Procol Harum

the Pale 

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The Procol Harum: The Well Is Full

Dan Campbell in The Washington Times April 2003

This excellent review incorporates parts of a searching Gary Brooker interview, which you may read here

For 35 years, albeit with hiatuses, Procol Harum's Gary Brooker and Keith Reid have been writing some of the most varied and inventive rock music the genre has known.

From the haunting, ghost-ship requiem of A Salty Dog, to the baroque soul of A Whiter Shade of Pale, to raving rockers like Long Gone Geek or their surrealistic epic In Held 'Twas in I, Mr Brooker and Mr Reid have proved equally adept at raising a sweat or goose bumps. "Writing together often means baring our souls to each other," Mr Brooker said from his new home in France, where he was resting during a break from a European tour and preparing for Procol Harum's first US tour since 1995.

So the two men must be like brothers, right? Wrong. "I don't know him from Adam. Keith is a very deep, very private person," Mr Brooker says of the man who has supplied lyrics for all Procol Harum albums and has always been listed as a band member even though he does not perform with it.

That lack of deep familiarity with each other hasn't hurt their writing, on the evidence of the band's latest recording, The Well's on Fire. Much of the album is simply stunning, a showcase of deft songwriting craft and heartfelt performance that harkens back to the days when rock 'n' roll giants still walked the Earth.

The band will be showcasing the album and much of its classic repertoire May 6 at the Birchmere in Alexandria. Mr Brooker's Ray Charles-tinged vocals still dish out some of the best blue-eyed soul ever to emerge from Britain, while Matthew Fisher's patented Hammond organ sound still conjures the spirits of JS Bach and Booker T Jones, sometimes all in the same song.

The Emperor's New Clothes is a track from the new album in which Mr Brooker has "a bit of a go at politicians who try to pull the wool over our eyes once for the umpteenth time." It could fit easily on one of the band's classic albums from the late 60s or early 70s.

The Blink of an Eye appears to be about the attack on the Twin Towers, although Mr Brooker says "It could also be about the moment when the first V2 rockets slammed into London [during World War II]." Mr Reid's lyrics are typically more evocative than concrete, open to interpretation. On the new album, though, they tend to be more literal, Mr Brooker says.

The album also features the hard rocking Wall Street Blues, about the bursting of the stock-market bubble, and The VIP Room, in which Mr Brooker shouts out that when he dies, it's going to be in the VIP Room, away from the unwashed masses, with a bottle of champagne in hand. Both songs show that acid-drenched humor still drips from Mr Reid's pen and that, musically, the old dogs still have a few new tricks up their sleeves.

The real tour-de-force, though, is a Matthew Fisher instrumental, The Signature, which closes the album with stately keyboard and guitar riffing in much the same fashion as another Fisher keyboard incantation [sic] , Repent Walpurgis, closed the very first Procol Harum album back in 1967. "It's getting standing ovations wherever we play," Mr Brooker says. "It leaves me thinking, 'What am I going to sing to follow that?' "

Mr Fisher played organ and did some singing on the first three Procol Harum albums before launching a career as a solo artist and producer around 1969. The band, with various other personnel changes, carried on until 1977, when it folded its tent. Procol Harum didn't re-form to record and tour again until 1991, with the release of The Prodigal Stranger.

The band's original drummer, BJ Wilson, died in 1989, and his seat for the past decade has been filled by Mark Brzezicki, formerly with Big Country. Original guitarist Robin Trower went on to solo fame and fortune in 1971 with a Hendrix-inspired power trio. His chair has been filled by journeyman British ax wielder Geoff Whitehorn, while Matt Pegg is playing bass.

Until now, Mr Whitehorn and Mr Pegg had never recorded an album of new Procol Harum material, and drummer Brzezicki had played only on the 1991 comeback album. "That's a decade they've spent re-creating parts another musician originally played," Mr Brooker says. "But with this album, they finally had free rein. And they nailed it."

It's one of just two albums of new Procol Harum material to have been recorded since 1977 - fewer than fans would have liked, although Mr Brooker has been active with solo albums and side projects, such as touring as part of Ringo Starr's All-Star Band, playing with ex-Rolling Stone Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings and doing sessions for Eric Clapton, among others.

Credit the band for not watering down its legacy with 20 years of weak or mediocre albums, the way the Stones, Paul McCartney and Yes did throughout the 80s and 90s. "When you make an album, it should be new and important," Mr Brooker says. "A lot of thought and creativity needs to go into it."

Mr Brooker spent weeks last fall locked away in his home in France, "away from ringing phones and barking dogs," composing the new album. "That has always been Procol Harum's approach," he says, "from Whiter Shade of Pale on to today; to try to do something unexpected, something that will wake people up a little bit."

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