Procol Harum

the Pale

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Procol Harum • Porto, Portugal

Setlist • 27 April 2019

Brooker, Dunn, Pegg, Phillips, Whitehorn
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I Told on You
A familiar recorded spiel, in Portuguese, again invited the audience to welcome the rock legends, Procol Harum … and we certainly did! First up, without preamble, I Told on You: for a moment I found myself thinking of Supertramp … but that didn’t last long. Superb drumming from Geoff, while his namesake on guitar did some searing, and some soaring. A great start.

Pandora's Box
It would be interesting to compile a list of pop songs that refer to winding-sheets; I suspect it would not take very long. For such a seemingly peaceable person Dunn can deliver some pretty violent drumming … the energy at his command is prodigious. Josh’s solo was terrific … the organ sound very suitably full tonight … but what’s also noticeable is the way the solo spotlight passes from person to person in this very democratic performing ensemble. A few years ago there were conservative voices on one of the forums talking of Procol as ‘The Gary Brooker Band’ … those people must have toppled over long ago, for lack of legs to stand on.

This piece was greeted with cheers as it started and as it finished. From my seat, the organ was much higher in the mix than at last night’s Coliseum, and the drums sounded more fully-integrated: this seems a very good house for the particular kind of music. Bob Dylan is playing here in the next few days … sold out … but Procol had a very respectable size of audience too, and the merchandise almost sold out in the interval (there was nothing at all left by the end of the show).

Still There'll be More
‘Forgive me if I speak English … it’s my native tongue … unless anyone here can speak French?’ Nobody responded, although most of the audience had been pupils when French was still the primary foreign language taught in Portuguese schools. Perhaps GB would have got a different answer had he enquired in French? He offered ‘congratulations on your revolution’ and then launched into a song of great savagery … whereas the 25 April ructions were almost bloodless. It was a recklessly vigorous performance, propelled with thrilling precision from every quarter … or every quintile. At the end, when Gary was ad libbing various barbarous lines and phrases, GW was echoing them on guitar: entertaining, skilful and effective, and much appreciated by the throng. GB told us he’d come to Portugal to ‘restock my cocktail cabinet, if anyone knows a good Port … a 1967 would be nice.’

Image of the Beast
One of the less-played Novum numbers, Image of the Beast was taken at a moderate lope, and started with a real growl from the XK5 … impossible to imagine a tonewheel’n’tube Hammond sounding any better in this context. This is a really effective song … for a moment I found myself thinking of Steely Dan, though that didn’t last long … but arguably it didn’t quite evince the 100% swaggering confidence that illuminated the rest of the evening’s repertoire.

The Devil Came from Kansas
‘The only time a foreign town is mentioned in a Procol Harum song,’ said Brooker, somewhat controversially, given the fact that the geographically-specific title of Last Train to Niagara is frequently sung in the eponymous song. 1969’s Kansas is a bashy number, but the melismatic architecture of its opening melody is so memorable, and its harmony vocals so thrilling, that it amply earns its place in this mature band’s repertoire, and leaves the 1969 recorded version in the shade. Much brow-mopping from Matt Pegg at the end, while Gary declared that ‘I should be a retired man, at my age.’ He’s referring narrowly to chronological age, I guess. The voice defies both clock and calendar … an extraordinary instrument.

The Only One
Geoff changes guitar, and plays quietly; Josh busy with choral pads; such stirring melancholy in Gary’s voice at the end of this existentially-fraught song … yet the playing is muscular and the contrasts dramatic. To these ears, The Only One really felt at home in penultimate position, a show-almost-closer: but it’s a welcome addition anywhere in the set. Here it substituted Sunday Morning from the previous night’s schedule; a tough choice between the two songs … the one pretty, a bit more showy in its harmonic cleverness, and relentless in its rising emotional contour, the other somehow calmer and more Procolesque (with that standout third chord in the first two choruses!), stoical and lonely in flavour, and far more mysterious, searching and ambivalent in its imagery.

Simple Sister
After a strong (and highly-efficacious!) plug from the piano stool for the merchandise stall, Part One ended with a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. There’s something primeval about those intercalary Trower guitar lines – so wrong, so right – which Whitehorn faithfully renders. Lighting played on stage fog, which plumed and flaked in volcanic patterns behind the band. The show is good and loud at this point, reminiscent of British shows in the 70s, but of course without the attendant distortion. And then, the first disappointment of the evening, simply terrible clapping from the audience in the Cool Jerk section … half on the even beats, half on the odd, a crowd seemingly unable to follow visual gestures from the stage let alone respond aurally to a definitive groove … and they persisted!  

