Procol Harum

the Pale

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WPLJ FM Radio reviewed

New York City, 12 April 1971

The raunchy riff of Memorial Drive opens this recording and the band quickly builds an impressive groove. This is a hard-driving and exemplary rock number. Robin Trower plays gutsy and muscular rhythm guitar and rips off multiple bluesy runs. These aggressive, snarling flourishes sound threatening and add an extra dynamic to Keith Reid’s dark lyric full of references to slavery, greed, and abuse.

Gary Brooker spits out the lyrics with nuance, bluesy strength, and considerable bluster. When you hear him sing, 'Worked like a Mexican donkey / Used like a hole in the ground', he delivers that line with such grit and authentic feeling that it immediately conjures the expected revulsion at the perversion that it depicts. In addition, during this spectacular performance, his powerful left hand is slamming out some inspired rock and roll piano that offers spectacular counterpoint to Trower’s guitar and BJ Wilson’s impeccable drumming.

Wilson’s drumming is a definite highlight of this performance. He plays a number of inventive fills and exhibits an innate sense of timing that sets him apart from many of his contemporaries. Another quality on full display here is his unerring finesse as he spars with both Trower and Brooker throughout the course of the song. Wilson is a criminally unheralded drummer of unusual distinction and this stellar opener offers ample evidence of his skill.

Wilson’s drums open the next song Still There’ll Be More with a series of energetic rolls before the band comes sweeping in with an amazing, fully formed ensemble sound. There are no holes in Harum’s aural tapestry; the musical dialogue between the players is seamless and complete. Trower’s thrashing rhythm guitar work is quite outstanding here.

Furthermore, his soaring leads lend an empathic edge to one of the most threatening lyrics in pop music. In a series of images that grow progressively darker as the song goes on, Keith Reid conjures a vision of a cruel, amoral force tearing through life and leaving chaos in its wake. In response to an absolutely stunning sonic assault punctuated by Trower’s brilliant lead guitar, Brooker summons all of his power as he belts out the dire threat of the chorus, 'I’ll blacken your Christmas / And piss on your door / You’ll cry out for mercy / But still there’ll be more'. When he sings lines like, 'I’ll waylay your daughter / And kidnap your wife / Savage her sexless / And burn out her eyes', Brooker’s voice glows with the white heat of unhinged brilliance.

As mentioned earlier, Trower’s lead guitar on this song is muscular, inventive, and brings a distinctive edge to the song. He shows total mastery over a wide assortment of stock blues guitar phrases, but the individual touches that he brings to these phrases are quite thrilling. His playing is often audaciously generous and always sympathetic to the excellent musicians surrounding him. The rhythm section of Wilson and bassist / organist Chris Copping is simply exemplary. This band sounds so complete here in a way that few bands ever do. This is a jaw-dropping performance of one of the nastiest songs ever.

A couple of boisterous wags in the audience yell out requests for Repent Walpurgis and Homburg, but Brooker expertly cuts them off with some dismissive remarks. He introduces the next song as 'a slow Scottish lament in D minor' and the band launches into the plaintive dirge of Nothing That I Didn’t Know. This gorgeous, heart-rending song pays tribute to a young girl who died before her time in spare and vivid language. There is no poetic conceit in a line like 'Twenty six, and now she’s dead / I wish that I could have died instead' – it is a simple, unadorned expression of loss and Brooker’s sensitive, emotive vocals give additional weight to these words. In the hands of another band, this song could have easily descended to the level of commercial pap, but this is a song of great beauty and class. The interplay between Brooker, Trower, and Chris Copping is the dominant element here and weaves an evocative picture of regret. At the 3:27 mark, the band shifts gears and finishes the song with a coda of unusual beauty.

The distinctive opening riff of Simple Sister rips out at you, covered with vitriol, and Brooker’s enormous, bellowing voice matches Trower’s outstanding guitar. During the instrumental breaks between verses, listen carefully to the piano underneath Trower’s guitar. These two instruments play an amazing counterpoint with each other that gives this song its propulsive power. Trower’s solo here is outstanding and very emotional.

Lyrically, it’s another dark tale of neglect and abuse. Superficially, it has the overtones of child abuse: 'Simple sister / Got Whooping Cough / Have to burn her toys / Take her treats / Eat her sweets / Scare off all the boys'. By the third verse, the barely concealed malice rises to the surface: 'Simple sister / Got Whooping Cough / Lock her in a cell / Throw the key / Into the sea / Hope she never gets well'. Whew. Reid’s words have the precision of a fine surgical instrument.

