Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale 

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Procol Harum - Live at Ledreborg Castle (DVD)

Liner note by Roland from BtP


‘Ordine cuncta vigent’

Forty kilometres west of the Danish capital, Copenhagen, lies the little town of Lejre (pop. 3,000), seat of the pre-Viking kings, both historical and legendary. With its Stone Age villages and ship burials, the area is visibly steeped in history: dating from the 1740s, the rococo Palace of Ledreborg is a relative newcomer. Eight generations of the Holstein-Ledreborg family have lived here, sculpting and refining a baroque estate of 4,000 acres: its lime-tree avenue, at 7.3 kilometres, is said to be the longest in Northern Europe, and runs from the Royal Cathedral city of Roskilde, through Lejre, up the hill to the Palace courtyard and chapel, ending at the family grave-mound. In 1994, the Countess Silvia inaugurated an annual weekend of orchestral concerts in the valley behind the castle. And for 23,000 people, foregathered in August 2006, history was to be made again, with a world-class rock band at the heart of the music.

Procol Harum relax in the hospitality tent before their Saturday début, confident in each other’s musicianship and the magic they are about to unleash. They seem like a secure family, born over four decades, but unified by their timeless music. Gary Brooker, voice and piano, the inspirational ‘Commander’ and 39-year constant amid the mutating line-ups that have coalesced round the remarkable songs he writes with lyricist Keith Reid; Geoff Whitehorn, first-call guitarist to the stars, happiest in his Procol context; Mark Brzezicki, drummer from Big Country; Matt Pegg, with his illustrious bass-playing pedigree; and Josh Phillips, award-winning TV composer, lately settled on the organ bench after many years’ deputising, and looking forward to playing his first orchestral show with the band. “It’s like a weird dream,” he confides, “playing arrangements I grew up with.” As a nine-year-old Josh saw Procol play London with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the year their gold-selling Edmonton Symphony album came out.

Procol Harum first played live with orchestra in 1969 at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, throwing down the gauntlet that would shortly be taken up by symphonic dabblers like Deep Purple and The Nice. Thanks to the renown of 1971’s Live with the Edmonton Symphony record and its lavish studio successor, Grand Hotel, Procol acquired a reputation for ‘classical’ leanings. Yet Brooker insists that “our heart is in the blues, with a handful of clever chords”, and the band has played only eighteen orchestral gigs in their first forty years, though they’ve been high-profile collaborations with the likes of the LA Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Hallé.

The Edmonton recording – for all its eventual success – was famously a nightmare of last-minute logistic, technical and bureaucratic problems; but 2006’s Danish shows, ten months in the planning under concert supremo Jens Hofman, take the Ledreborg family motto Ordine cuncta vigent – ‘sound organising makes success’ – as their mantra.

Procol themselves convened, following a six-week break, for two days’ Ledreborg preparation at Gary Brooker’s barn in rural Surrey. Their previous gigs had been another castle (Lulworth), Finland’s Puisto Blues festival alongside Buddy Guy, and a rocking return to the Isle of Wight Festival after thirty-six years. Rehearsing for an orchestral gig is not a matter of studying scores (though the band can read when required), rather of “working out what to omit, counting some bars, and reining yourself in so you don’t go off-piste,” as Geoff puts it. And there is one complex new piece to learn, partly because Brooker likes to keep his musicians on their toes, and partly because Procol delight in surprising their fans.

On Tuesday 15 August the band flew to Copenhagen for an unprecedented three days’ rehearsal with the RUO, the Danish National Concert Orchestra. “Very seldom do we run into arrangements of such high quality when speaking of rock bands,” Jens Hofman commented afterwards. He also praised “Gary Brooker’s commitment, and his very fruitful collaboration with conductor, David Firman”. Firman’s ‘rock attitude’ delighted Josh: “He plays ‘air orchestra’ the way some fans play air guitar.” The RUO were not just dot-readers, but played “with real passion and emotion.” Yet they weren’t all rock-savvy: “What’s this contraption?” asked one player, glaring at the Leslie cabinet whose rotating horns give the Hammond its characteristic chorale sound. “I just looked at his viola,” Josh reports, “and said, ‘Well … what is that contraption?’”

