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Procol Harum: A Grand Night in Vienna

Sunday 14 October 2018 • Planet TT Arena, Gasometers

Review and photographs by Charlie Allison for BtP

We flew from London to Vienna, the night after the Palladium concert, to take in one of the band’s non-orchestral European dates. We’d always wanted to visit this famously-historic city, known for impressive palaces (legacy of the 500-year Europe-ruling Hapsburg Empire) and great music (Mozart, Strauss, Beethoven and others have done big gigs here in times past). We actually stayed at a Grand Hotel (no, not at the Grand Hotel, Wien, but in the more affordable Grand Hotel Biedermeier on Landstrasse, conveniently situated just five U-Bahn stops away from the venue). With five days in the city, we took in other music, including a night at the Stadtopera and a splendid “tourist concert” with ballet and arias at the Stadtpark Kursalon. Here I mused that their thirteen piece orchestra (no conductor) were so proficient, they could have played with Procol, though the majesty of a full orchestra is of course the gold standard. But maybe a thought for a future Euro-tour?

I also wondered about the band having been to the city in the past. (Gary did reflect on previous Vienna visits, staying in grand hotels and dining at ritzy establishments – you can guess at which point in the set-list!) I did see from our online Encyclopedia Harum that on their first Kurhalle visit back in 1974 they “started A Salty Dog with most of Keith Reid's solo track, Sayonara: or is it called Mr Krupp?" [as performed twice by The Palers' Band]? They played a 22-song setlist – nine of these tunes were played tonight, including part of a popular local instrumental.

The Planet TT : Bank Austria arena is a 3,500 capacity music theatre in one of four Gasometers converted to residential and commercial use some twenty-five years ago. After a rich diet of Wienerschnizel and Sachertort (and a somewhat incongruous Greek lunch!) we dined for the night on a pint and a pizza in the adjoining shopping mall. There I met fellow Scot Bill Powrie and his wife Sheena – long-time PH admirers who had followed our lead to London and Vienna. I must tell you Bill is now retired, but his business career was as a flour miller – so perhaps it should be him ‘telling the tale’ for you now! I must progress, just pausing to say I have no idea how the big, dark hall was configured and how many attended. We were quite near the front and never looked back, or up to the balcony ... and only moved at the interval for refreshments.

The band had already played Winterbach and Zurich since the Palladium and tonight’s setlist showed some commonality, but also some variation. It contained many ‘fan favourites’ and a good exposure to Novum. Gary did say, at some point later in the evening, they were there to sell records!

With trains and trams you can set your watch by, it was most un-Austrian to be starting late – we trusted there hadn’t been a snag with Gary’s voice – but at 8.15 they trooped on to a great welcome.

I Told on You has become 2018’s favoured starter with its tinkly beginning, then that slam chord from Geoffrey which would waken the dead. It’s a contemporary tale which few seem to have picked up on – Pete Brown’s lyric would make a great talking point for literary critics or news presenters. It rips along, rocking from side to side in the choruses, an almost poppy refrain with backing vocals, but containing great soloing from our three stellar principals – Gary Brooker, Josh Phillips and Geoff Whitehorn. Meanwhile the bottom-end is anchored by the gangly Matt Pegg and (from where I was sitting) the completely-invisible Geoff Dunn (but boy could you hear him!). As ever, there is as much power and invention to be appreciated in this duo’s foundation work, as there is in the piano, organ and guitar playing “out-front”. We got an extra few bars of soloing here and there, some unexpected gull-sounds and a tight, abrupt finish. There’s great sound in the hall and generous applause for the band. I’m not sure how many Palers are in the house tonight – I didn’t recognise a soul all evening.

The jazzed-up Pandora’s Box followed, with audience clapping to the jaunty rhythm. Gary’s voice seemed strong but a little raspy (improving later with a slug of brandy and his favoured Ricolas. Geoff Dunn set the mood throughout and the light show strobed in perfect time too. At the midpoint we had Josh’s synth-flute solo, then in came Geoff, with a bit of pub piano from Gary to finish things off.

Gary looked at the setlist and stated “It’s the drums!”, but we were straight into Simple Sister without the massed-percussive opening we’ve heard in orchestral shows. My notes just say ‘loud and wonderful!’ with the whole band powering along behind Gary. Matt has his solo spot and Geoffrey gives us more leaning and yawning and less balalaika than usual. There’s great organ and thunderous drums in the last verse, as the band brings it around once more to conclusion. Great cheers in the hall.