Brooker introduces the next song, Luskus Delph, as a bit of 'underhanded smut'. His dreamy, languid piano opens this delicate piece. This is a song about sexual desire, but quite unlike any you have ever heard in popular music. I certainly cannot think of another rock song about copulation this breathless and fevered. This is a raunchy song filled with multiple, explicitly sexual images that are unique in the lexicon of pop music. Despite the overwrought quality of the words, Brooker makes them work with a simple vocal melody that sounds delirious and loving.

Chris Copping’s distinctive organ work makes its presence felt once again in this song. His elegant lines possess a ghostly beauty. BJ Wilson’s thoughtful, precise drumming is another highlight here and his stylistic innovations manufacture a compelling tension in the music. Seemingly able to adopt his playing to any style, Wilson exhibits the intricacy and taste that was a hallmark of his playing. He punctuates Brooker’s vocals brilliantly and lays down a beautiful groove during the instrumental breaks. His drum fills here are things of beauty. Brooker’s piano playing is melodic and full of subtle touches that lend the song a classical, ornate quality. I think it is safe to say that only Procol Harum would have attempted a song such as this and, like it or not, I think you would be hard pressed to deny how truly unique it is.

Brooker counts the band in and they launch into Shine on Brightly. Trower’s screaming notes contribute a great deal to the song’s hallucinatory qualities and the band, once again, sounds like a fully formed ensemble. There is a complexity and depth to the band’s collective sound capable of conveying the entire range of human experience. On this recording, we have heard songs of regret, anger, desire, hatred, and destruction. The songs depict these fundamental parts of the human experience in a musical setting so vast and panoramic that it approaches the profound. Furthermore, there is a genuine and highly innovative pop sensibility at work in many of these songs. Listen closely to Copping’s stunningly beautiful organ passage that begins at the 2:26 mark and the fantastic dynamics that Trower and Wilson build as the band reaches a crescendo before launching into the third and concluding verse. This is a stately performance of a true classic from the era.

The band launches into the offbeat, jazzy groove introduction to Whaling Stories. Brooker’s piano and Wilson’s artful drumming are the stars in this opening section. The band slows it down and opens the first verse with Brooker’s voice, piano, and some spare, emotional guitar from Trower. This is a song of brooding, tormented brilliance with impenetrable lyrics suffused with apocalyptic imagery. The ominous, unnamable sense of dread that the song conjures gain momentum throughout the first two verses before dissipating on the final line of the second verse.

The extended instrumental section that follows brings us full circle with Brooker’s piano, Wilson’s drumming, and Trower’s guitar building another dramatic movement. Their work carries the band into a highly theatrical third verse that ends magnificently with a piercing scream from Brooker following its final line. Trower steps out for a blistering, torrid solo that Wilson matches with some truly powerhouse drumming. The song ends with a final verse that revisits many of the same dynamics utilized so well throughout the performance and is distinguished further by the flawless execution of the musicians involved.

A pensive, looping piano figure from Brooker opens the next song, Broken Barricades. This poetic exploration of a vibrant world that has tumbled into the abyss undoubtedly had a great deal of resonance in 1971 and remains equally relevant today. It works on many levels lyrically. Lyrics such as 'It was all once bright jewels / And glittering sand / The oceans have ravaged / And strangled the land' clearly hint at some sort of environmental disaster, but they also work as eloquent symbolism describing the turbulent conflicts of the late 60s and early 70s. It is a song examining a precipitous fall from grace, but it holds out no hope for redemption. It merely tallies the casualties and wonders how many more will fall.

The elegiac musical sweep that it achieves is sympathetic to these words. Notice how the instrumentation compliments the key words of the first two lines, 'glittering' and 'bright' with lovely and radiant synthesizer lines. Listen to Wilson’s drums follow the narrative of the song with remarkable finesse and artistry. The hypnotically seductive melody and Brooker’s sensitive performance amplify the power of the words. The song concludes with a remarkable duet between Wilson and Trower.

The Chicago-style blues of Juicy John Pink begins with Trower’s rabid, swaggering riff. Wilson establishes an authoritative groove that Trower and Brooker lock onto with unerring skill. Brooker’s blood-and-guts, throat-thrashing bellow rips through this brilliant blues pastiche filled with typical Keith Reid twists such as the lines, 'I opened my eyes this morning / Thought I must be dead'. The apocalyptic strain present in so much of the band’s work is here in equal measure as well. When you hear Brooker snarl, 'Well, the sky began to tremble / And the rain began to fall / Four angels standing around me / And it weren’t no social call', you can believe that The End has come for Brooker and he’s none too happy about it.

