Procol Harum

the Pale 

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'If Hamlet was the Prince of Denmark,
this was the King of Concerts'

Charlie Allison reports for BtP

Procol Harum with the Danish Radio Orchestra and Chorus, Conductor David Firman
Ledreborg Castle
, Denmark Saturday 19 June 2006

 “A perfect day” said Gary, in reference to the blue skies and baking hot weather we enjoyed for this afternoon picnic concert in Denmark. But maybe Gary, like us, also recognised this concert as one of the Band’s finest events.

I arrived just in time from Scotland as a late interloper to the party. Procol Harum had enjoyed a few days of rehearsal with this excellent orchestra and choir – certainly they enjoyed a much better rapport than the well-quoted acrimony at Edmonton in 1971!

The massed international ranks of Palers had not only been able to witness the orchestra and group working out together, but had also been preparing their own feast of tribute music to be performed at the evening events at the nearby Domus Felix in Lejre.

Thousands marched up the hill and down into the bowl below the Ledreborg Slot, bearing chairs and picnics for this popular annual event – the orchestra had previously played with a Beatles tribute band. You could buy a twin Danish picnic for 300 crowns – six or seven savouries and sweets washed down with chilled wine or Danish lager thoughtfully served in big lidded jugs (so you didn't spill it between the bar and your place in the crowd).


The first surprise of the afternoon was to learn the castle was owned by a Scot called Jock – he was interviewed for television and welcomed everyone to his musical garden party. His accent was a glorious amalgam of Hans Christian Andersen and Sean Connery.

The next surprise was enjoying the support act – two popular Danish entertainers Povl Dissing and Benny Andersen (no, not the guy from ABBA) singing sentimental folk-songs. Povl wore a homburg and some of the songs had Procoloid snatches – a Hispanic introduction sounded like Conquistador and one waltzy number was a distant cousin of Grand Hotel. The audience loved them and it was easy to see why – the schmaltz was beautifully constructed and played. I quietly hoped the orchestra and chorus would cope just as well with the Procol stuff to come.

Benny Andersen and Povl Dissing

The Palers gathered about thirty yards from the
stage; however I went forward to check out on photos and ended up securing a spot just below the left camera position with a first-class view of the stage and excellent shade from the strong rays.

The host (a look-alike for Max in The Sound of Music) gave Procol a warm introduction and we were straight into Grand Hotel. The sound was brilliantly clear, with the orchestra, chorus and band mixed for maximum clarity. Gary’s voice sounded so strong and positive. Was that his electric piano with a shiny black exterior? All the band were on top form, particularly Mark who didn’t just play ‘spare’ as he’d done at the Bridgewater Hall, but powerfully with his usual inventive fills. The attractive blonde leader with her sparkly blue-jewelled hairslide played a formidable gypsy violin then Geoff came steaming in with enough sting to stir the hearts of those who love the dynamics of Procol’s music.

Gary apologised for knowing so little Danish in such a beautiful magic setting – cue Something Magic, as majestic here as at Lulworth last month. It was worth sacrificing Josh’s synthesised string swirls to hear the real thing. Marvellous, and a spot-on ending too.

‘A bit of rock and roll next’- Butterfly Boys
with the chorus making the song sound really significant (of course it is!) and Geoff doing his solos to perfection.

Homburg next – with that long pastoral introduction saved for orchestral outings. Geoff did the tick-tock thing again for the town clock in the market square, but there wasn’t much else for him to do. Prolonged applause of recognition here, though in truth all the numbers were very well received.

Gary hoped that there might be a CD (possibly a DVD?) coming out of this concert (that made our ears prick up!) then casually informed the masses that Procol had recent music for sale and would be performing band-only on VIP Room.
I think giving the orchestra a breather gave extra colour to the collaboration when it resumed.

Back in the 70s next (when Gary calculated most of the audience were about 15) for Fires with the bugles sounding out (twice) and the ‘Danish Underground Choir’ fleshing out the scat-singing to confirm this as one of the very best numbers for the orchestral treatment.

Another piece of rock – Nothing But the Truth – with the orchestra and choir entering serially in the second verse and Middle 8 to great effect. Gary dedicated this to Lady Carlsberg up at the castle – I’m sure that’s not her real name!

