Someone Following Them: Procol Harum at Toad's
New Haven, Connecticut: 27 September 1991
In New Haven, Connecticut, the line of division is no less apparent than in most other sizable American cities. It is impossible not to notice. The contrast is stark and disconcerting, manifest almost immediately after pulling off Interstate 91. One side of town belongs to the privileged and well-off, to the students and professors of Yale University. Their civilized, protected space is a tidy mix of dormitories and lecture theatres, laboratories and seminar rooms, sophisticated cafés and well-stocked bookshops, all frequented by a predominantly White population. The other side of town is Black. Its face is shabby and derelict, its streets hostile and scarred, its inhabitants angry, restless, feared.
My being in New Haven is usually associated with a visit to Yale, but not tonight. No browsing through the Beinecke Library's Special Collections on this trip, no exchanges with the likes of George Kubler, a Yale historian of art with one of the most fertile minds my work has exposed me to. Tonight belongs to music and memory, for a reunited Procol Harum are playing a gig at Toad's.
Procol Harum. For anyone whose life involved, as mine certainly did, coming of age in the sixties, this was the band who penned and played A Whiter Shade of Pale, a song whose popularity is legendary and whose sales are said to exceed eleven million copies world-wide. Like many others, I walked down the aisle to it, its soothing melody that sunny July afternoon as much a part of the occasion as the presence of family and friends. The enormous success of A Whiter Shade of Pale, recorded in 1967 under makeshift studio conditions, was to haunt Procol Harum for the remainder of its existence. Wonderful though the song is, most people regard it as the band's only notable achievement, dismissing Procol Harum as a one-hit phenomenon despite sustained creativity that saw ten albums released in the decade that followed A Whiter Shade of Pale. Ignored or unknown in such dismissals is the spiritual search of Shine On Brightly, the classical elegance of A Salty Dog or Grand Hotel, the humour and pathos of Home, the rage and resignation of Exotic Birds and Fruit. These albums for the most part bear the musical signature of Gary Brooker, though organist Matthew Fisher and guitarist Robin Trower also leave their trace on the earliest Procol Harum recordings. Lyrically, Procol songs are the creation of poet Keith Reid, whose touch is remarkably eclectic, his choice of words at times blunt and confrontational, at times tender and wistful, often (as in A Whiter Shade of Pale) mystically enigmatic, always worth paying attention to. Distinct and highly original, the band also knew how to absorb other musical influences and make them their own, as with Lennon and McCartney's Eight Days a Week, which closes Procol's Ninth. Live in concert I've also heard them bring the house down with an encore that included a thundrous version of Great Balls of Fire. Jerry Lee Lewis himself would have been bowled over that evening.
Listening to Procol Harum opened up the world for me, for their songs tell of pilgrims and sailors, of discovery and exploration, of the triumphs and tragedies of life and of love. Many a trip was taken in the solitude of my room, but several others entailed actually going to hear them play. There is nothing quite like the thrill of a live performance. Concerts in Glasgow, my home town, or nearby Edinburgh were easy to get to. Concerts in London called for a bit more ingenuity. They also demanded repeated acts of faith and belief in good fortune. Would I be able to hitch a ride to the "Big Smoke" without too much difficulty? Would tickets still be available if I got there on time? Would I be able to afford one? Where would I spend the night when the music was over? These were undergraduate student days, so resources were limited. The long journey south, however, was never made in vain. A lift materialized, I managed to arrive before the show began, a ticket was gotten hold of, and the night gave way without too much discomfort to a morning that saw me head back home replenished and refreshed, in spirit if not always in requisite hours of sleep. From 1970 to 1975, concert excursions took me from the Green's Playhouse in Glasgow to the Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton, Alberta. Five years in time, an ocean and a continent in space. Procol Harum, as a common interpretation of the band's Latin name indicates, was indeed "beyond these things."
