Procol Harum

the Pale

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Procol Harum : Live at the BBC

'Strange Fruit' album review online by Steve Fagg

Recorded in front of an audience by the BBC in 1974 for broadcast on Radio One'sIn Concert programme, this album (not released commercially until 1999) is the only official record of the [then] band playing live sans orchestra. Made just after the release of Exotic Birds & Fruit, it features the same personnel and six of the songs to be found on that album. The live sound is a little rough in places and the instrumental balance is not as finely judged as on the band's albums of this era (when Chris Thomas was their regular producer). That said, the album provides ample evidence of Procol Harum's often underestimated rock sensibilities. The quality of their songs and the band's well-honed instrumental prowess shine through and the band-only arrangements of songs like Grand Hotel (originally recorded with choir and strings) in particular emphasise that Procol Harum were first and foremost impressively accomplished rockers.

Gary Brooker is in fine voice throughout and BJ Wilson's excellent drumming consistently plays a far more significant structural role in the arrangements than is common in rock music. Mick Grabham's guitar-playing, on the other hand, makes telling contributions to each song without indulging in axe-hero excesses (though he's impressively raunchy on the guitar-dominated Simple Sister). Chris Copping's and Alan Cartwright's playing (on Hammond organ and bass respectively) is impressive and perfectly weighted within Procol's generally piano-led sound.

The only fly in the ointment is the disappointing production work of Jeff Griffin. BBC staff producer Griffin had tremendous experience of working with a wide variety of musicians but seems to have made no attempt to respond to the complexities of Procol's musical arrangements with their important shifts in instrumental significance within and between songs. Instead, he seems to have opted for a "set it up once, then leave it alone" approach. The chosen settings serve the songs from Exotic Birds & Fruit reasonably enough (which is just as well: this broadcast was, after all, a promotional exercise in support of that album) but make some of the finer points of the earlier songs hard to pick up, even for the afficionado. This is a shame, as otherwise this release would be a near-perfect addition to Procol Harum's recorded legacy.

As it is, even with its production shortcomings, this is an essential purchase for those who like Procol Harum and is highly recommended to anyone who's interested in hearing how this intriguing band could rock when freed from the accretions of the "symphonic rock" sound for which they are unfairly best known.

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