“When I saw the calibre of microphones they had everywhere, I felt my jaw drop,” said Procol soundman Graham Ewins. “Even one or two Neumanns of that quality, you’d be jumping up and down.” By contrast to the Edmonton experience, the only tears were tears of joy: as the Radiokoret choir rehearsed A Salty Dog, Procol manager Chris Cooke recalls, “They sang so well it brought a tear to my eye. But back at the hotel Gary informed the whole band … and I’ve had no control over them ever since.”

At Thursday night’s on-site soundcheck Chris noted – amid the neatly-marshalled conurbation of toilet and catering lorries, technical vans for pictures and sound, wardrobe and other band-wagons – a tent devoted entirely to chargers for the RUO’s in-ear monitoring system: Ordine cuncta vigent. His only worry now was the overcast weather: there was no controlling that either.

On the Friday all 72 performers transferred to the Ledreborg stage for what they hoped would be a dry run. Through ‘Beyond the Pale’, Procol’s unofficial website at www.procolharum.com, Chris Cooke had invited an international audience of the hard-core fans who had colonised a former dairy in nearby Lejre for their own music-making (of which more below). After a fifteen-minute walk through one of the country’s few woodlands this multilingual mêlée – to whom Denmark had previously meant only bacon and Hamlet, lager and Lego descended into the verdant 120 x 200 metre bowl and settled apprehensively on the moist grass in front of the stripy pavilion. Many had seen a violent electric storm sweep Procol from a Los Angeles stage in July 2003: would the Danish skies hold firm?

‘Sound organising makes success’: Gary’s HP-109 digital grand, opening the show, instantly proved just how good that sound-organising was. The staging might resemble a gigantic Punch’n’Judy tent, but close your eyes and you were in an acoustically-perfect concert-hall. To accompany a rock band, symphonic players are typically amplified with mics in an overhead grid, but here the RUO – eight first violins, six second violins, four each of viola and ’cello, two each of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone and percussion, three French horns and three double basses – was close-miked. The choir was also precisely audible – in English, French, even Latin on two numbers – thanks to two-dozen hand-held microphones. The sound team mixed an amazing 100+ channels into a PA system that sounded crystal-clear and powerful throughout the arena. They also offered Procol Harum such flexible monitoring that when Matt Pegg asked to hear more ’cello, the answer came back, “Which player?” All in the band were able to relax, and respond to the beautiful setting, and the fans.

Though this was principally a ‘tech run’, for the sound team and the eight cameramen, the band gave a terrific performance. Playing al fresco really suited Mark Brzezicki: “It lets you open up and play at a typical rock volume, rather than worrying about being gentle and creating a ‘classical’ mix. Fresh air is the best soundproofing of all!” TV monitors allowed Mark to watch the conductor directly behind him: a far cry from the truck wing-mirrors deployed at Edmonton by his illustrious predecessor, BJ Wilson. The efforts of Hofman’s whole team – some forty technical and administrative staff were listed in the programme – had clearly paid off.

Satisfied with the day’s work, Procol Harum were driven back to their grand Copenhagen hotel, to work on their “astronomical bar-bill” as Matt put it, and some fine-tuning of the score. Gary Brooker had remembered one of the RUO percussionists from his 1990 ballet, Delta, commissioned by Denmark’s Royal Opera House. “I asked him, ‘Have you got an anvil?’ and he replied, ‘Of course.’” A dramatic anvil part was duly written into Whaling Stories, and maybe this hammer-homage placated the thunder-god, Thor: because Saturday dawned fair.