Bringing Home the Bacon
GB returned for the second half in the Ray Charles shades with which he’d started the previous evening's Lisbon show. Bacon is so strong these days, with four voices on the opening wordless riff … a reminder of the sound when Procol had a singing drummer in Mark Brzezicki. This number is the locus classicus of the stop-start motif which some have seen as a signature of the Procol style, and others believe to be rooted in a kind of straight-laced inhibition, a reluctance to rock out uninhibitedly. Novum puts paid to that theory, I think … though Business Man, for instance, still employs ‘holes’ for dramatic effect.

Fires (Which Burnt Brightly)
Josh's playing was ‘detached and pouncey’, if I'm reading my notes correctly: he has a lot to get right in terms of registration. Why, I wonder, do Matt and Geoff W perform their mock Benny Hill salutes during GB’s little piano insert, which, despite the martial fashion in which he plays it, is the opening of Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy? Mincing about in pink tutus would be closer to the mark. GB performs the song with great respect for the drama implicit in the words … but ‘let down the curtain’ is often sung with some kind of Brooklyn accent, so there’s clearly a layer of story I’m not getting.

Shine on Brightly
This song still, after 51 years, offers a concentrated elixir of the early Procol Harum, in terms of sound and words. It provides a wormhole to 1968, where our family has gathered in the room with the ‘hi-fi’ in order to listen to the first stereo record ever played in that household.

Business Man
The shades go back on for the next song-intro, which excoriates businessmen, excluding ‘the ones that are nice … like florists.’ GB opines there are usually some of the bad sort in a Procol audience, since ‘we play only to professionals’. This emphatic song is delivered with dramatic anger.

Grand Hotel
Gary recalls how, on their 1973 visit to Portugal, Procol Harum were met at the airport by the footballer Eusébio … who took them to the gig ‘in his Volkswagen’. Now we just have ‘a tin of sardines’ for dinner (admittedly a foodstuff the Portuguese take great pride in). 'We haven’t even got a hotel.’ There was a great roar for the introduction to this song. Unusually, there was no mention of ‘Hotel Ritz’ at the end of the second verse, and consequently Geoff and Matt didn’t sing the rhyming ‘fish & chips’ joke du jour. Equally Geoff didn’t console Matt in the violin part, though the bassist's assumed melancholy appeared to require it … funny how the ‘business’ changes from night to night, and how a fan might expect to see, or hear, some feature in perpetuity just because it had happened the night before. On the other hand, Gary did revert to his Victor Borge ‘run-out-of-piano’ gimmick, and after the superb tango section his voice resumed even fuller and huger than before (‘these Porto girls they like to fight’). Though the applause was huge, standing ovationeers were sparse, and tentative of posture.

‘Despite Brexit, or whatever that nonsense is …’ came the introduction to this caustic little ditty about fractured relationships with those dwelling nearby. Mr Brooker reminded the audience how the British Navy had once rescued their royal family, and conceded that Procol sometimes sounded ‘gruff and grumpy.’ Josh was amusingly indicated as ‘the neighbour we hate … he’s got a bigger boat’! Tonight the falsetto BV seemed particularly ridiculous, as did the improbable line ‘his fences are of a better quality’. Probably there aren't many pop songs that cover that topic either.

A Salty Dog
A bit of a contrast with the foregoing? There was simply a magnificent lead vocal in this song, its effect assisted by the stirring restraint of the lead guitar’s contributions.

Trumpet lines emanated from the piano again, this time sounding suitably brassy. And for some unknown reason the vocal seemed suddenly somewhat sibilant. The guitar work was terrific. ‘There is no tapping in Procol’, some web-pundit claimed a while back. Tonight’s recital definitively exposed a flaw in that opinion. Big piano glissando after ‘only die’ … we don’t always get that.

A Whiter Shade of Pale
This longed-for item began after a protracted pantomime of procrastination, pseudo-consultation, and general teasing of the vociferous throng. ‘We haven’t been going so long,’ said the band’s leader. ‘JS Bach has been going for over 300 years.’ Which is true … he was born in 1685. After a good stretch of Air on the G String, some Percy Sledge followed (and some more gruesome clapping from the crowd, on one and three), and then a brief snatch of Go Now by ‘The Moody Bruise’. The piano solo intro to the most famous PH hit was  rather informal, and the band slid into play behind it. First break from the XK5 featured the classic melody, unadorned, but with strong piano emphases; verse two followed the single as well. Tonight we heard the Dave Knights semitones in the final round, which I didn’t recall hearing in Lisbon.

Another excellent concert.

17 songs altogether: 1 From Procol Harum 1 from Shine on Brightly
2 From A Salty Dog 1 From Home 1 from Broken Barricades
3 From Grand Hotel   From Exotic Birds and Fruit 1 from Procol's Ninth
  From Something Magic   From The Prodigal Stranger   from The Well's on Fire
5 From Novum 2 non-album tracks Song notes deciphered long after they were written in the darkness of the night with a blunt 2B pencil. Hope they're accurate ...


Procol dates in 2019 | Booking

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