Procol in Toronto, 26 May 1992
The last time I had a ticket for a Procol concert was in 1977, but the concert was cancelled. So here I was 15 years later checking out Gary, Keith and Co.. Outside the hall (appropriately named the "Phoenix") was parked a huge black touring bus; a perfect colour, I thought, for the truly darkest group in rock history. Inside the hall the equipment was glittering on the stage and the sound man had his monster board set up in the middle of the crowd.
I bought a beer and settled in right in front of the stage so that I could see P.H. up close. When the band visited Toronto in 1991, they had played a beautiful old hall from the twenties called the Wintergarden Theatre and Matt Fisher had come along; this time, I hoped not only Matt but Robin might come also (and maybe even Chris!). But as the band strode on-stage, to my bitter disappointment I realized that Gary had arrived with a band of new musicians - the rhythm section from Prodigal along with Geoff Whitehorn on guitar and Don Snow on organ. What else can be said save that although all of these musicians are competent, none of them rise to the proper Procolian standards set by Messrs Trower, Fisher, Wilson, Copping, Ball and Grabham. So I resigned myself to the fact that this really was a "Gary plays his best material" affair, and settled in to watch Gazza do his strange and wonderful "thing".
It was, as they say, decidedly not an auspicious début. The group plowed into Conquistador and were sailing along until the conclusion of the guitar solo, at which point Gary forgot to press the button that played the orchestra part in the break. The group tried to make up for the fact that suddenly there was absolute silence, but Gary bravely decided to call a halt to the proceedings, and stopped the song. Can you imagine the audience's reaction? The legendary Procol Harum begin their concert and collapse during the first number! But, of course, Gary turned a mini-disaster into a little triumph - he explained (in a very funny way) that he had pushed that little button dozens of times, but never before had he simply forgotten about it; this was, of course, a very good sign - everyone now knew that this intimate affair was going to be a special little concert, as Gary's total lack of pretension had disarmed the crowd. Gazza counted the band in and they started Conquistador once again - of course, everyone was watching to see if he remembered to push the orchestra button this time.
The group played several numbers from the new album - The Truth, Mission, You Can't Turn Back, One More Time and King of Hearts but of course it was the classic material that that impressed the most. The group tore into Bacon, played the Piggy intro to a sparkling Shine on Brightly and Gary played quiet, thoughtful piano intros to both Homburg and Whisky Train. I thought Geoff Whitehorn's best moment of the evening was his playing on Grand Hotel, followed closely by his playing the crunching introductory chords to the Whaling Story solo just as Trower played them (and not as Dave Ball chose to on the live album).
Gary spoke one of his most bizarre intros to Pandora's Box, as he told in detail how he and Che Guevera had been drinking wine together in a Paris bistro back in '67 and that it was his Paris experience that convinced Guevera that a beret was a cool thing to wear - most of the crowd was guffawing at this story told in absolute deadpan fashion, and I'm sure that at least 50% of them believed the tale. Of course, those "in the know" were simply on the floor (personally speaking, as I was on my fifth beer by this point, I was propped up by the stage - I ask you, could there be a better evening possible than being pleasantly drunk and watching Procol Harum live?)
Of course they played Ä Salty Dog preceded by Gary's painful dedication to BJ, and concluded with a rip-snortin' Simple Sister, complete with the fantastic middle instrumental section (which is my favourite piece of Gary music - ever! In '72 a friend and I stood up and yelled the title four times in a row - and Procol proceeded to play it - but disappointingly without the middle section, that magical construction that Gary once called "music from the 21st century"; so it was very pleasing to finally hear it live after all those years).
And then they were gone. The small but mighty crowd of course called them back for two encores; they played Whiter Shade with the 3 verses, and ground the last energy out of the evening with an intense and magnificent Repent.
Gary told us that their next gig later that week was Edmonton with the orchestra, and I was dumbfounded - how could Matt Fisher pass up an opportunity to play with an orchestra? I watched that gig on TV and was disappointed (see here) - it just didn't seem to have the special energy of my little show; and, of course, the orchestra never once forgot to enter after the guitar solo!