Franc Gavin in Performance, 13 May 1977
Here's an interesting review (we've tidied up some printing errors the copy-editor should have spotted) of one of the very last Procol gigs of the Old Testament; it doesn't mention bassist Dee Murray, but the magazine cover has a rare picture of the Murray line-up. Ironically, for an article dwelling on the band's longevity, it came out in the month they ceased trading. When you've devoured this, do read the author's commentary on it: he reveals the state of the music trade papers of the time, reflects on the death of the 60s ethos and the rise of punk, and – perhaps most intriguingly of all – tells how Procol were really feeling on the night of this concert, and what he actually thought of the show he reviews below!
Los Angeles: it's comforting to know that bands of Procol Harum's stature like to occasionally play medium-sized venues. In April that elusive ensemble chose to pull off a one-nighter at the 1000-seat Crescendo in Anaheim. Anaheim? You ask. Yes, and a mere mile from that fiberglass fantasyland that put this one-time community of orange-growers on the map.
Procol Harum put on an entertaining evening of larfin' and singin' characterized by a pleasantly aloof air personified in the enigmatic smile of Gary Brooker as he sang a lung-busting rendition of Salty Dog.
"Just a failed seaman, I am ..." he explained later. "I was born in London, but grew up in Southampton [should be Southend], near the sea. Needless to say, it gets in your blood – finally got a bit out vicariously when we recorded A Salty Dog. That's one of the reasons I've enjoyed working in the context of this group for lo, these ten years – I get to work out a lot of my fantasies. Haven't run dry yet."
Apparently not. The band's penchant for the clever hook is legend, and their treatment of Conquistador never fails to hit home. Brooker, along with the incessant assistance from drummer BJ Wilson made early, powerful headway with the SRO audience in Orange County's plushest new nightspot. Strangers, a tune from their new LP, showcased such a venerable institution as they remain venerable without becoming stale. A spacey, fluid number, utilising a lot of echo-slide and synthesizer harmonics, the stillness of mood created by its poignant instrumentation held close conjunction, once again, with Brooker's piano and vocals to create an atmosphere that captivated the audience.
Let's face it. Brooker's voice and piano, BJ Wilson's drums and Keith Reid's lyrics are the very soul of the band. Throughout the years many have come and gone from Procol Harum, while these three have remained to create the core of a sound that is intelligent, wry and expert yet sacrifices none of the spontaneity of honest-to-goodness Rock 'n Roll.
"It's easy to get in a rut," Brooker explained. "It's just as easy to get out of one – that's one of the ways we've managed to keep our status for a decade – we keep close check on ourselves and we don't record unless we feel very good about the whole thing. Sometimes we'll look back on this or that piece and reflect: 'now that – that was a mistake; but we work hard for perfection. We can't allow too many bad moves. There just isn't enough room.'
Guitarist Mick Grabham has become well-situated in the cockpit of the instrumentation; his fret-work is lean, spare and fiery enough to nearly make one forget it was Robin Trower and not he who played on the recorded version of Simple Sister. His leads range from unabashed, as in Wizard Man, the group's new single, to the lyrical punctuation of the stratospheric Homburg, a procol-prototype which is perfectly exemplary of lyricist Keith Reid's way with the eccentric word.
"I get a lot of ideas for my lyrics on the road," Reid suggested, "and I always travel with the band when they're touring."
Alternating between the dance and the book of revelations, Procol graced the laser-lit stage with a show that was a catalogue of past and present, pleasing their audience as much as they pleased themselves with the performance.
Perhaps it's that unmistakable sound that is the secret of their longevity. 'That' sound, a raucous hybrid of Bach, English music hall and classic R&B moves, intrigues and amuses then attacks with a marvellously warped sense of humor. Brooker's grand piano and vocals put him on a par with such as Stevie Winwood, another who has made admirable uses of the possibilities of rhythm and blues inflections within an ambitious keyboard medium.
Procol Harum craft their presence with the diversionary tactics of the expert. Their music is an intelligent admixture of suspense, drama, pathos, comedy and just a touch of the lurid thrown in for spiciness' sake. As if an underline for the entire evening, Brooker thanked the crowd and led the band into an anthem-like Whiter Shade of Pale, the band's undisputable trademark.
It was easy to see, then, as Wilson's drumsticks literally conducted the familiar piece, that this was far from being sentimental indulgence; Procol Harum was merely re-iterating their position as a rock-solid institution.
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