A Jubilee Night for Procol Harum:
The Commander Down and his Triumphal Recovery
Friday 3 March 2017 • Royal Festival Hall, London
words and pictures by Charlie Allison for BtP
This much-anticipated start to Procol Harum’s fiftieth Jubilee Year turned out to be considerably more eventful than anyone could possibly have foreseen. A sold-out concert with symphony orchestra and choir at one of London’s most celebrated venues (near the Jubilee Gardens and Jubilee Bridge) promised much, but not the drama which unfolded at the interval. Gary Brooker went down in a heap and stayed down for quite some time – and no-one (other than those close to the scene, who saw what happened) was really sure if he had suffered a medical emergency, or some sort of fall. He was helped from the hall and it was perhaps half an hour before we had the announcement that the show would go on after an extended interval (45-50 minutes). I was sitting way far back and did not see the crucial moment, but I was sitting next to his cousin, a delightful lady who did not seem too concerned: I think she regarded Gary as indestructible! I was told it was a real 'sack of tatties' fall (a Scottish expression), not some Norman Wisdom pratfall.
Bravely and resolutely, Gary returned to the stage sporting a bandaged forehead and nose (and a hat!), looking for all the world like someone from a Whitehall farce or pantomime, recalling the great Basil Fawlty! The whole audience stood to recognise his courage and professional desire that 'the show must go on' with a loud and prolonged ovation – as real a show of affection and admiration as I’ve ever seen at a concert. The only time I remember something similar was at a concert in Aberdeen on Glen Campbell’s final tour when his own special courage was recognised.
Righto – what about the music, you ask! Well here I must plead not insanity, but lack of light, which might mean this report misses the illuminating quality I was hoping to share with those not in London for the gig. It was pitch black and I could not see what I was doing – my notes ended up a total scrawl from start to finish. Fortunately I can still remember much of what happened (and indeed I’m a veteran of more than ten orchestral evenings with the band). And just to get all the excuses over in one go, my pictures were taken from the back of the auditorium with a strict photo embargo in force ... so they are not very clear either! Incidentally a guy just in front of us had a harness with microphones on each shoulder recording the event (undetected) ... I’m not sure if he had a GoPro camera as well!Back to the start. The orchestra and choir, all in black, trooped on to the panoramic stage, and regular conductor David Firman was introduced to handsome applause. The MC’s microphone then failed, but he quickly was given a replacement to effect the band’s introduction – a celebration of their fifty years of music. Many of the audience were up to greet the lads, Gary (in a dark jacket and bright white shirt) then beginning with “Thanks, Good Evening”. “Are We Ready?” and “It's Warm in Here!”
Shine on Brightly, a star song from '68 (performed with orchestra in Edmonton, but not on the eventual album) was an excellent opening with the band out-sounding the orchestra in the balance. I particularly liked Geoff Whitehorn’s interjections during Josh’s organ solo, and the brass coming through at the ending (two strange chords!) Best of all – Gary was in very good voice!
Homburg followed (not unexpectedly) with the ethereal choir setting the scene for a flawless rendition of their second big hit. Geoff’s clock-ticking was longer and more staccato than usual and the blend of band and orchestra just perfect, with some nice crescendos near the end. Lengthy applause.
Gary then commented on his vocal preservation routine (as he had told Stuart Maconie) – two glasses of wine and some Ricola (he was now hoping for a lifetime supply from the Swiss manufacturers!). And Gary then made suggestions about ‘looking into the eyes of your partner” – the olde romantic! – as he harkened back to the era of the Grand Hotel. Gary seemed to be still in his introduction when he missed out some of the words in the first verse, but then gave his profiteroles an extra flourish at the Ritz! This was splendidly played with the orchestra leader on his feet to fiddle for his supper, and Geoffrey doing his balalaika thing, interacting with the choir at the back of the stage. The whole band is really superb – piano, keyboards, bass, drums, guitar – a very polished, note-perfect ensemble indeed (as we have come to expect!)