A decade and a half since last I heard them, I can hardly believe Procol Harum are about to play again. From what I can gather, the gig at Toad's is the fourth in a North American tour designed to promote a new album, The Prodigal Stranger. The waters are being tested to determine if a bigger circuit and more ambitious venues are feasible. The signs are encouraging: last night's concert in New York was sold out. Toad's will be the only club date of the tour, so I'm especially pleased to get to hear the band in a more intimate setting. As I look around Toad's crepuscular interior I feel lucky to be in the company of hundreds, not thousands, and my sense of anticipation grows.
Shortly before eight o'clock the background music stops, the lights dim, and on to a suddenly illuminated stage walk Procol Harum, Chapter Two. I position myself in front of Gary Brooker's piano and observe as he sits down that the passage of time has been kind. Behind a distinguished countenance his slate-grey hair is gathered in a short pony-tail. He looks thoughtful and at ease, his footwear resembling more a pair of Chinese slippers or dancing pumps than conventional shoes. Opposite Brooker another original member, a sombre-looking Matthew Fisher, presides over a stately Hammond organ. Robin Trower is featured on the new recording but, alas, is not part of the tour. Sadly absent from both album and tour is drummer Barrie James Wilson, "BJ," whom I was told died some time ago. News of BJ's death came as a shock, but Procol Harum, guided no doubt by the counsel of the song Shine On Brightly, has decided to "soldier on." What will the outcome be, at Toad's tonight?
An organ rolls, a guitar wails, a piano embellishes, a voice croons. Somewhat hesitant and subdued, with Brooker's eyes checking Reid's lyrics on a handwritten scrap of paper, the music begins with All Our Dreams Are Sold, a song from The Prodigal Stranger. One warm-up is all that's needed. Scarcely has applause died down when the strains of Shine On Brightly ring out more familiarly, for singer and audience alike. Brooker needs no scribbled help with this one, and neither do I. Singing along with him, my proximity allows him to notice, if mercifully not to hear above the volume of amplification. At one juncture in our duet -- "The chandelier is in full swing / As gifts for me the three kings bring / Of myrrh and frankincense I'm told / And fat old Buddhas carved in gold" -- he winks in cherished recognition. Three up-tempo numbers -- Bringing Home The Bacon, The Truth Won't Fade Away, One More Time -- are followed by the solemn chords of Homburg, the first verse of which is sung mostly to solo piano accompaniment:
Your multilingual business friend
Has packed her bags and fled,
Leaving only ash-filled ashtrays
And a lipsticked, unmade bed.
The mirror, on reflection,
Has climbed back upon the wall,
For the floor she found descended
And the ceiling was too tall ...
The next five songs -- Pandora's Box, Man With a Mission, The Devil Came from Kansas, The King of Hearts, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle -- skilfully blend the old with the new, after which come two Procol classics and two of my personal favourites, Conquistador and A Salty Dog. The imagery of lines from Conquistador -- "Though you came with sword held high / You did not conquer, only die" -- was among the influences that propelled me to study colonial Latin America. Throughout the mournful mood of A Salty Dog -- "A sand so white, and sea so blue / No mortal place at all" -- I recall the inspired drumming of the late BJ Wilson. Another two up-tempo numbers -- Simple Sister and Nothing But the Truth -- are delivered before A Whiter Shade of Pale brings the audience to transcendental attention. When the moment arrives for Brooker to sing "The crowd called out for more," the crowd in truth calls out "More! More!" Our reward is an encore of Magdalene, a meditative lament, and Repent Walpurgis, an ornate instrumental into which is woven a Bach piece from The Well-Tempered Clavier. Repent Walpurgis, which I heard performed live once on the BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test, proves to be the perfect finale, for the music ends with Fisher's organ filling Toad's with cathedral ambience, vast, regal, cathartic.
Procol Harum exit amidst cheers and jubilation. Warmth and satisfaction from hearing the band suffuses me for months. Buoyed by having made, after all these years, another concert excursion, I'm ready for the next one. Keep me posted.
Setlist for this concert … with links to an identical one