A full house (12,500) on Saturday was inevitable – the Ledreborg shows have sold out since 1997 – but the profusion of Procol regalia in this attentive, middle-aged audience testified to Denmark’s enduring love of this fascinating band. And it’s evidently mutual: over the years Procol have played some sixty gigs (not counting TV and radio shows) in at least twenty Danish towns. Surprisingly, the Ledreborg set didn’t include The Emperor’s New Clothes, their only song with a Hans Christian Andersen title! This home-grown audience was reinforced with Friday’s fervent core of international ‘Palers’, who were able to provide more than moral support for Geoff Whitehorn when his 50th Anniversary Fender Strat developed problems during routine pre-gig restringing. “The locking tremolo started losing its grip,” he explains. “I had it in bits on the hotel bed as our transport was waiting below: it was ridiculous.” As they drove out of Copenhagen, vainly looking out for music shops, Procol rang ahead to ‘Beyond the Pale’, whose webmasters ensured that a suitable reserve guitar – belonging to the Palers’ Band – was awaiting them backstage.

Both public shows at Ledreborg followed the setlist from Friday’s dry run, though the general public got a less surreal and facetious version of Gary Brooker’s inter-song banter. The fifteen-song recital covered nine of Procol’s eleven studio albums to date, two 60s’ hit singles, one 90s’ rarity, and a 1982 Brooker solo piece. It was not a typical festival set, but it was scarcely a typical event: nowhere but Ledreborg, overlooked by an historic palace, would The Commander have opened a daylight show with a slow-burner like Grand Hotel, which even starts with the word ‘Tonight’.

“A lot of Procol stuff is darkness, doesn’t work in the sun,” he concedes. “We have a few slow sunset songs, but we stick to the more rocking numbers at daylight festivals: it’s harder to get the atmosphere of slow ones across – unless it’s a Procol-friendly crowd like we get in Denmark.” There’s a band-only Grand Hotel from an earlier Procol line-up among the bonus tracks on the present DVD (how many of 1974’s earnest young audience also came to Ledreborg?): but today it’s as lavish and stately as the 1973 studio production. Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) is a voluptuous descendant of its 1973 Swingled-up incarnation. “The opportunity is there, inside the songs, for them to grow,” says Gary. “I’ve always looked forward to hearing them even bigger than the five-piece can do them, seventy people all playing at the same time.”

It’s hard to remember that Brooker is a self-taught arranger, as this sparkling concert unfurls. A Salty Dog adapts his first, strings-only orchestration from the 1969 album, enriched with the Latin chant that was first played and recorded by The Gary Brooker Ensemble at a 1996 church fundraiser. The strings-and-voices Nothing but the Truth hails from the same occasion.

Whaling Stories is an Edmonton arrangement: Gary’s orchestral parts, subsequently lost, were reconstructed by David Firman, listening to the album. Conquistador is also closely based on the Edmonton version (the largest ensemble to play live on any hit single?) which Brooker orchestrated on the ’plane to the gig. 1992’s Edmonton reunion spawned a similarly last-minute up-tempo item: Into the Flood was arranged on a train! It borrows some Beethoven, some Coronation Mass from Mozart (“he pinched it from me,” Brooker quips), and a fiddle-punishing ‘hoedown’ from a Wilson Pickett arrangement by Mathias Weiss, who played with Gary during Procol’s 80s interregnum, keeping the Brooker / Reid flame alive on orchestral tours in Germany’s ‘Rock Meets Classic’ concert series. For that project Gary also orchestrated one of his solo-album highlights, the neologistically-entitled Symphathy for the Hard of Hearing, the sole Brooker-only composition in today’s set.

