A new year of Procol Harum activity, not a lot it has to be said, and mainly in EC-land (that's European Community, not Eric Clapton!). But this first gig of 2005 gave us fanatics a most wonderfully-chosen set with the bonus of a cameo appearance of Keith Reid to deliver the second monologue in Glimpses of Nirvana. Josh Phillips was on the organ stool and played with great craft and enthusiasm indeed so did the whole band. Is there a more musically accomplished group playing anywhere today? I think not?
I'll start at the very beginning to paraphrase Rogers and Hammerstein a very good place to start with the Palers' Party held in the afternoon. We saw some Italian videos, first from a 2003 gig then Gary's recent concert with orchestra and choir in a sumptuous confection of a Basilica playing Holding On (adapted words to mention the Tsunami) and A Salty Dog (where the Italians perfectly enunciated the Latin choral parts). John Grayson held a garage sale, giving away books posters and discs like some guy at the Glasgow Barras. We then had a huge singsong, accompanied by a variety of pianists, bassists and acoustic guitarists (The Usual Suspects, lets call them) watched over by the amiable Geoff leaning on the piano, but carefully keeping his vocals intact while others hollered themselves hoarse with enthusiastic renditions of several favourites, including Long Gone Geek and Mabel.
A chaotic meal then followed at the Marlborough Arms not what one would call a fast-food establishment, but the two Australian waitresses on their first day were nonetheless engaging in the good-humoured mayhem. Now to the gig. ('About time', I hear you say!)
The Bloomsbury was a three-tiered theatre, quite intimate with a good acoustic and its red plush seemed a million miles away from the Union Chapel, except that the seats were just as hard! The Band opened with a raucous VIP Room with Gary in great voice and Geoff sliding around to good effect as ever. Gary welcomed everyone to 'a night of Procol Harum blues the unique way we play it with more than three chords ... like this one' and we were straight into The Idol, a great treat with Geoff searing through the wall of sound laid down by the rest of the band. I'm sure Gary had a quiet aside to Geoff mentioning Michael Jackson the ultimate fallen idol which was met with a wry smile.
Gary introduced "a '71 song on a '76 album" which was a hit for the band Pandora's Box and after getting his piano settings wrong, then right, we were off: Josh was given a chance to shine in the second verse and at the end where he and Gary have keyboard motifs in turn. The next sheer joy came from hearing Luskus Delph live, a tender collage of keyboard wash and beautiful guitar with Gary explaining that the title was a cross between 'luscious' and 'that designer firm FCUK' (or something to that effect!)
Mark was introduced and provided a drum intro for Wall Street Blues which I really enjoyed (maybe for the first time). A good live number.
Gary went on an extended tangent regarding Pocohontas being transported to Gravesend where she drank mild and bitter (with Geoff?), before asking if there was anyone in the audience from outwith England, as they don't get quite so many people in England. He knew of course that the Transatlantic airlines, not to mention those from the Continent (and even Scotland) had been busy for days! Gary remembered a gig in Nottingham before about 50 people where the local council presented 'The Robin Hood Story, featuring Procol Harum'.
Homburg came next 'a song which came on the back of something else' in fact earlier at the Palers' event we did sing the words of AWSoP to the tune of Homburg. Now that would be a good project for the UK's Comic Relief one year! Unsteady Freddy was on his feet in raptures at this point, not for the last time this evening.
Gary said he had sore hands from four hours' hard rehearsal yesterday 'we don't mess about' and we heard the new old song Victims of the Fury, a bit of a builder melodically, and with an interesting collapsible ending. Three stars maybe. No doubt we'll hear it on a new album, whenever.
In contrast the Old English Dream sounded like a long-term ancient and the band finished off the first half with a storming Conquistador, with Josh maybe trumpeting his synth a bit too loud and over two octaves, which jarred a bit for me, and had every dog for miles holding their lugs.
We adjourned to the foyer for a beer where we heard that Keith Reid had been sighted in the building. Richard Solley cleverly mused as to whether he was going to perform later if the band did In Held. An intriguing prospect, we all agreed!
Shadow Boxed restarted the concert in modern and frantic style, then followed a superb favourite Toujours L'Amour maybe this explained why Gary had reappeared with a sparkly French beret for the second half. Gary solemnly mentioned the Tsunami, dedicating a song to those poor people fishing on the beaches who had lost their lives In the Blink of an Eye. I have always liked the reserve of this 9/11 song and it was a superb and sensitive rendition here.
In complete contrast Geoff (and the whole band) powered full throttle into Simple Sister then Gary introduced the first song he and Keith had written together Something Following Me. Great to hear this one live.
Gary confessed, not for the first time, that he is useless with computers (or Komputers for our Germanic friends) then paid full tribute to Jens and Roland for the wonderful website Beyond the Pale was once again played in tribute.
A Salty Dog was as good as it has ever been with Josh's synthesised strings just right, Mark spot on with the drum fills and Geoff wringing out every ounce of aching beauty to complement Gary's wonderful voice.
A moment of whimsy and children's fantasy followed before we found ourselves transported to seventh heaven as they embarked on In Held 'Twas In I. Geoff mimicked a passable sitar and then ... on walked Keith Reid, casually dressed in grey, to do the 'Held close' monologue in his calm and measured manner ... while everyone in the building were going mental with the awe of this great occasion. We cheered at the circus, the thunder was deafening In the Autumn of my Madness (no its original vocalist did NOT turn up!), Look to Your Soul was probably the ultimate moment of the suite then Grand Finale brought this wonderful set to a close.
Well except for the encore section, naturally. Gary bemoaned a long walk from Goodge Street then recalled a song by Donovan or was it Dylan (short impression here) then it was 'definitely one of ours' a two-verse A Whiter Shade of Pale (the crowd did indeed cry out for more).
Alpha came next with Gary finding a stick-on third eye for the middle of his head; then straight into a manic Kaleidoscope with the whole band egging each other on. After the band bows, we finished with a mournful New Lamps for Old.
We retired to the bar to share our joy of a truly memorable night and to meet with the band, who had obviously enjoyed the occasion too. I took the opportunity to take a couple of pictures of Gary & Keith, to replace the rather dodgy ones from the stage (no doubt some better snapper will have captured the historic moment of reunion).
It was a great occasion and left us wanting more, much more. Message for Gary 60 in May the official retirement age for rock stars has now been raised to 85 by popular decree. The voice and the musical instinct are as good as ever.
Guildford next for me. For those going to any of the European venues, you are in for a great time. Which leaves only the age-old plea for the guys to come to Scotland where there is a big audience for great music. On current evidence there is no better band around, and I even count U2 and the Stones in that assessment.