Next a raucous treat – one of my favourite Procol fast ones in Toujours l’Amour, initially a tour de force two-solo number for Mick Grabham back in the day, and here a great workout for a band in top form. The choir started up in the second verse and there was an orchestra becoming audible at times towards the end.
A Brooker song next, Symphathy for the Hard of Hearing, preceded by the tale of Gary's (now late) neighbour, who was marched off to Poland as a prisoner of war and then lost his hearing ('Too much cabbage soup' was Gary’s explanation tonight!) This always sounds great at orchestral events, as it builds through stages to a flat-out race, with the guitar just hitting that gap in the arrangement for maximum effect. I also noted the interplay of Josh and Gary on the two keyboards – maybe they’ve always done this? It always get huge applause.
Gary then embarked on a dialogue with two unruly Scottish gentlemen in the audience, having first thought they were Russians. (an easy mistake!) In an accent reminiscent of Robbie Coltraine, Gary recalled a 1970s' gig in Scotland where a drunken Glaswegian (bit of a stereotype, Gary!) demanded Procol play AWSoP and, when they finally did, shouted “Play it Again!” Hopefully they’ll encounter a more reserved welcome in Edinburgh in May!
A Salty Dog, after Gary’s brief reflections and the choir’s Latin introduction, had Geoff Whitehorn finding new spots to fly in some seagulls and Geoff Dunn almost making this his own with first the BJ entry, then giving us his own excellent floor tom-toms later on.
Then something special, unique ... .and controversial! A truncated In Held 'Twas In I. We had the first half of Glimpses of Nirvana, all of Teatime at the Circus, the thunder and then ... Grand Finale. All played, spoken and sung brilliantly but somewhat 'edited'. You might call it In 'Twas Grand? Maybe that’s the way its going to be from now on? Some won’t like it, but I don’t think they should ever deny us a rendition of Grand Finale, however it's arrived at.
Grand Finale was not the expected finale to the first half, because Gary then talked about the new album, Novum. The last studio album (The Well's on Fire) was released on 03.03.03, and today was 03.03.17. He came round from the piano to introduce Sam Brown and her two ukulele-playing friends, before being helped on with an accordion! The song My Neighbour had a real East End feel – possibly more Stevie Marriot than Chas and Dave – and could be Novum’s novelty song – the 2017 Mabel! But this folky feel was well received; and Gary announced a short intermission.
It was at this point we all had that collective intake of breath (which segued into a concerned silence) as we had a man down offstage – the Commander had taken a tumble. Well it was a quite an anxious few minutes, until he was borne off by a posse of helpers. This business overshadowed all concert discussions at the half-time break – was he OK? Would the concert be finished at this point? But no ... we heard (with relief) they were coming back on at 10 o’clock. And when we saw the 'wounded soldier” it was shades of Finland, memories of South Africa. (Later Geoff affectionately introduced Gary as he most accident-prone man in show business!)
Musically, even without the context, the second half was a triumph. After a standing ovation, Gary told us about his broken head and broken hand, then asked Josh to play the piano for another new song, I Told on You. (does Josh have a composing credit on this one?) This sounded very strong and together like a single, rather than an album track. Geoff was doing overtime on backing vocals as well as a fine guitar solo.
Geoff also started off the robust Man with a Mission from The Prodigal Stranger, with the choir and orchestra adding a lot to the song, as has been previously noticed. Gary played a piano solo one-handed ... . or one and a half-handed.
This man with a mission is a real shooting star ... a hero!
There was a discussion between Gary, the band and David Firman about the start of the next song, which transpired to be about the possible lack of the usual piano introduction ... so after a choir YELP we were straight into Whaling Stories, which to my ears was the best song of the night bar one (which we shall come to shortly). We had the virtuoso band bits (big hand to Matt Pegg, solid and inventive all night and also Geoffrey for a dark and dirty solo) Here the orchestra was getting most involved, the percussion people just loving the anvil and tubular bell sounds. A quite magnificent rendition! Huge applause. Gary getting through this on adrenaline!