Gary had to consult his notes to check the key of next number, rarely performed, was E. Into the Flood was terrific with the middle bit where the strings sawed away furiously before Mark bashed the band back in for the last verse and that terrific climatic melange of sounds. Gary made us ponder by referring to a passage of Mozart somewhere in the song (I certainly didn’t spot it .. )

The orchestra were invited to do the big thumps to start Simple Sister. Gary commented that even though this was heavy metal, the band and orchestra weren’t doing battles here. In the middle bit Matt’s bass started up the riff. Geoff was spared balalaika duty as the orchestra built the song up to its big finish.

Gary thought it great that “the sun had come out for all the friends who couldn't be with us today
”. We had the extended Latin introduction to A Salty Dog. where happily Geoff was still able to inject his yawning guitar and Mark not only filled and rolled outstandingly but also played his boatswain's whistle exactly as it was on the record in 1969.

After long applause, Gary gave the reason why they couldn’t speak Danish – “because we’re English”, then the band launched into An Old English Dream on their own.

Next, Gary’s lengthy explanation of the evolution of the next song, just played by the band in the previous few days. It would appear that Gary’s neighbour Sid had gone off to the War in France in 1939 only to be imprisoned in Poland for the next six years. On release he inexplicably became deaf. Symphathy for the Hard of Hearing had a powerful orchestration as the lyric moved from his personal tragedy to a wider observation of the demands paced on young men who are sent off to fight futile conflicts. We had an up-tempo middle section – almost Elton John / Billy Joel – then a great ending where, after a building orchestration, it abruptly disintegrated with a crackling abstract contribution from Geoff. A lot of effort had obviously gone into crafting this one.

We moved quietly, without a word of introduction, to the lush strings bringing us into A Whiter Shade of Pale.
I just love the first verse with only Gary and his piano, which serves to heighten the entry of Josh’s Hammond for the organ break. We had two verses before the song ended without its now-customary piano flourish.

A mock-finish allowed the host presenter to demonstrate his Procol awareness by asking the band to return as the “crowd called out for more” 

Gary introduced two songs from Edmonton in 1971 – first the truly epic, majestic Whaling Stories,
which showed the strength of this band and its material to be played with an orchestra and choir. It was great to have Geoff in the maelstrom wailing on a wall of sound, then hear the quiet woodwind bit when the morning breaks.

Gary told everyone he loved it here (and would try to buy the big house!) then made another attempt in pidgin-Danish to say Orkestret – inviting them to set the ball rolling for Conquistador
which finished the concert on a perfect high.

A lengthy ovation, the team bow then a barrowful of bouquets all round. Gary sought out conductor David Firman who had given such a sure lead to his forces and then the compčre closed the proceedings by entreating everyone to 'shine on brightly' until the next time!

This was the fourth time I had attended a Procol concert with an orchestra – previously the LSO at the Barbican (the band somewhat detached on high), Guildford (charming but not highly polished) and the Halle in Manchester (enjoyable but with the band somewhat restrained in the collaboration).

I have also seen a telecast of a fifth – the 1992 reunion Edmonton event, which was a spirited show with a great setlist (including two renditions of Conquistador) and excellent performances from new boys Brzezicki (outstanding) and Whitehorn (great guitar, dodgy shirt). I was naturally not present in 1971 so can only judge by contemporaneous accounts and that famous recording. But this was truly special – for me the best ever, the ‘Union Chapel of orchestral gigs’.

Just like at Islington the band were all at their best, musically tight and vocally perfect. The orchestra was polished, enthusiastic and well-directed. But what was most noticeable this time was that the band was never at any time constrained by the format. I understand their volume was quieter than when they play alone, but their creativity and soul were never compromised. The sound, even in the open-air, was sublime. And the audience loved it, particularly the Palers.

The concert is to be televised in Denmark and maybe soon after we may all have a cherished DVD of the event – what a treasure-store that will be. And if that then sells well, we may see Procol Harum invited back to perform at Ledreborg again . . .

We all drove back down the hill to Lejre for a Palers evening which was to give us not only their amazing inaugural performance of In Held 'Twas in I but a prolonged visit by Procol Harum to watch, chat and play a three-song set themselves. But that is another story, with lots of pictures . . . and you'll read it here soon.

More reviews here | Charlie Allison reviews the audio CD of this concert

Read all about the Ledreborg concert here and the Palers' Revels here

Procol dates in 2006

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