It was, in truth, a torturous blow. A transAtlantic flight and an airport car-rental got me to where I needed to be: Newcastle in England, home of the one-and-only legendary Brown Ale, to hear Procol Harum play at the Victorian-era Opera House, my first "band-alone" engagement with them since a memorable gig in Nottingham seven years before. Imagine my surprise when, ten minutes before it was scheduled to start, I found out that the concert had been cancelled.
"You’re joking!" I declared to Webmaster Jens Ravnaas, who broke the news to me as I entered Tilley’s Bar. My palpable incredulity and striking attire drew numerous looks from some of Tilley’s regulars. For what should have been my fifteenth lifetime performance of Procol Harum I was all dressed up with, apparently, nowhere to go, sporting a flashy black T-Shirt adorned with the cover of the band’s eponymous first album. Titti shook her head to confirm, alas, that husband Jens was not joking.
"A bummer man, a real bummer," Kaleidoscope Ken Stasion, who’d jetted across from New York, lamented into his beer.
A real bummer – Jens and Ken give the thumbs-down to Newcastle Opera House (photo by Titti)
"I need a drink," I wailed.
"Coming right up," Ken shot back, replenishing the glasses of Jens and Titti also. Thus did four Procol Harum fans, for whom there was no tea-time at the circus, seek comfort on the evening of 24 May 2002, a Friday night whose darkness engulfed them, eclipsing that of any numbered thirteen.
Our collective disappointment, it must be said, was tempered somewhat by the knowledge that we had a concert in Croydon to look forward to the very next day – a glimpse of Nirvana, so to speak.
"No way that will be cancelled," Jens consoled us.
Seeing no way out of our predicament, and not wishing to ramble on, I suggested we get something to eat, and soldier on. It was just the fix to ease our pain. Dining out at a Bengali curry house, moreover, allowed us to share with each other stories of our love of Procol Harum, whose music, we all admitted, now furnishes us with an excuse for social gathering as much as attending a concert. After the meal we resisted the clamorous appeal of Newcastle’s night life and turned in early. Jens and Titti were flying down to London Stanstead the following morning. Ken, to whom I’d offered a lift, would accompany me in the car.
Ken, Jens and George at the Bengali curry house
I roused Ken at 4:30 a.m. – both of us were staying at the Holiday Inn – for a dawn departure. He responded to my wake-up call by sleeping out his version of The Dead Man’s Dream on the journey south: I drove, Ken slithered under. When, around 11 o’clock, the M1 linked us up with the M25, he finally stirred.
"We’re almost there," I announced. Ken yawned, then turned his kaleidoscopic talents to figuring out which ring-road exit best took us to Croydon. He did not grope, lonely in the dark, for long, and in fact navigated us adroitly to our hotel destination. At Jury’s Inn, the first person we bumped into was Dave Ball, who’d flown in from New Zealand. I took as a felicitous omen this chance encounter with a former Procol Harum guitarist, and said so to Ken.
"I need to sleep," he responded.
I did too, and so napped a couple of hours until the Palers' Fair began, a stone’s throw away at the Fairfield Halls, venue of the evening concert. Attending the Fair saw me reacquaint myself with cherished folk who (like me) live most of their lives in far-flung parts beyond the pale. No matter how much sea between us, Procol Harum unite us, and quite rightly so.
I had to interrupt precious time at the Palerss Fair to go meet my friend and colleague David Bakhurst. We both teach at Queen’s University in Canada, but David was on sabbatical leave (in held 'twas in he) at All Soul’s College, Oxford. I’d convinced him that hearing Procol Harum would be a sabbatical highlight, so he’d agreed to join me for his first live performance. For my part, this was a Croydon reprise, for back in 1973 I’d hitchhiked from Glasgow to London to hear the band play at what Mark Plummer, writing in the Melody Maker of 21 July of that year, believed might have been "Procol’s finest gig" to date. I’m not so sure it was, though it did feature some marvellous music, including a rendition of Something Following Me, the song that inaugurated the exotic and fruitful partnership of Gary Brooker and Keith Reid.
I made my way back to the Palers' Fair, telling David about the treasure trove of Procol memorabilia it featured. Before we reached that Holy Grail, however, the trumpets chorused "Shalimar": as we climbed the stairs at the Fairfield Halls, we stumbled into the band’s afternoon sound-check. Unable to resist, and believing this unexpected offering to be God’s aloft way of making up for the Newcastle débacle, we snuck into the concert hall. There we were treated, among other pleasures, to The King of Hearts and two songs I’d never even heard of, Harlequin and Ten Thousand Souls. My rapture, however, was not quite complete, for Gary’s habitually silky voice did not sound right, indeed struck my ears as hoarse and toiling. No sooner had I mentioned this to David when Gary, perched at the piano, stopped rehearsing.
