I guess I was born at the right time. I've now seen Procol Harum with 5 different guitarists – at least 2 of which are unquestionably brilliant and uniquely qualified to interpret the incredible body of music that makes up the (continuing) legend of Procol Harum.
My first experience seeing Procol Harum live took place at the famous (infamous?) Fillmore East Theater in New York City. The opening act? One-Hit-Wonder band Teegarden & Van Winkle (bright jewels and glittering sands to anyone who can name their big hit)! Playing in front of the always 'live' screen at the Fillmore (as Gary sang, 'and though the Ferris wheel spins 'round ...' a Ferris wheel did, in fact, slowly turn – quite ominously, somehow – and at just the right moment!) the band was in its bass player-less phase, with Chris Copping, Gary, and Robin (the boy-wonder) Trower, together with the incredible BJ Wilson still managing to create an incredibly strong, full sound! Trower was typically intense, making some of the most unique sounds (and facial expressions) that any guitar player ever made! Obviously, Robin Trower belonged in the band as a strong element of The Sound that became so uniquely Procol Harum. Had it not been for Trower's groundwork one has to wonder what his successors might have come up with on that original batch of classics – because, although we've heard fine work from others since, there's no escaping the influence of that roaring, tortured, straight out of who-knows-where sound that Trower created. And if the time came when he had 'done all he could do' in the context of the band ... well, I remember wondering if there was any player that would ever be able to fill that gap!
Seeing the band with David Ball did little to encourage me. I
suppose he was / is a competent rock & roll guitar player but
he seemed to lack the ability to create The Sound –
truthfully, I had my doubts that he even had the concept of what
the Procol sound was all about! It was at Hofstra college –
opening acts? Wild Turkey (if my memory serves well, which is
doubtful) and the Edgar Winter Band. Procol's set was composed of
some of the old classics as well as material from the as-yet-unreleased
Grand Hotel album. If you were ever thankful for anything,
be thankful that David Ball's work on that
project was scrapped in favor of Mick Grabham! Ball played
with some enthusiasm but little power. No subtlety – no
guts, grace or glory (I know, I know, forgive me! ... we're all a
little romantic, or you wouldn't be reading this!) Words that
come to mind: pedestrian ... serviceable ... uninspired. This was
the first and only time that I'd ever seen BJ look like he was
struggling! I've seen the band when they apparently had good
nights and on 'bad' nights – and they were all better nights
than this! This was, by the
way, the first time that I remember Gary introducing BJ as ' the greatest drummer in the world ' – the irony was that, on this night, you couldn't tell! Why do I lay this at the feet of Mr. Ball? Well, he was clearly the only 'weak link' in the chain. Even on the live Edmonton album ...as good as that album is, how much better with a Trower or a Grabham? No, David Ball was meant for other things. Replacing a legend like Robin Trower is certainly an unenviable task – imitation is futile, naturally.
... and then along came Mick Grabham! I had thought that maybe
the 'golden age' of Procol
Harum had come and gone, when – much to my surprise – I heard The Sound! It was coming from a little record store on the bowels of New York City – I was making deliveries on foot ... and literally stopped in my tracks. It sure sounded like Procol Harum! I now know that the song that 'grabbed' me was Toujours L'Amour – the way the guitar licks just came from nowhere and grabbed something from deep in my gut! The furious but amazingly controlled drumming! The Hammond! The unmistakable piano! The voice! And, yes, yes – the bass playing! The power was there – Procol Harum was back!! ...without a doubt! I stayed, transfixed, through Bringing Home the Bacon (what's going on here?! where did that rhythm come from? Is the record skipping? The guitar! the guitar! I'm freaking out here! 'gonna lose my job if I don't get back!) Needless to say, I'm a Grabham fan. He certainly came at the right time and went on to create his own legacy. Possible blasphemy here, to some of you: If I could put the band together myself, I'd use Mick over Robin! Having seen Mick with the band numerous times, I think there's no getting away from the fact that he's capable of subtleties that I'm not sure Robin's capable of. I wish every reader could see Procol Harum perform Adagio and then ask yourself if Robin could do that! The range of Mick's playing is almost unbelievable – he can produce absolutely gut-wrenching, powerful solos one minute and produce subtle, melodic nuances that most rock players couldn't dream of. I've never seen him fall short. Oh, and he can rock, too! Most of all, he seems to fit perfectly in the context of this incredible band!
Tim Renwick – the 90s came and Procol returned. Saw them
at Town Hall, NYC. A great show! Tim is a good guitarist –
to my mind, he doesn't quite 'get' what The Sound is about,
however – he seems to approach it from the outside, where Trower and Grabham draw it from within. Still, he (Renwick) seemed to try harder than Ball and at least played with more of a sense of history and respect for what went on before.
Most recently we've seen the band featuring Geoff Whitehorn on
guitar. The truth is, the first
exposure that I had to the band with Geoff was on the Tonight Show! I was quite pleasantly surprised at the nice touches that he played on AWSoP! I felt that there was real potential there. Having seen Geoff in full concert with the band and hearing radio tapes over and over, I find that Geoff plays with a great deal of power and emotion – occasionally his considerable technique gets in the way, but I've truly grown to like his playing with the band. Having been fortunate enough to meet with him briefly, I can tell you that Geoff has a tremendous respect for the music and the band's legacy. I think that he understands The Sound and is more than half-way there! He probably is 'held back' mostly by his technical mastery of the guitar! This might sound strange ...but there's always been that element of pain ... of reaching just beyond ... that makes the guitar sound of classic Procol Harum what it's always been at its best. Maybe Geoff's got such a great reach that it's difficult to find the edge that he needs to push at to get that 'gut-wrench' thing going! Still, Geoff's a pleasure to listen to and I think that he does work well with the rest of the band. Again, he's got quite a range of ability and can do most anything that the repertoire demands. In my opinion, better than Ball and Renwick!
These are only my own observations. In the final
analysis it's the songs that really are wonderful,
and allow an incredible platform for any gifted and creative guitar player to contribute to. Great players always help, but when you get one of the Commander's melodies stuck in your head all day ... it's the song. I remember saying at least a couple of decades back, that as long as Gary can carry on, the music of Procol Harum will live – even if it's just Gary at a piano and nothing else. I'm a guitar and drums man, I'll admit. And there will never be another BJ Wilson. It'll be hard for anyone to do what Mick Grabham has done. Singers? Gary's a vocal Dorian Gray – somewhere in England somebody's voice is failing, but Gary's keeps getting better! Let's not even start to talk about the lyrics – that's another topic altogether ... it's the songs.
Bert Saraco, USA