Gary enquires “Is it Sunday?” and tells the audience “You’ll Have to Work Tomorrow” before explaining the band have a new album Novum (repeated in a deep echoey delivery). He says they are indeed the same band who did AWSoP fifty years ago (“we were lucky with the first one”) and informs them there’s a place in the hall for merchandise, where they may spend their money wisely!

I anticipate the next track but one, but first we have another avalanche of tinkled whimsy before the quietly growing introduction to You Can’t Say That, which hurtles along with the whole band at full tilt and Gary trying (and succeeding) to get all the words in. The piano, organ and guitar solos all come and go with transitions at the interfaces cleverly interwoven. It is one of the great new fast ones on Novum. Josh has already mastered the span of two keyboards like a man getting fags or sweets out of the glovebox of his car and Geoff Whitehorn’s solo is a veritable cornucopia of technique and feel. It goes all Neanderthal near the end, until it fades to silence on Josh’s synthesiser. Great rendition, top track, well appreciated.

Yes, it’s now time for Sunday Morning (but first Gary has some Schnapps!) We have a fake start, a Ravi Shankar moment, then embark on this slow, stately song which stirs the emotions, particularly when the Hammond comes in during the second verse (at the time trains start to run). Gary’s voice does have an edge but he gets all the notes and captures all the emotion too. There’s Geoff’s great guitar entry as Gary climbs in the third chorus and again there’s a wash of synth and Hammond to make you care. It concludes dignified and quiet and then the audience respond hugely with cheers with many on their feet applauding. This plaintive song is one their classics now.

After a humorous nose-blowing routine (“there are some things you should not do in public”) Gary talked about his recent Prog Award before introducing a masterwork which was progressive in its time – Whaling Stories. No orchestra, choir or extended percussion section tonight, but still a mighty sound generated and Gary’s voice now the best of the night so far. The rumble is loud, the guitar solo searing and when it all goes peaceful before the morning you could hear a pin drop. Geoff played some beautifully quiet guitar counterpoint in the last verse – 1000 percent different from his wailing salvo earlier, set against Gary and Josh in the main break – and ‘Shalimar’ has all the band doing the work of the chorus on backing vocals. There’s another neat little coda to finish with a bit of Good Evening Friends to my ear. Another stunning rendition from the band …. and let’s hear it for the sound team tonight too.

Gary then explains how the Vienna City Fathers had asked them to contribute to some Strauss anniversary by recording The Blue Danube. (“We’re Procol Harum – we thought it would be no bother, as classics come naturally to us. But it took us fourteen days to learn all the tunes!”). And Gary hoped “they would write to ask us back when we got old!”

After a small snatch of the Blue Danube Waltz we had a loud track far removed from this – Business Man – preceded by a jokey diatribe about bankers and lawyers being banned from Procol Harum concerts! This is a constant mélange of combined instruments going in and out of solos (lots of notes in Geoffrey’s) and Geoff Dunn played some excellent new rhythms in the second verse. Gary’s voice now at its best, as he sings this with real commitment through to that end point of silence. That’s three good ones from Novum as tasters for potential buyers in the hall!

Before the interval Gary solemnly dedicates A Salty Dog “to those unable to come to the concert tonight, especially those watching from above”. For the second time in a week we are treated to a faultless, moving rendition with the resources in the band more than up to the absence of the orchestra and choir. It’s amazing to reflect on how both guitar and organ were absent on the original 1969 recording, yet have evolved sympathetic parts over intervening years. It is a much-loved classic which should be universally known, not just to us aficionados. There’s a further ovation as the band troops off for a deserved half-time break. “Good set list” I say to Bill and, apart from a slight harsh edge to Gary's singing at the start, we agree the band are playing at their best.

We start the second half with another quality Procol classic, Fires (Which Burn Brightly), containing sampled female voices (or a clever synthesis of them). To achieve this Josh has his right hand on his Hammond and his left hand ‘on the ladies’ so to speak! It starts slow and stately then picks up its woven way with a good piano solo and Geoff’s interesting new drum figures in the final verse.