"I need a mint," we heard him say. Not "I need a drink" but, most unequivocally, "I need a mint." A roadie was directed to one of Gary’s bags. Strains of "Doctor, doctor ... Doctor, doctor" ran through my mind. "Ah," Gary sighed, after the remedy arrived. "Much better. Now, where were we?"
Geoff Whitehorn, guitar at the ready, intervened.
"Let me try the start of A Salty Dog again," Geoff signalled to one of the sound-check personnel. His seagull simulation, it turned out, was the closest we got to A Salty Dog on that occasion. A bad case of sore throat was Gary’s most unwelcome souvenir of London, one that called for his voice to be deployed sparingly, meaning the omission, later on at the main event, of more than just one emblematic number.
David and I reported our sound-check discoveries to the Palers' Fair before grabbing a bite to eat. Then we returned to the Fairfield Halls, where we hung around the foyer bar in anticipation of the music. Jens and Titti approached us.
"George," inquired Jens. "Have you seen Ken?"
"Not since the Palers' Fair wound down," I replied.
"He told me he was going back to the hotel to get some sleep," Titti said with evident concern. "What if he doesn’t wake up in time?"
The dead man’s dream turned nightmare. Had Ken slithered under again? A cancelled concert was one thing. Involuntary slumber while Procol played was another. We mounted a search for the weary exile, whose absence from the bar scene had us worried. Ken was finally located, hiding inside his overcoat, seated comfortably in the front stalls. The house lights dimmed and on to the stage walked Procol Harum.
Despite Gary’s throaty condition, which he nobly apologised for, my Croydon reprise was very much a Croydon surprise, as the band served up an intriguing array of songs, some of which I’d rarely heard performed live before, and others not at all. A double porker got the barrel rolling, Bringing Home the Bacon and Piggy Pig Pig allowing everyone playing – Gary and Geoff were ably accompanied by the stalwart Matthew Fisher on organ, Matt Pegg on electric bass, and Mark "The Car" Brzezicki on drums – to settle nicely. Pandora’s Box and Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone) followed. Then came Harlequin, which Gary told us was a Brooker/Reid collaboration from way back, but one Procol Harum never recorded. Up next were Homburg and The King of Hearts, after which Gary began to leaf through sheaves of music, manifestly hoping for something to find. Half expecting him to call out for another mint, he almost caught me off guard by asking instead: "Any requests?" In response, I hollered Samson!
"All right," he nodded approvingly. "We’ll do one from our trilogy of war songs," and broke immediately into As Strong as Samson. Elated though I was that my suggestion won out over myriad shouted entries, I would have preferred As Strong as Samson to have been delivered in slower tempo, as in its recorded version.
An impromtu (and improbable) Imagine somehow slipped in between Seem to Have the Blues (Most All of the Time) and Wizard Man. Two of my personal favourites, A Rum Tale and She Wandered Through the Garden Fence, got me singing along deliriously, as did Whaling Stories and Monsieur R Monde. It took me a while to figure out that the contemplative instrumental driven by Matthew’s heavenly Hammond was a theme from the film Separation. Ten Thousand Souls, a new and as-yet unrecorded Brooker/Reid composition, and Beyond the Pale propelled us to the majesty of A Whiter Shade of Pale, rendered with three of its original four verses, not the landmark two of the 1967 recording. After a sustained ovation, Repent Walpurgis proved a fitting end to the evening.
The end of the evening? Unable to cope with such a dire situation, a champagne toast had been organised – by 'Beyond the Pale' – to celebrate the 35th anniversary of A Whiter Shade of Pale reaching No 1 in the UK pop charts. We adjourned upstairs, where Procol Harum’s global hit was hailed resoundingly in the presence of band members and multilingual friends alike. In the midst of signing autographs, Gary spotted me in the crowd.
"Hello, George," he crooned. "Come all the way from Guatemala to hear us?"
I smiled appreciatively, but spared Gary the details.
W George Lovell has penned five concert memoirs for Beyond the Pale. The ill-fated trip to Newcastle means that Croydon 2002 was the fifteenth occasion he has heard Procol Harum live in concert.