Trower unleashes a blistering solo in this song that exploits every cliché in the blues player’s handbook but does so with such sure-footed intelligence and creativity that you can forgive the well-trodden paths he takes. Trower’s reputation has suffered at the hands of misguided criticism that sees him as little more than another Hendrix imitator, but the blues guitar that he offers here gives evidence of much more. It is proof that Trower is actually an attentive student of his instrument who has taken elements from a variety of artists and assimilated them into a coherent whole that has its own unique identity. His blues playing here is equal to that of any of his contemporaries.

The next song is the venerable classic A Salty Dog, probably my personal nominee for the most enduring musical achievement in the band’s history. In Walt Whitman’s poem Song of Myself, he writes, 'I am large, I contain multitudes'. This large song contains multitudes and despite its curious, dated language, it nevertheless reaches through time and vividly evokes the bygone age of exploration when a new world sprang forth from the work of desperate, fearless men who lived with the specter of death every waking moment of their lives. Lines such as 'We sailed for parts unknown to man, where ships come home to die / No lofty peak, nor fortress bold, could match our captain’s eye' are shot through with imagination and Brooker delivers an impassioned reading of these words.

His vocal is dream-like and mysterious, like some garrulous, ancient ghost condemned to recite this tale of mariner woe. His voice soars and plummets through the lyric with rapt attention to every word and proper appreciation of the drama inherent in its narrative. His piano provides much of the song’s haunted, forlorn melody, but the embellishments of Copping on organ are essential to the song. Wilson’s drumming here is extraordinarily sensitive to the cadence of the music. He weaves in and out of the band’s texture and adds blasts of percussion where appropriate. This entire performance is one of incomparable skill and is an impassioned take on a true classic.

The band plays a brief snippet of boogie blues before launching into the full on assault of Whisky Train, one of rockiest numbers in Procol Harum’s catalogue. BJ Wilson’s frantic cowbell gives this song much of its identity, but the fabulous guitar riff from Trower is the whole point. It’s catchy and immediate; it’s played with such fluid skill that it grabs you by the throat. Brooker’s chugging piano and Wilson’s frantic percussion touches give Trower an unimpeachable foundation for some blazing lead work sandwiched between the furious riffing. Brooker’s vocals are lusty and believable; he really puts a lot into this twist on the classic quit-drinking song.

The final song of the recording is a particularly Procol take on the touring life of a rock and roll band. Wilson’s busy, vaguely tribal drumming opens the song. I’m not particularly fond of this song [Power Failure], but it has the unique perspective that Procol brought to even the most clichéd of subjects for a rock band, such as the 'life on the road' number.

The tune revolves around a repetitive piano figure from Brooker that is played with driving, rhythmic skill. The musical arrangement features chords structured in such a way that they are well suited to action verbs littered throughout the lyrics. The words describe a landscape where disorder and chaos reigns supreme. Many of the images presented by the lyric bear only tangential relation to the problems of a touring rock and roll band, but the word play is compelling nevertheless and matched well by the song’s heavy rock groove.

Wilson takes an extended drum solo beginning at 2:41 in the curious time signature of 5 / 4, but he puts any doubts you have to rest immediately with his inspired, dramatic runs, his mastery of syncopation, and his innate skills as a timekeeper. Wilson’s performance makes this song a worthwhile experience for me. The band as a whole delivers yet another outstanding performance, but I find myself distant from the song’s repetitive structure and its remorseless catalogue of turmoil.

This is one of the final performances featuring Robin Trower as the guitarist for this band, and when the Brooker-Trower-Copping-Wilson lineup split up, an important era in this band’s history came to a premature end. There were great albums that could have laid ahead. But Procol Harum forged ahead as a much different animal and Trower went on to become an important solo artist. What we have as consolation are wonderful recordings such as this that have been preserved for posterity.

But what a consolation! This epic show displays every side of this prodigiously creative and idiosyncratic band. The level of musicianship on display here is breathtaking at times. Gary Brooker is a truly gifted singer with masterful gifts of interpretation. Robin Trower is an enormously talented guitarist distinguishable for his versatility at playing both rhythm and lead guitar. Chris Copping handles the bass and organ duties with seeming ease and BJ Wilson demonstrates why he is one of the greatest drummers in rock history on nearly every track. I find it wonderful that the band didn’t perform A Whiter Shade of Pale on this recording and instead touched on some of the more obscure selections from their discography. This is an overwhelming performance at times and sounds as fresh to me now as it did the first time I listened to it.

Set list for this concert

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