Gary hoped we like one from fifty years ago – Homburg (and indeed we did), then we were straight into Shine on Brightly from the same era. My notes degenerate at this point but I wrote 'good guitar fills’ and new two-tone ending (honestly, not a clue what this means back home days later!) And in a festival of '60s favourites, we next hear the wonderful Cerdes. Unlike 1967 it's great to know and sing along with all the words (well maybe!) which were such a puzzle way back then. The band’s growling deep dynamic still thrills and Geoffrey (as ever) meets the challenge of Robin Trower’s master performance in 1967. I see I just wrote ‘perfect, band at their best.’ It’s a familiar verdict – there’s been nothing short of their high standard this evening. Visually they look well and the light and sound are excellent in the hall (judge for yourself on some YouTube clips!)

Back to Novum for Neighbour. Gary went into a whole routine including contrasting your old 1963 Volkswagen to the gleaming car next door, then starts comparing the wives too. (no, he didn’t say old banger!) The jollity of suburban Cockney humour seemed to be appreciated in Vienna but no cries of “Give it a rest, Guvnor” from anyone other than Mr Whitehorn – here Dave to Gary’s Chas. I’ll repeat what I said in my Palladium review – Chas and Dave might have had a bit hit with this song. Of course Procol have a great collection of comic tunes, like Good Captain Clack and Mabel.

Gary then mused on touring and staying at one time in downtown Vienna with all its wealthy trappings, mentioning a store next to St Stephan’s Cathedral – “and it’s a long way out here to Gasometer City!” Grand Hotel was in turn stately, then turned comic with Geoff “dining on fish and chips” in the second verse. The piano solo was excellent and Mr Whitehorn steamed back in just before the morning. Another one to merit top applause.

Gary then went a bit Nigel Farage telling a somewhat bemused audience the British were simple people who liked their PG Tips and rather wished to be on their own … and would they ask their Austrian President (Herr something) not to be difficult, as we just want to be friends! Somehow he drew common purpose with warlike elements in the splendid Conquistador (maybe we need George Lovell here to decipher those connections!) This great Mayan melody was given a full-tilt treatment and Gary was up on his feet singing as well as vamping a mean piano. Geoff and Josh soloed in the appropriate spots with gusto. The ending was perfect too – Ole!

Now after this mayhem, band introductions then peace and tranquility as they started The Only One. It really does need a honed live performance to bring out the dynamic of the song and its lyric. “Much better, I’m a convert” is what I wrote. The magic of this has eluded me until tonight when it all made sense – I’ve always admired the acoustic guitar solo and the ethereal final minute, but the whole piece has now gelled for me musically, if not yet the sentiments in the lyrics. Vienna loved it!

So we moved, without any preamble through Bach, Wilson Pickett or Bob Marley, to a great “on your feet” performance of A Whiter Shade of Pale, with three verses and a very quietly-effective guitar solo from Geoff. The novelty of those soundalike comparisons has worn off for a regular concert-goer and I would happily trade this for hearing an extra verse discarded by Denny Cordell in 1967. I confirmed finally what I suspected that there were very few “hardcore Palers” in the audience, as I was the only one to call out for MORE at the appropriate moment, which (I see on YT) brought a momentary smile of recognition from Geoff. The crowd’s reception at the end was wildly enthusiastic and the band stayed on appreciatively bowing and waving for some minutes. As a cameo I noted Chris Cooke bearing a torch to see them safely up a step at the side of the stage!

We returned to our hotel with one day to go – a trip to the 18th-century Demel’s coffee shop and some retail therapy ended our sojourn to Vienna, which I was told was the best city in the world by parents’ friends back in the early '70s. Some good things take time to find out about! Maybe at this concert there were a few “Procol Harum virgins” (as Gary described them) who will become late converts to the cause.

The band members of course have much further to travel, round Europe (though perhaps not now to Russia) then that Caribbean sea cruise and US gigs, including what sounds like fun – several nights performing in wine-bars! You know I might find a cheap flight to Boston for that, but it’s more likely I’ll await news of 2019 shows a bit nearer home.

Anyway I wish American and Canadian fans good listening, as you get to hear live performances of Novum, as well as the best of the classic Procol Harum we’ve loved for over half a century. And maybe someone from that Hall of Fame will turn up at one of the gigs ... .

Thanks, Charlie!

Procol dates in 2018 | Booking

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