26 September 1991: reviewed by Tim Page in Newsday, 30 September
Whiter Shade Reunion
Photo – Procol Harum's Marck [sic] Brezezchi [sic], Matthew Fisher, Gary Brooker, Dave Bronze and Tim Renwick.
Procul [sic] Harum has always seemed to me one of the most original and underrated bands in the recent history of popular music. The general public remembers the group for its gigantic 1967 hit A Whiter Shade of Pale and, perhaps, for the more modest success of Conquistador in 1972. But there is worthy material throughout the Procol catalog, particularly on the first four albums – their eponymous début (1967); Shine on Brightly (1968); A Salty Dog (1969), Home (1970) – and more fitfully thereafter.
Now, after numerous changes in personnel and a complete disbandment in 1977, Procol Harum has reunited with a new album, Prodigal Stranger [sic] and a concert, on Thursday night, at Town Hall. The album includes four of the five crucial figures in the original line-up: pianist, composer and lead vocalist Gary Brooker; organist and composer Matthew Fisher; guitarist Robin Trower, and lyricist Keith Reid. Trower was not present at the concert (Tim Renwick made a surprisingly effective substitute), and the extraordinarily creative and musical drummer BJ Wilson – who could rivet a listener's attention even through the once-requisite (and, in other hands, unspeakably tedious) drum solos – died in 1989 [sic].
There has been a tendency to dismiss Procol Harum as just another fancy
example of English art-rock – along with Yes, Genesis, Renaissance, Gentle
Giant, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and the rest of the
Hey-Lookit-Me-I'm-Playing-In-7/4 crowd. In fact, there was a notable absence of
ostentation in the best Procol records and whatever virtuosity the musicians
possessed was invariably put to the service of the music, rather than the other
way around (I except their gaseous and overblown live album with the Edmonton
Symphony). What was so compelling about Procol Harum was its abundant conflicts:
the mixture of unadorned consonances ('churchy' or 'classical,' as you will)
with the refined blues stylings of Brooker's vocals; the furious, abrasive,
often atonal shriek of Trower's guitar, and Reid's haunted castle, high-Romantic
imagery. In the time since Procol Harum's first album – and especially within
the past ten years – a certain populist orthodoxy has emerged among the rock
press and with it has arisen a general suspicion of classical training, formal
structures, ambitious melodies and any attempts to use the English language with
the majesty of which it is capable. Procol Harum, unapologetically, went after
an educated élite; instead of fast cars, getting funky or boogeying the night
away, the group's lyrics were likely to address raging winds, flaming chariots,
falls from grace and the human need to deny mortality.
The Procol vision was rich, dark, complicated, pessimistic, very 'old world'; many found it pretentious, and it sometimes was. But, at its best, the work was characterized by a seriousness of purpose that was all but beyond the ken of most other groups. (And yes, the group could rock -- the song Shine on Brightly
[ Page Break here – New page heading ...
It's a Semi-Reunion for Procol Harum ... Procol Harum from Page 47]
remains perhaps the most spirited affirmation of the mingled pride and alienation that is a necessary co-efficient to standing apart from the crowd.)
On Thursday, Procol Harum was at its best when at its least determinedly 'contemporary.' This is not to condemn the group to the status of an oldies act: many of the songs on the new album have merit (notably The Truth Won't Fade Away, a bemused look backward at the glories and delusions of the 60s and its aftermath). But the calculated attempts to reach a mass audience – the smoke, the flashing lights, Brooker's mumbled asides to the sold-out house – called to mind the sillier moments in This Is Spinal Tap. Procol Harum always tried to provide rock for grown-ups; the average age of the spectator at Town Hall was at least 35 and many in the audience were over 50 – this listener, for one, would have been happier if some of the showbiz silliness had been eschewed.
Still, it was good to hear these straightforward performances of Simple Sister, The Devil Came From Kansas, Shine on Brightly, Bringing Home the Bacon (a particularly exciting rave-up), A Salty Dog (here dedicated to Wilson's memory) and Homburg (sung in ruminative, torch-song fashion by Brooker) among others, as well as the new material – which is generally less metaphysical, less demonic and (it must be admitted) not so harrowingly powerful as the finest moments on their earlier albums. I was sorry that so few of Fisher's songs were included in the set (he made important contributions to A Salty Dog and his two solo albums on RCA merit CD reissue). But it was left to Fisher to bring the house to its feet, when, as an encore, he began the Bachian, long-ago organ prelude to A Whiter Shade of Pale (complete with an additional, unfamiliar verse) and we rose en masse.
Thanks to Joan May for sending this
Another review from this concert | More concert reviews | Earwitness report of this show | Tim Renwick's 2007 solo album for sale at the BtP Store