were seen to be dancing to it at the very front … the composer’s wife and one of the webmasters of the band’s unofficial, Anglo-Norse website.

The music grew in intensity, blossomed into a fiery guitar solo, withdrew into pensive Bach, and erupted again into wild Gothic ferocity which ended with the five, explosive chords. Needless to say, people clapped each chord in turn ... in fact, the only time I've ever heard this not happen was at Manchester in 2001 when ... perhaps in deference to the Hallé orchestra and choir ... fans withheld their approval until the very final C minor had rung out.

My six-and-a-halfth Procol show this year (counting their mini-set at BtP's party in Los Angeles) but only my third Walpurgis … hard to think of a better nor a more stirring climax to a wonderful season.

Procol Harum bid goodbye to English audiences until 12 December when they return to London


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