Procol Harum

the Pale

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Procol Harum at Brønnøysund, Norway

Concert review 17/18 July 2009 • Roland from BtP

Gary Brooker was adamant that we should not refer to Brønnøysund’s waterfront venue – home of the Roots Festival – as ‘a cod-smoking shed’: ‘You don’t smoke cod,’ he insisted, ‘you dry it.’ Gathering beforehand, several Palers from as far afield as England, California and Oman had eaten a good meal of cod, in order to be appropriately fortified for Procol Harum’s first gig in eighteen months. Previously we’d had a good chat with Procol at the hotel where fans and musicians alike were staying: in fact the BtP webmasters had been filmed greeting the band on their arrival, and this was broadcast on Norwegian television (along with excerpted interview clips from Jens in Norwegian and Roland (unsurprisingly) in his native Engelsk). Questions about why one had come so far were the order of the day. I don’t know if Procol were asked why they had come so far!

Now it was 11.15 pm and we moved along the waterfront, under a perfectly light sky, to the fishworks. It was packed, not only with music fans but also with curious old machines and a fascinating array of broken tubas, euphoniums, sousaphones and what-have-you. It would be fair to say that the youngish crowd was extremely excited perhaps not solely by the prospect of great music.

An hour’s wait ensued, during which time the crowd at the press barrier grew more and more lively and – frankly – ponderous: I have never been so leant-upon at a gig. Webmaster Jens, armed with his posh new Nikon camera and a press pass, suffered no such indignities. Procol were to take the stage at 0015 hrs, by which time a good proportion of the audience was thoroughly lubricated; despite the unusual setting, the atmosphere was reminiscent of a college gig in the 70s.

Ron and Jonny, Procol Harum’s technical team of choice, could be glimpsed through the dense dry ice busily setting up the band’s gear: Geoff’s Yamaha kit, Marshall amplification for Geoff Whitehorn (Hughes and Kettner could not supply his habitual rig, this close to the Arctic Circle), Gary’s Yamaha CP piano and the digital Hammond XP3 (in its elaborate, fake cabinet) for Josh. A microphone for Josh was an unexpected extra … more of that later. We wondered what sort of set was in store. Would it be a 'greatest hits' package, designed to please the non-specialist festival crowd? Gary Brooker had been sitting in front of the hotel with his folder of songs, making notes and designing the set list, but of course no fan would consider asking for forward hints … even the band doesn’t know what they'll be playing until shortly before the show.

Eventually manager Chris Cooke appeared, haloed in an eerie backlight, and surveyed the scene with apparent satisfaction. The press and marketing guru for the festival was standing by, script in hand, to handle introductory duties, but his cue never came. At exactly midnight-fifteen the festival headliners, Procol Harum, took to the stage, with minimal ceremony, to the cacophonous and delighted whistling of the multitude, and within moments the delicious strains of a surprising opener were heard: Broken Barricades. This was played much like the hallowed record, with none of the experimental touches that were to grace many familiar favourites later in the evening, until the neat, two-stage ending. Geoff Dunn delivered some startling syncopations and eruptions (‘he’s very good at explosions’ said Gary afterwards), and Josh provided the glittering ostinato from his Motif keyboard. The playout … a good minute-and-a-half, I reckon … was home to some long-drawn upward bends from Geoff Whitehorn’s guitar. An exciting concert was under way.

It wasn’t possible to identify the next song from its opening electric piano notes, but as the tune swung in it was clearly One Eye on the Future in an interesting and effective new arrangement. The feel was unquantifiably different, good work had been done on the fretmen’s backing-vocal, and it was warmly received. The Commander was in good voice – the final verse was sung high, departing from the melody – though the band sound was not quite in balance: it was many hours since soundcheck and Matt thought he might have been suffering from 'aeroplane ears’ in the afternoon. But Graham Ewins soon got the measure of the acoustic and the balance came under his control. The song ended with repeated hollers of ‘One eye’ from the stage, no doubt appreciated by Procol’s ubiquitous Los Angeleno fan, Al ‘One-Eye’ Edelist, who had probably come furthest of all the fans present.