We then had some strange vamp ... must be another band ... and some humorous banter about remembering to invite everyone to the Shepherds Bush Empire in May. And evidently Chris Cooke was not sending out a message from the wings asking how Gary was ... . no, he was just making sure they plugged the gig!
Loud applause for further mention of fifty years of Procol Harum and a reassurance they might go on for some time yet! And now they would let the orchestra start one that did well for them back in 1972 ... Conquistador (the orchestra’s best performance of the night) Not so much piano on here (Gary had one glissando early on and visibly winced) and there was little or no jumping up and down, but it was a great rendition nonetheless!
Another orchestral workout followed, Into the Flood – so we have had all the 'big band ones' on the one bill tonight! Quite pacy and well filled out. Gary seems to be getting his second wind. Singing very well ... so no broken ribs then! The stage best lit now – so a chance to sneak a couple of covert photos.
Gary then did his 'vodka/water' routine ... . then suggested vodka was helping his voice tonight! He announced Sunday Morning from Novum, which he had first introduced with 'Stuart Marconi' on BBC radio.
Now this was THE highlight of the night. In the perhaps thirty times I have listened to it, this song Sunday Morning has captured my emotions, and I don’t know why. Nothing else in the Procol repertoire moves me with this particular effect. Maybe it's the pleasure of hearing new music from Procol Harum, but I think it's the arrangement, the chord progression and Gary’s wonderful, well-seasoned voice which have touched me in this way I have only experienced rarely.
And tonight, together with the extra verse, we also had organ from Josh, as the orchestra took over the parts he'd put down with keyboards on the single. This organ just adds to the melancholy and puts a real Procol stamp on the track. Maybe a verse of this would not go amiss if the album has not yet been manufactured? It all sounds very simple (as do the lyrics too), but I guarantee this beautiful song will be considered one of their classics before long.
Now Gary looks forward to the second 'L' (Roman for 'fifty') years of Procol Harum, and introduces each member of the band individually and at length. Gary also took time to praise all the musicians in the band: he now fully knows how special they all are through recording this album in the studio together. He then thanks the audience (who have been on their feet cheering) warning them to enjoy today as they might be dead tomorrow (a very strange thought coming from a man who has Lazarus'd from the interval)
Finally he asks them for once to join the band on their final song A Whiter Shade of Pale, a very measured and stately reading by the orchestra. A very big cry out for 'MORE' seems to come from all quarters, but mainly led by the Travelling Tobermories (whom I was unable to make contact with here, but hey, I am coming to Mull in three weeks' time, lads – so see you in the Mish!)
The conclusion brought everyone to their feet cheering. The band and then David Firman gathered gingerly with discussions round Gary before taking the customary bow. One felt the last hurrah of the evening had come, the riding on adrenaline had just begun to wear off. Chris was there to see Gary off the stage safely. The orchestra and choir were applauding too. It was over. A great and memorable occasion. Maybe not as good in terms of sound as The Dominion had been (though of course we did have a drama there too!) nor as polished as some of the Scandinavian orchestral events, but maybe the most memorable occasion for whatever reason.
And look at the setlist. They played all the great orchestra numbers, though in truth there are at least half a dozen others which would fit in just nicely! And three songs were premiered from Novum. A good night’s work! And Gary is OK (as we have seen with the latest Casualty Bulletin!)
Out into the night. To the Jubilee Gardens, overlooking the river the London Eye and Big Ben. It has indeed been a Jubilee occasion for Procol Harum.
And a brave and bravura evening for the Commander in Chief.
Oh I must mention I had earlier met George Lovell down there, who told me of his proposed personal theme in reviewing the concert. I will not reveal your secret George, except to say it will remain a John Buchan-esque mystery for now!
Procol dates in 2017