Members of the re-formed Procol Harum are (from left) Geoff Whitehorn, Matthew Fisher, Gary Brooker, Matt Pegg and Mark Brzezicki.
"I don't think people ever quite see Procol in the light they really are," Brooker says.
There aren't many songs in rock 'n' roll history that evoke an entire era with a single opening note, but Procol Harum came up with one of them: it was played on Matthew Fisher's Hammond B3 [sic] organ, and it resolved into the Bach-based phrase that announced A Whiter Shade of Pale. To hear that note now is to be back in 1967, wearing bell-bottoms.
The song is so iconic that it has given Procol Harum, who play the Spectrum tonight, a bit of a reputation as a one-hit wonder. For group leader Gary Brooker, the song hasn't become an albatross.
"We don't do any bird-spotting," Brooker said. "If I got tired or bored with a song, it wouldn't come out right. Every time we do that one, I get back and it's A Whiter Shade of Pale as it was the first time."
The group's initial four-album stretch – Procol Harum (1967), Shine On Brightly (1968), A Salty Dog (1969) and Home (1970) - was as vital as the work of most contemporaries. The first album's Conquistador, re-recorded with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, hit the charts in 1972.
Procol Harum's classically-influenced sound was often toughened up with a rhythm-and-blues edge, courtesy of Brooker's soulful vocals and bluesy piano, along with guitarist Robin Trower's effects-enhanced riffing.
With kindred spirits like Traffic and the Small Faces, they tempered the highbrow pretensions with bar-band muscle - a blend that was completely lost when the next wave of prog-rockers took the blueprint and got lost in fey lysergic noodling.
"I don't think people ever quite see Procol in the light they really are," Brooker said. "We did originate - almost - having a bash with the classical orchestra, but our own songs are everything from rock to piano-based ballads. Soul is at the bottom of it, not soul in the sense of James Brown, but soul in the sense of music with emotion, a bit of feeling."
In Harum's halcyon days, the group played Man and His World's Place des Nations several times, but one of their most surreal Montreal appearances came in 1972, when they played the Pierrefonds Arena. The opening act that night was a promising country-rock group, with only their début album to promote: the Eagles.
Later efforts found their way into fewer and fewer record collections, particularly after guitarist Trower left the group to recast himself as a disciple of Jimi Hendrix. The group did a farewell concert at New York's Academy of Music in 1977, after which Brooker kept a reasonable public profile, playing in Eric Clapton's touring band and occasionally joining Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings and Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band. Since 1991, Brooker has also been fronting a re-formed Procol Harum.
The group recently released its twelfth album, The Well's On Fire, which features vintage Harum touches like the jaunty A Robe of Silk, the moody The Emperor's New Clothes and especially the majestic instrumental closer Weisselklenzenacht (The Signature).
"We approached (the new album) with very much the old order, in which you go into the studio - all of you - and actually play and sing it live," he said. "We made it in four weeks and wrote all [sic] the songs just as we were going in to the studio. For some reason that helped it come out more like a Procol Harum album than if we'd tried too hard."
The group now consists of Brooker, original organist Matthew Fisher, guitarist Geoff Whitehorn, bassist Matt Pegg and drummer Mark Brzezicki, formerly of Big Country and an ex-sideman for Pete Townshend. Brooker's longtime collaborator Keith Reid continues to provide the lyrics.
One of Reid's most haunting scenarios - and the quintessential Procol Harum song, in Brooker's book - is A Salty Dog. "It's different, when you look at everything else. It's got that feeling - you can make the dynamics and emotion of it rise and fall, and it's got enigmatic lyrics that you can make mean whatever you feel like."
The group's modus operandi, both on stage and in the studio, remains unchanged, Brooker said. "We don't play it for today, we play it forever," he said.
Procol Harum appears tonight at 8 p.m. at the Spectrum, 318 Ste. Cathérine St. W. Tickets cost $27.50 and are available at the box office or through Admission. Call (514) 790-1245 or go to www.admission.com
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