Gary’s witty Butterfly Boys arrangement appeared first on The Long Goodbye, his 1995 album of symphonic Procol; likewise this treatment of Simple Sister, in the middle of which broken melodies of sinuous lyricism get up and wander about “to evoke the poor misfit” as he puts it. The Long Goodbye album also featured guest arrangers: today’s Homburg was lavishly orchestrated by Nicholas Dodd (who told Gary, “I don’t think you’re going to like this, it’s probably over the top,” so some of the sweetness has apparently “been taken out” for Ledreborg!); and the wistful minor-key prelude to A Whiter Shade of Pale was penned by Darryl Way (late of Curved Air). The other ‘outboard’ arrangement is Something Magic, which retains Mike Lewis’s orchestration from the eponymous 1976 album. With its frequent changes on over twenty chords, this piece challenges any notion that “Procol is just a blues band”!

There’s good bluesy work, though, on The VIP Room, one of two band-only pieces in the programme. Also from The Well’s on Fire, Procol’s 2003 studio album, comes An Old English Dream, in which Matt’s MusicMan Stingray 5-string delivers some nice flourishes, and the band’s trademark Hammond B3 gets to shine. The organ’s habitual texturing work is reduced when an orchestra gets involved; ditto the Yamaha Motif synth, though this does offer occasional colouring during the recital. Incidentally, you won’t see the Leslie ‘contraption’ in this DVD: it was stowed under the stage, to be completely isolated for recording, enabling the organ pitch to be sharpened in post-production, up 2Hz to the A442 tuning favoured by European orchestras.

The audience loved every minute: superb music, unexpected sunshine, classy Ledreborg picnic food, drink served from boats plying the valley’s symmetrical waterways. And – British festival-goers take note – as they finally picked their contented way to the shuttle-bus embarkation point, they took all their litter home!

Rather than resting, Procol repaired to Domus Felix at Lejre, for the fans’ party where many ‘old friends met for the first time’. Amid characteristically generous Danish hospitality, 120 people celebrated the birthday of Mrs Franky Brooker. And as well as listening to their own material interpreted by zealous amateurs (over the weekend two dozen international Palers’ Band members, in various combinations, tackled 28 different Procoloid compositions, two of them twenty-minute epics) Procol themselves performed three numbers on the fans’ hired equipment.

Sunday saw another fantastic sell-out show: it requires little comment, since this DVD preserves it all. The weather was dry but less bright, and Mark Brzezicki wore shades only for continuity’s sake, in case cross-edits were needed with the previous show. As it happens, none of Saturday’s performance has been used … not even the head flying off the anvil-player’s hammer and spinning alarmingly through the orchestra!

When this final, triumphant show was over Procol honoured an invitation to explore the splendours of Ledreborg Palace (of which only the back is visible from the concert arena). Geoff recalls his surprise at finding that the Countess was “younger than us”, and that ‘Milord Carlsberg’ (as Procol had informally dubbed her consort) was actually a Scotsman named Jock, who immediately asked him for (Tullmeister) Ian Anderson’s telephone number. The family felt that Count John Ludvig Holstein (b. 1694), who adopted the Ordine cuncta vigent motto, might have been “surprised to find 12,500 guests in his back garden,” but would have approved the way the park and house he created were still playing a significant role in Denmark's cultural life. Following some ‘Joshing’ at the castle chapel’s 1882 organ (backline-engineer Johnny Magner pedalled the bellows, in the absence of estate farm-labourers) Procol headed out for a second heady night at Domus Felix.

The band’s presence at these fans’ parties transformed the former dairy into a real VIP Room. This time The Palers backed Gary Brooker on Poison Ivy, at the launching of a live reunion DVD of his early group, The Paramounts, and Procol Harum crowned the evening by performing Whaling Stories impromptu with the midnight fans, all ‘shining up there with the stars’.

Procol’s music and presence had generated an atmosphere of elevated contentment that no Ledreborger would ever forget. Jens Hofman, another VIP guest, later wrote to ‘Beyond the Pale’ that “I have never experienced such a cohesiveness and devotion within a fan club.”

As Procol Harum: Live at Ledreborg Castle so eloquently demonstrates, Procol Harum deserve no less.

Roland Clare © 2008


Procol Harum: Live at Ledreborg Castle
 


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