Next up was Homburg, the familiar arrangement complete with the long-standing Whitehorn tick-tock guitar gimmick in verse two (it reverses when the clock hands turn backwards). Gone is the Fisher-style Baroque elaboration of the final chorus (we were treated to three) but the band cohered well, driving the piece along. The modulating ending didn’t quite pack the dramatic punch it had when I first heard this song played on stage … but no doubt many who were having their first exposure to the live band tonight would have felt differently. Gary’s television spot had alleged that Procol might be ‘rusty’ – an impression Jens was able to overturn on his own address to camera. (click here to view the BtP team, and Gary Brooker, on Norwegian TV)

A brief mention of talk-show ‘big shots’ (Gary wasn’t particularly voluble with the crowd) introduced TV Ceasar, a chord-heavy number which went well. Whitehorn’s offbeat guitar clips were savage and his solo (the first half remaining very close to Mick Grabham’s definitive template) was furiously accented. To start with, we were hearing a lot of Geoff’s guitar straight from the cabinet, not through the PA: how Graham overcame this imbalance I don’t know, but he did it. Josh’s organ solo veered between chordal and linear work, Gary was in excellent voice. The piece sported a new, neat ending; in general endings seemed to have been carefully and very effectively worked on in three days’ rehearsal (one of which, we learnt, had been partly devoted to reggae treatments of pieces such as Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King which it would be nice to have heard … we’d passed the very spot, on our three-day journey from Bristol to this remote purlieu).

Gary Brooker warned the audience that ‘some of the endings might go wrong, some of the beginnings might go wrong, we might forget words, we might forget chords’ … but he suffered no such difficulties, at least to this listener’s ears … and Procol’s set sounded like a practised, well oiled tour-date rather than a first reunion following an eighteen-month sabbatical.

When Gary announced the first of three ‘songs all having the same word in the title’ the true fans knew that Pandora’s Box, Robert’s Box and Shadow Boxed would be forthcoming. Few, I guess, foresaw Gary’s droll, neat pun at the end of the trilogy … ‘There we are, Box Set’, he laconically explained.

Pandora’s Box had a new and slightly more leisurely feel, Geoff Dunn supplying nice transitional fills into verse two. Whitehorn’s feedback sustain – accomplished without pedals or gizmos, just by finding ‘the sweet spot in the room’ – was exemplary, as was Josh’s standing Hammond solo at the end (prefaced by a Hispanic piano sequence reminiscent of the-Solley era Pandora).

Robert’s Box was wondrous: Geoff … himself decorated in an unusually psychedelic tee-shirt … decorated verse two with some exposed bottlenecking, and Josh inserted effective downward glissandi where formerly we’d been accustomed to silences. The ‘Aloha’ backing voices came through well, and the finale …. ‘Just a pinch to ease the pain’ … evinced that classic syndrome where one really felt that something was happening on stage that wasn’t in the control of any individual player: the Procol organism, dormant for eighteen months, was up there working its magic, with these five men as the limbs and voices through which it made its glorious presence felt. The fourth and final iteration of that powerful sequence brought forth Josh’s Motif horn melody, which in turn ushered in the powerful 13-bar coda … strange to recall that the song was originally toured, in Dave Ball’s time, without that additional drama which now seems so integral to the song.

Shadow Boxed didn’t have the same dynamic variation it used to exhibit on the 2003 tour: but it had power to spare, and was very exciting. Josh led with Motif electric piano sounds, pounding eight to the bar (whereas the record, and earlier stage versions, start with sizzling guitar). Matt Pegg’s bass was lively, delivering some inspired runs, the whole piece was raucously exciting and the band ended dead together without apparent collusion … so much for ‘rusty’!

Following a characteristic apology for not speaking Norwegian , and a reference to the local geological curiosity, a substantial cliff rock with a hole in it, Gary made a dedication ‘to Icelandic bankers’: what followed was a brutal Wall Street Blues, dark and heavy with lots of holes where just drums and Pegg’s authoritative bass held the texture together. Gary’s singing was passionate, his piano break extremely tasty. Whitehorn’s guitar, so long confined to delivering his great riff, broke into an adventurous solo further spiced by judicious delay applied from the desk. He built tension tremendously, and Geoff Dunn was consistently innovative and dynamic in the classic mould of Procol Harum drumming, while still being very much himself: tight, tasteful, somehow both unshowy and riveting. The ending of this arrangement involved some half-speed gear-changes … I’d need to hear it again to be sure quite what was going on: so much the better!

