Procol Harum

the Pale

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Skip Softly My Moonbeams

Clyde 'AJ' Johnson on PH at Palm Springs, 1969

Remembering Procol Harum at the Palm Springs pop festival

It was Easter week and like lemmings to the sea all the college and high school students came forth from LA and San Diego and as far north as the Ventura County line headed for Palm Springs and beyond to the Colorado river for the week of fun in the sun. They still do to this day, only now they come from all over the planet to the sunny shores of the Colorado River but always stop off in Palm Springs for the weekends coming and going.

This weekend in 1969 was different in that the underground FM stations and in particular KPPC in Pasadena (which was the second underground FM station to emerge in early 1967 along with its sister station in San Francisco) were announcing a Pop Festival which was to take place on the first Friday ,Saturday and Sunday of the first weekend of vacation if memory serves me right and after 30 years. By the way 'rock festival ' wasn't in use at the time and it was advertised as a Pop festival.

Anyway the word was that groups such as the Doors, Canned Heat, The Jeff Beck Group, Lee Micheals and many others were to attend. The scene was set and tickets would be available at the door for each day of the concert festivities. It sounded good to a young barely 17 year old who was itching to see his hero's of rock'n'roll, maybe too good too be true since I had missed Monterey Pop in 1967 and Monterey Pop in 1968 (which wasn't even held in Monterey but southern California).

I did not attend the Friday show but by Saturday morning my good pal and fellow band-mate Stork (he played bass in our little blues band) were off on the three and a half-hour drive to see what we would see. Stork had been to the Monterey 68 thing and had said it was great so I was really glad to be finally going to a real outdoor event. My family had a cabin out in the desert near Twenty Nine Palms so we had a place to crash for the weekend and enough money for gas and tickets to get in but that's about all.

The concert the night before on Friday had featured the Doors and Canned heat and all we really knew about Saturdays line-up was that Jeff Beck was gonna be there!! We were excited to say the least. We arrived at a drive-in theater on the outskirts of Palm Springs about mid afternoon and bought our tickets at the front of the drive-in for a few bucks and I bought a concert poster which had a picture of Jeff Beck taken from the picture on the back of the Truth album. It was the usual psychedelic looking thing with lettering swirling round Beck's face advertising his group and under that Procol Harum, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, John Mayall and Lee Micheals. We went in and found a place to sit.

As we walked in a band was already playing on stage. We laid back and stretched out since there was lots of room being it was outdoors and folks just came in with sleeping bags pillows and blankets. The sweet smell of incense and Mexican pot filled the air as loud blues came from the stage. It was an unknown group which looked to be locals that were doing a bunch of cover tunes that kept the early afternoon going. Things were very mellow. There were no refreshment stands (not that we had any money anyway) since the location had been thrown together overnight as the Friday night concert that took place somewhere downtown had been moved to this location because of complaints from some local citizens. So be it. At least we had the drive-in's screen for the light show.

Finally the first 'real' group of the evening came on in the late afternoon. It was Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman's new group, the Flying Burrito Brothers complete with their new 'Nudie' suits and looking like they had crawled off the cover of their first album The Guilded Palace of Sin. I thought Sneaky Pete looked cool in his black jump suit with the flying dinosaur on it. By this time the sun was sinking low and we had been wined and dined by the folks around us. It seems every few minutes a gallon of Red Mountain wine would pass by or a smouldering joint. It went that way all afternoon and the gals there made sure everyone got a sandwich or two along with the always friendly offer to stick out your tongue just in case you wanted to sample Owsley's latest batch of purple acid. Bikers, young hippies and kids like us made up most of the people there and though I had seen cops on the outside I never saw a badge inside the concert.

As the sun set on the sage the Burritos left the stage and the stars came out. There was definitely magic in the air and soon Lee Micheals took the stage. He had his faithful drummer Frosty with him along with his Hammond B3 organ and a stage full of 100 watt Vox Super Beatle amps. It was during his set that I really noticed just how good the sound system was! He was loud and proud and turned in a set that had everyone standing up doing a great version of Stormy Monday and selections off his first two albums. Frosty also turned in a solo that was intense. After they left the stage it was announced that Procol Harum would be up next!

Now in between Lee Micheals and Procol there were some announcements from the stage since it was going to take awhile to get them in and set up. There were no announcements about bad acid or people freaking out or anything like that which just confirmed how good it was going inside the drive-in, now filled with about 5,000 people at most. Maybe it was the size of the crowd . Unfortunately it wasn't as calm on the outside, as it was announced that some bikers had got into a fight at the entrance and someone was stabbed or something.

Soon the roadies began filling the stage with another organ and what looked like a full-sized grand piano!!?? WOW! And what looked to me like the biggest Marshall Amp I'd ever seen, and I hadn't seen very many. Looking back I realize it was Robin Trower's 8 by 12 speaker case topped by a Marshall 100 watt super lead. This amp configuration is still called the Robin Trower model by amp collectors. At this point a figure was hit with a spotlight stage right and a man draped in white robes flowing in the breeze walked up to the mike as the MC shouted 'Here's Tim Leary!'

