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the Pale

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Procol Harum in Finland, 23 July 2009

'A Faulty Log' • Roland from BtP

Finland being a land of forests, it’s perfectly natural that its highways should be dotted with log-piles; and it’s equally natural that a traveler, stopping to admire the terrain, should step on to such a log-pile. Less natural, however, is that the pile should collapse, precipitating the traveler on to the rocky ground, and that a prominent stone should break his right-hand dorsal ribs 7 and 8: yet that is what befell Gary Brooker, the evening before Procol Harum’s headlining gig at Finland’s KeiteleJazz festival.

When an actor is indisposed, the understudy takes the stage; in the case of an injured sportsman, a substitute is fielded. For the leader of Procol Harum, however, there can be no substitute … yet the show must go on. Gary’s performance that night, before a fabulously supportive Finnish crowd, was heroic and courageous: it was also the most public display of private agony I’ve ever witnessed.

When Procol took the stage without Gary, we feared the worst, but moments later he appeared from the wing-space, hunched to one side, his face speaking of inner torments. In fact everything was lopsided. A whistle of feedback emanated from the normally impeccable Graham Ewins’s gear; Gary started the show with band introductions; Josh didn’t play his usual little comic twiddle and had to be prompted with a Bach prelude fragment from the piano; Matt managed his and then ‘Geoffrey Edwin Dunn’ was invited to start the show.

When Bringing Home the Bacon struck up, we assumed that Gary was planning to pull no punches. His piano was clear and strong, the painkillers—tablets and jabs—were not fuddling his fancy. But after one word, ‘Bringing’ he winced, shuddered, and the rest of the first verse was lost in a breathless grimace, except for a game ‘Yeah’ at the end.

The six photographers in the press area, in front of the barrier on which your correspondent was leaning, moved like vultures for their bite: they would not be doing their job, I suppose, if they’d shown more consideration or decorum. They’d been primed by a pre-show announcement, in Finnish only, that had left the audience stilled and subdued, but somewhat in the dark about ‘an accident’ that had befallen the group, no victim being specified. Those of us who had been at the hotel when Gary returned from a second medical consultation (the first, late the previous night, had been blandly reassuring, whereas the second had reinterpreted the x-rays, explaining why the patient was continuing to feel such extremes of pain when breathing), were in no doubt as to the gravity of his condition. We fans hoped, as the band did themselves, that the medication and strapping provided by this second consultation would do the trick. A seventh photographer in the press area, webmaster Jens, refrained from joining his colleagues’ ambulance-chasing rush. But doubtless the Finnish papers will show images of a Commander haggard with pain, soldiering on: we must hope that the accompanying texts will tell the true story.

Gary delivered a few lines of the second verse, again wincing with every syllable. There was nothing recognisable in the voice, not the familiar timbre, and certainly not pitch. Gary summoned Jonny Magner, who ran off, and manager Chris Cooke appeared with a steaming drink. The rest of Procol continued impeccably, the evident upset spurring them to ever more energetic and inventive playing. The third verse was spoken in a very low, quiet voice: the effect was spooky. Then came the band’s little cameos: a crackling fill from Dunn, some Tchaikovsky from Gary, a bass run from Matt, and the band wound the song up to its usual powerful climax. What on earth were they going to do now?

Gary could manage to speak, though not for long. ‘Do you like instrumentals?’ he asked. He promised to try and ‘find a way of singing these songs, try a few things out’. There were PA problems, caused by the fact that Graham was trying to milk the most amplification from a mere whisper of vocal sound. (we found out when Gary sang with the Palers’ Band in Denmark just how much louder than the average his voice is). He managed the first line or so of Broken Barricades, but clearly it was excruciating. Dramatically, Geoff Whitehorn took over and sang the middle section, capably. But he did not know the intricate words sufficiently well to carry on. Gary sang a little in verse three but it was very faint. Luckily the musicianship of the band prevented this from being any kind of fiasco. The long play-out was effervescent with cross rhythms from the drums, and Geoff Whitehorn pulled out all the stops, wrenching drones and hypersustain from his guitar. The keyboard players coasted along with the ostinato and yet, although Whitehorn had become the dominant musician on stage, it still fell to Gary to signal the end of the song.

Gary then asked us to join in with ‘anything we might know’. Clearly even conversational vocalising was getting harder and harder. He blinked back tears as he huskily exclaimed, ‘I’ve always wanted to die on stage,’ and started Homburg. The singing got no further than ‘multilingual’, after which the song was obliged to proceed as an instrumental … a fine one … until the Finnish crowd began to fill in. The chorus was fantastic, as the whole Keitele Big Top, it seemed, rallied to Brooker’s assistance. They seemed to have no trouble with such a baffling libretto! The final verse started with Gary speaking, intoning perhaps, but he was unable to continue beyond a couple of lines. Geoff led the community singing for verse two and onward: although it was painful in all kinds of ways, it was also very interesting to hear the band in instrumental mode. Whitehorn is in fact a very respectable singer, and had recently played his first-ever solo spot as singer and guitarist, in Germany, with the promise of more to follow. ‘We’re getting there,’ he promised, ‘Just stick with us.’