Barnyard Story followed. It came straight in with those amazingly mournful chords, and Brooker sang with great feeling: it was almost a solo piece, such was the delicacy of his cohort’s contributions. The rowdy audience was fairly rapidly stilled (though a minor unisex punch-up took place in the front row – sorry for originally reporting that this was during Grand Hotel)). But Barnyard Story, formerly so swiftly over, came to a false conclusion with some solo piano reminiscent of The Death March before the blossoming afresh, with amazing volume, with a piercing guitar solo over the 'Olympus' chords. This marvellous effect (first heard a couple of years ago, also in Norway) drew tears of delight from various eyes in the crowd near where I was standing. Gary sang the conclusion again, when the guitar and mighty organ had died away … even though a premature ovation smudged the returning vocal, it was outstandingly stirring. After the show Geoff was saying that he really came to Procol through the Home album, and longed to do Dead Man's Dream … a logical extension of the mournful Barnyard Story. He recalled Procol's having played it extempore at Beyond the Pale's 2001 party at Salford: surely this outstanding new line-up must tackle it again.

The next number was Sister Mary, which has been heard in inchoate form at various soundchecks since it was part-written at the era of The Well’s on Fire. It seemed to have found its final form at St John's Smith Square for the 40th anniversary celebrations, but in fact Procol Harum now presented it in a greatly-evolved state. It started with dreamy noodling in a Rhodesy vein from Gary, and involved a lot of stops and starts; Geoff and Matt intoned some very mysterious liturgical mumbles, over which Gary occasionally blurted individual words, before the song really took off. Questioned in the hospitality room afterwards, all members of the band were evasive about this wording and its origins: 'We're in Gregorian mode' was the most informative answer I got! Obviously we hope to hear this intriguing song again. Its occasional oriental semitones in the guitar were intriguing, and its length … about ten minutes … suggested that the band was enjoying it as much as we were. It has a jazzy feel in places, and Geoff Dunn, hot from his jazz gigs at Montreal, was in his element. Perhaps the IF ancestry of the other Geoff also contributed something to his jazzy facility, in a long exploratory solo. Whereas Geoff W got to trade solo lines with Gary in London, he now sings only harmony, and Brooker continuously handles the curious story of Sister Mary and Brother Michael. But Geoff informed us after the show that he is off to Frankfurt shortly, to play and sing at an all-star Blues affair … so his solo voice will still be heard. 'I don’t know what that one's called,' said Gary, when it was all over.

Gary solicited audience participation for Beyond the Pale, which was discharged per the record, with extra Dunn spice, and without the latter-day Fisher organ inserts, reminiscent of a barrel organ perhaps, which we first heard at Guildford in 2000. The piano took the mandolin spranglings, and Whitehorn stayed true to Grabham’s template in terms of the guitar counterpoints that decorate the latter part of the song. There was some clumsy dancing, lunging about even, at the front of the audience, though there was really not enough space! Quite a good contingent shouted ‘Oy’ from the audience as the song concluded, yet Procol took the ending again, and this time the response was overwhelming.

‘This is a tale of missing persons’. The song, which seems to have been merely a newly-written sketch when it was heard at BtP’s 40th party in London in July 2007, is now a shapely number, starting with classic B3 elaboration of the harmonies in the style of a brief two-part invention. The plaintive Brooker evocation of the various missing persons in Reid’s touching lyric (the more touching for the Palers who had been discussing the disappearance of once-active members from the Beanstalk, the Procol Harum chat list). The song is pitched high and Brooker's voice cuts through well; Matt and Geoff contribute significantly to the backing vocal which has an antiphonal quality. It was interesting to see Josh suddenly swinging the mic towards him and also contributing to the harmonising: it’s a very long time since we saw a Procol organist singing from the bench! Geoff's arpeggiated guitar, high up the neck, contributes a lot of additional weight to the texture. Gary told me afterwards that, now that this song has evolved some interesting key changes, it’s the hardest of his compositions to play: shifting up a tone, one encounters chords that have previously been used, at the lower pitch, but in a different context. 'You try it,' he added, a challenge I’ll be delighted to take up.