Ummm, ya so what? We want Procol Harum. We laughed and he laughed and someone behind me said 'God, I hope he doesn't give a speech'. He didn't, but leaned forward slowly and said ' Have fun, smoke it' and with that he walked off the stage with his hands in the air giving the peace sign to laughter and applause like some kind of strange Lawrence of Arabia. Our own personal cosmic clown jester had given his blessings, it was too funny.

After what seemed like an eternity (actually it was about another forty minutes according to Stork's watch as I remember) Procol Harum took the stage. The first notes of Quite Rightly So burst forth in a swell of volume and tone .Even though we both had their second album at home I really wasn't ready for the real thing. If Frosty had been a loud concentrate of pure 4/4 drumming BJ Wilson was beyond the beyond, weaving in and out with timing and a sound that the desert had never heard before.

This was followed directly by Shine On Brightly. At this point the organ and piano were up in the mix and the counterpoint was awesome and much more pronounced than the album version. It was quite obvious that these guys were going to give it all they had! Robin's guitar lines roared out of that Marshall and literally shook the whole drive in. Next came what else but Skip Softly (My Moonbeams) which gave us all a moment to take a breath and stare into the starry sky. Safe to say everyone had been on their feet from the first chords of their set.

They proceeded to do the rest of side two of their second album with what I remember as a very good version of Wish Me Well (which I still feel is one of the best songs on the album) and then into the strangely comic Rambling On. I remember Gary Brooker announcing the next number as ' ... something you'll recognize' and the first chords of Matthew's organ groaned as they played a perfect version of Whiter Shade Of Pale followed by Homburg which felt like AWSoP part 2 to me since I had worn out the single at home and still to this day think it may be my all time favorite song by them. At least at that time it was and even though it wasn't a commercial hit the FM radio stations played it in LA along with both their albums.

Gary announced the next song as She Wandered Through The Garden Gate [sic] played. Now I'm not sure but it seems to me they may have played Something Following Me too but I'm not really sure and it's the only song I'm not sure about ... it was a long time ago. There was what we thought to be a very good jam number that happened next, as I recall, where Robin Trower took off on some amazing soloing of sorts. No words, just a long piece where he could stretch out and blow smoke out of his Marshall. I now believe that number to have been Repent Walpurgis or perhaps it was Stokes Poges which was their son of Walpurgis, as it were, at the time. It may be wise to go with the assumption that what we heard was Stokes Poges considering it was longer and more drawn-out, as Robin's guitar-playing seemed to catch fire and go on for eight or nine minutes. It was the real stopper of the show and got the most applause of the evening in my opinion. After it ended they could do no wrong ... the evening was theirs and theirs alone after that.

There is one thing for sure: they did Cerdes or as I remember Gary Brooker announced '... here is (Outside The Gates Of) Cerdes'. There was a pause and whistling and yelps of approval along with applause which arose from the crowd since this one song had been played too a lot, also on Radio and everyone's stereos at parties. The bass shook the ground and lurched forward and we were off!!

Next it was back to the second album and Magdalene and In Held 'Twas In I!! Procol was giving us what we wanted and more at this point. After it was all over we wondered what more could they possibly give us? We were in for a surprise as the first notes of what seemed to be the most Classical sounding bit of music of the night started. I remember turning to Stork after a minute or so and asking 'what number is that ... seems I've heard it before?' . He turned to me and yelled 'That's the song for 2001: A Space Odyssey!'. And so it was ... Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra! Only this was much, much longer than just the intro. It seemed to go on forever as they stretched it out for 6 – 7 minutes or more by changing keys and repeating the intro passage over and over it seemed.

Suddenly it was over and the intensity of their set would not be approached by any of the following groups which played. Paul Butterfield and John Mayall with Mick Taylor doing honors on lead guitar came on in succession after Procol . And to top it off it was announced after Butterfield's set that the headliners the Jeff Beck Group wasn't going to play. Seems Jeff and a then unknown Rod Stewart had got into a knock-down drag out back at the hotel and the group was breaking up. Sheeesh!

We finally went off into the night toward the end of Mayall's set since we had seen a lot of him in LA. As we left through a hole in the fence we looked back to see that some people had torn it apart and started a huge bonfire which they were dancing around. Not to be outdone I saw another figure set the back of the drive-in fence on fire. It was a shame but it was time to leave the mellow 60's behind, Altamont dead ahead .It was time to get out of Dodge.

Still wondering about the exact date of the Saturday concert I attended: I'll just say that the next day was palm Sunday and the Sunday after that was Easter Sunday 1969. Of this I'm sure so get out your slide rules or find an old calendar.

Many thanks to Clyde 'AJ' Johnson and his superb 30-year memory!

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