Gary was now helped from the piano bench and stripped of his black silk jacket. In full view of the audience, perhaps to avoid the painful descent of the stairs from the stage, he was strapped around with some kind of corset-like bandaging, while Geoff explained to the crowd about his accident – the first elucidation of this unfolding drama for the many non-Finnish speakers in the throng—and the fact that Gary was on very strong medicine. ‘Every note is killing him. But we’re going to do our best if that’s all right.’ There was great applause for this. ‘But you will hear some very shitty singing from him and me,’ laughed Geoff, indicating his fret-partner Matt Pegg.

Gary then intervened hoarsely: ‘There’s no need to feel embarrassed,’ he opined, mentioning that he had missed only one Procol job (Flint, Michigan, 1973, owing to laryngitis). He praised the beautiful lady doctor who was attending him, and promised to come and see the audience and thank them (though by the end of the show it would have been foolhardy to have attempted this), saying that Procol would play Finland again. ‘Never mind Gary, you’re the greatest,’ came a cry from the audience. ‘Mr Brooker, we love you,’ came another, then more applause. Considering that the Animals, preceding (and co-fronted by an under-powered Spencer Davis), had over-run and denied the ebullient audience a much-requested encore, the mood of the meeting might have been much different. This was a great demonstration of the equable, sympathetic Finnish temperament.

Sister Mary followed. The strange vocal chanting at the start was sounding like ‘frozen frozen from her mouth’ … it was great to be back in the position familiar from one’s youth, of being transfixed and perplexed by some Procolesque detail, very mysterious and inscrutable. The band sounded really strong, but Gary wasn’t managing any of his lines with any force. Geoff sang the ‘Brother Michael’ lines, as he had done at St John’s Smith Square, very high indeed. This was a good choice of number, having a high proportion of instrumental work, and being the closest in the Procol repertoire to a ‘jazz odyssey’, fitting the title of the Keitele Jazz festival – (Keitele is the very pretty lake on whose shores the gig was taking place. The setting made sense of all kinds of Sibelius! It would have been nice, in fact, to have heard Rambling On, whose opening chords are so reminiscent of the start of Finlandia) – and also perhaps, from its title at any rate, evoking the medical sister waiting in the wings with her ministrations and (it would later be revealed) severe admonitions.

The instrumental playing in Sister Mary was dynamic, dramatic, and extravagant: the band overcame their anxiety with displays of mutual listening and daring mastery of dynamics that took the song from a whisper to a roar and back. This really has become a terrific live number: I’m not sure how it will come across in one unvarying performance on a CD, but with this class of rhythm section and soloing (Whitehorn really was remarkable!) it will remain a concert favourite. Not only solos, but also sections, were clapped. And at the end Gary announced that he ‘had to have something done’ and explained how he had fallen flat on his back ‘on a nasty Finnish rock. Mind you I am 60 – no, 50 and a bit … and that’s got nothing to do with it,’ he continued. Geoff joshed with the audience for a moment, threatening them with some English jokes, then said the whole band was going off for medical attention, for stress. ‘The fact is,’ he said, ‘we sound very shitty without Gary’. Obviously moved, he thanked the audience for their indulgence, suggested they get a drink, while the whole band left the stage.

But people didn’t leave in any appreciable numbers. Only one gentleman, of advanced years, who had been leaning in a black Redhill polo-shirt against the front barrier, departed somewhat ungraciously, terribly disappointed – one must conclude – by the indisposition of his idols. Following the interval, Geoff invited us all to join hands and send Gary a big lot of love… which we did … and there were many shouts of support. Gary gruffly announced ‘Dr Robert’ to his surprised cohorts, before telling us we were to hear ‘a song dedicated to doctors.’ For this number, he hit on a mode of declamation that has served Dylan down the decades: a kind of Sprechstimmung, pitched speech, which worked well, giving a poignant inflection to all the lines about being ‘awful sick’ and of course, needing ‘a pinch to ease the pain’. When Procol were washed off the stage at LA in 2003, they returned following the lightning storm with Whaling Stories; this return to performance had a similar ironic appositeness. Geoff and Matt took the ‘pinch to ease the pain’ repetitions at the end, standing comically aside for Josh’s Motif horn work. Geoff Dunn’s playing was a joy: so choppy and detailed without seeming arbitrary or contrived. He has been a brilliant find for the Procol drum stool.

Robert’s Box had gone well, given the circumstances, and Gary seemed to have found a way into performing the songs given his extreme condition. When he launched into ‘Hey bartender’, carrying a bit of melody, one had hopes that it would turn out to be a classic Whisky Train. In fact, though, he could not summon sufficient volume when the whole band was playing, and just about negotiated the first verse. Lest anyone feel, however, that this audience of music fans was short-changed, we should acknowledge that the instrumental ensemble was absolutely steaming. The Dunn cowbell, extravagant tom-tom rolls, underpinned with inventive and funky work from Matt Pegg, provided an impeccably solid foundation for Geoff’s guitar soloing (the particular song is not a great gift to the organist, so if I neglect to mention Josh Phillips at this point, no criticism is implied).