Grand Hotel was played in the familiar way, everyone pulling their weight to evoke a world somewhat different from the ambience of the hotels at Brønnøysund … which were nonetheless adequate homes from home for pilgrims who had, after all, not really come this far north for creature comforts. Geoff Dunn's entry was powerful and solid, though his ensuing snare work had a BJ-like delicacy. The French backing vocals were delivered with a certain self-mockery, especially with Geoff’s music-hall ‘Ritzah’. Gary almost started the piano‘s rising accelerando in the wrong key (the two versions, which bookend the gypsy theme, are in different keys) but made a seamless recovery. The fretmen gooned lightly during the gypsy interlude but the song resumed its monumental gravity with Geoff’s guitar solo. ‘These Norwegian girls like to fight’ joked Gary, not having been aware of the earlier fracas at the front, which exactly bore out his allegation.

But that was not the only ruction. During Cerdes, which followed, the fan directly in front of your correspondent keeled over and smote his skull against the concrete floor. By the time the venue staff had arrived, nonplussed by his supine form, another punter had also collapsed. Whether this was due to the heat or to some other agency I don’t know: Gary commented afterwards that ‘Cerdes can do that to people.’ So my attention was not wholly focused at the start of what soon turned out to be a spectacular reading of the classic song. Gary gave the early lines a Dylanesque inflection, but otherwise all sounded very much as it had in 1967. Dunn delighted in the occasional unpredictably accented passages, and the song built to the guitar solo. This was nothing like Trower’s. Though it was nonetheless melodic, it ended with some ferocious speed-widdling, and earned good applause. The band brought everything down for the final verse with its wraiths and Christian scientists; Geoff set up a two-note ostinato as the vocal ended, and this gradually developed into a second solo, higher than the first, in which he put his signature guitar through its paces and elicited a forest of mobile phones recording his every gesture. Perhaps some of that footage will come in to 'Beyond the Pale'? The song ended with a delayed cadence and some final guitaring … let us hope this piece stays in the repertoire as the new Whitehorn showcase … a role formerly held by the upbeat, Supertrampified As Strong as Samson.

And with that Procol Harum left the stage – it was 1.40 am though, that far North, not in the least dark. The applause was continuous for many minutes during which time a chant of ‘we want more’ evolved.

‘This song’s been around a long time,’ said Gary, launching into No Woman no Cry, with which the cod-drying shed was soon resounding. As expected, terrific applause greeted the emergence from this of the words ‘We skipped the light fandango’ … there was no organ prelude. Josh did, however, honour the Fisher contributions to this famous song, and the Hammond growled through authentically between the verses – Josh likes to hold the high notes a fraction longer than we expect, giving a fresh and attractive effect without disturbing the original elegant line. Procol played only the conventional two verses, but Gary invited the crowd to sing at the end, which we loudly did, both words and organ melody. The song ended with the old fashioned cadence, not the little piano A minor excursion

‘We are Procol Harum. You’ve been a lovely crowd, thank you for having us.’ The band left the stage after a good ninety minutes’ of unique entertainment, to cries of A Salty Dog and Conquistador … as it happens, two numbers that had been on the set list but which time had not permitted.

Following the show, there was socialising and merriment backstage, and a few Palers wandered home along the waterfront at about 3.45 in full daylight. As I went to bed, just before six, Geoff and Matt were sitting out at the front of the hotel in bright sun, watching the 'casualties' staggering home.

Procol were shortly to catch a flight (or flights) home to Blighty. We hope to report on their next bill-topping festival appearance, in Finland, in a few days' time.

(This article, hastily written on an unfamiliar mini-PC in the back of a moving car, will be proof-read and tidied up when time allows)

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