Beyond the Pale
He sat straight and tall at his electric piano. Trim in his black, white, and red striped shirt; his thinning crop of white hair in stark contrast to his tanned and weathered face. The plaintive voice carrying the words to familiar tunes I knew so well.
We were late in arriving at the concert venue. I heard him, clear and unmistakable, singing “As Strong as Samson” over the speakers, as we exited the car.
I felt anxious and upset because of the time it had taken to drive to Lewiston, and the endless delays in slowed or stopped traffic. Although I knew the route very well, none of my “up my sleeve” shortcuts worked as the community in which the concert was being staged had rudely schedule some other event on the same day. It seemed at every corner another cop car or barrier blocked our way.
The concert had started by the time we had parked in our designated parking place and it looked as if it was miles away from the stage. My companions were, much to my dismay, not as willing or as physically able as me to hurry to get to the show.
After a climb up the escarpment, a place that I knew so well from my historical studies of the area, we reached the top. The three of us were hot and tired from the long walk.
Adding to my angst was the sudden realization that the event was an outdoor happening, with no seating. I had expected it to be in the amphitheater and had not thought to bring lawn chairs and because of the heat of the day the asphalt lot was already becoming sticky under my sandals.
Only the sound of his voice calmed my knotted up stomach and suppressed the anger I had with myself for not planning better.
The huge video screen revealed it all.
His fingers danced over the keys and I marveled at the obvious joy he displayed, playing and singing songs he had been performing for what must be over fifty years now.
I quickly realized that Gary Brooker had lost nothing from the twenty year-old I heard fill the space at Kleinhan’s Music Hall in 1969 with a sound so unlike anything I had ever heard before. Their music had become mine with “Home” and as I reached back for “Shine on Brightly” and the obscure debut album in that first year of my love affair with Procol Harum, such gems as “Cerdes” and “In Held” became almost sacred anthems for me and my best friend Ray to slap on the old Emerson turntable in our dorm room or campus radio station turntable and drift away with the sound.
Not a lot of people liked Procol Harum as much as Ray and I.
Not many people understood the Keith Reid lyrics, sometimes not even the two of us.
But we knew they were special and this rare opportunity to see one of my all time favorites made the hour-and-a-half drive worth it, even without my best friend who lives in Alabama.
All the disappointments of the arrival melted away as the words and music of a special time in my youth glazed the bitterness with an “inside sweetness.”
Through the sound of circling gulls in “Salty Dog,” to the distinctive Robin Trower riffs of “Simple Sister” (played beautifully by Geoff Whitehorn) Brooker and assembly masterfully led the audience along a path of imagery and melody vividly haunting and occasionally disturbing.
Procol Harum songs were never of the candy-coated, “Love Me Do” variety.
“Homburg” and “Whiter Shade” stirred the emotional pot and “Conquistador” and “Robert’s Box” rocked the house.
Even the newer tunes like “An Old English Dream” and “Pandora’s Box” touched many in the crowd as mouths could be seen forming the words that Brooker sang.
I was more than satisfied and my quest had been fulfilled.
I don’t know if I will ever see Procol Harum live again. I think I have now seen them four or five times now. But this time was special.
I guess I only have one beef. Being a Social Studies teacher and a stickler for geographical accuracy, I think I heard Gary Brooker say that the view of the river was beautiful and clear enough to see “all the way north to Hudson Bay where it empties.”
If that is what he said (I can’t be totally sure, given my “advanced” age and his still thick English accent) then he needs to be corrected, but that is a minor point and has nothing to do with the beautiful music he and the band played on that hot summer night, above the Niagara River, rushing on to Lake Ontario and the Atlantic Ocean through the St. Lawrence River as it speeds past Montreal and Quebec.
So far away, yes indeed.
Procol dates in 2012 | Setlist