Geoff Dunn’s hundred-second solo followed, every bit as exciting as the version on the live Italian download album, equally episodic, elastic in terms of tempo and of instrumentation. In a black tee-shirt, against the black background hangings of the stage, Geoff looked like a disembodied head, reminiscent of Daisy Meek hovering over the ocean on the Something Magic album cover. When the band crashed in again at the end, it was with an exultant fury. Good though Chris Farlowe had been with the Norman Beaker band earlier in the day, fine though The Animals had sounded with Mickey Gallagher on organ and the excellent barefoot Peter Barton on bass and vocal, the Keitele big top had heard nothing as ferociously exciting as this wounded Procol Harum, and nothing approaching its sustained and spirited virtuosity.

There now ensued a brief pause in which Brooker shuffled his papers (the proposed setlist had long been a ghost), and said the one word, Cerdes. Matt Pegg instantly set the riff going, and Gary gruffly spoke his way through the first verse, like Joe Cocker channeling the ghost of Rex Harrison. It had a compelling, spine-chilling quality, to hear the Cerdes lyric as if it were part of Dead Man’s Dream. One’s ear was constantly drawn back to this spectral vocal, even though the drumming and organ were demanding of attention. Whitehorn, though, who had reluctantly become the de facto bandleader all evening, now took absolute command with a wickedly angry solo, putting even the recent Norwegian version of this number in the shadows. Short of setting the guitar on fire he ran the full gamut of techniques, letting it howl, summoning a terrific clanging by striking the neck. Clapped by all, including the band, he acknowledged his applause with both hands clamped to his cheeks, in mock disguise of blushing, or disguise of mock blushing, or both. I noticed that Matt Pegg started elaborating the hallowed riff, stepping up with a run into the low F with which it formerly started … an innovation made possible only by the invention of the five-string bass.

Following verse three, all hell was let loose from Whitehorn and Dunn in particular, as if they were bent on avenging whatever forest troll had hexed ‘a faulty log’ and caused the Commander’s fall from grace. All ghosts, even those of Procol’s great players of the past, went into eclipse as this performance unwound. It was the blues, pure and simple, an eloquent and profound response to suffering, terribly moving, harrowing and uplifting at once. And it won’t go into words, try as I might.

‘Some of these songs, unless you can hit them just right with the vocals, it seems a shame …’ said Gary, as he started A Salty Dog. This song, so musically eloquent, worked beautifully as an instrumental, and he made no attempt to sing it. Dunn’s drums took a slightly different route into the syncopation, very effectively: meanwhile Gary was signaling to the band to skip to the middle section, which not everyone succeeded in interpreting. To our surprise, though, he began to sing the third verse, really convincingly, until ‘of joy’ floored him, and the expression of agony that we had seen on the opening number returned to his face. Geoff and Matt sang the title-phrase, but no more, and the number faded into an ovation.

Gary played a fragment of Bach, then mentioned that his backstage doctor’s advice was to sing no more, since he was feeling the broken ribs moving a lot, and that, if they punctured his lungs, ‘we’d be looking at something a bit more serious’. So he invited the crowd to sing A Whiter Shade of Pale for him, which we did, as Geoff Whitehorn also did (he knows the words of this one!). During the intercalary organ break Gary elaborated the chords at the piano in interesting fashion. Geoff started the second verse, and Gary interpolated some very hoarse phrases such as ‘the truth is plain to see’. Geoff raised a good laugh with ‘though my eyes were open they might just as well have been toast’ – and the stately theme circumvolved into a final audience chorus, and the organ took it all home into the standard, Handelian cadence.

Thank you so much ... we’ll make it up to you next time,’ said Geoff Whitehorn, introducing the band once again: ‘He’s on beer, he’s on wine, he’s on cocaine, I’m on everything: he’s on painkillers and water. See you next time!’ Procol Harum, visibly strained by the whole experience, left the stage; as Gary was very slowly lifted from the piano stool by solicitous manager Chris Cooke, the audience spontaneously broke into the riff from Pandora’s Box, and clapped in time until he had vanished from view.

It was quite incredible.
The forthcoming Procol Harum box set contains a photograph of Gary Brooker wearing a Captain's hat bearing the word 'Hero'. He was given this in 1969, but it was stolen a short while later. His professionalism in Finland, following his injuries (British doctors found a tally of one fractured rib and five breaks over four others) suggest that – forty years on – he is still entitled to wear such a headpiece.

There is much more to say, but no more battery-power in Jens’s mini-PC. Errors and omissions in this report, hastily composed in the back of a car speeding to Helsinki, may well be corrected on the author’s return home in a couple of weeks’ time. Meanwhile, good wishes to Gary Brooker for a speedy return to health and the stage; thanks and congratulations to the rest of the band; and ‘go well’ to this season’s multilingual fellow-travellers – Jens and Titti, Linda, One-Eye, Ian and Kate Hockley, Juice Huhtala, François Courvoisier, Rainer Frilund and his wife – we’ll meet again!

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