Procol Harum

the Pale

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A Pilgrim's Progress (2)

George Lovell at the LA Palers' Festival ... and beyond

Read the first part of this article here

Monday 28 July
Shortly after 8 am – late nights and early rises were a feature of our time together – the Palers piled into BB King’s, first for a soundcheck with the club’s engineer, then for final tuning of the songs to be performed at the Palers’ Party, scheduled to run from 12 noon to 4 p.m. After that beckoned Procol Harum themselves. Palers I spoke with all voiced satisfaction with their public performance the night before, which saw them share the stage at BB King’s with Roland's other band, called Apeneck. But the Palers’ Party is what surely drew the best out of the Palers’ Band – two sets of Procol Harum covers, twenty numbers in all. After the first set I offered verbal entertainment in the guise of Lofty Peaks: Concert Highs with Procol Harum, in which I traced my trajectory as a fan from first hearing the band play live at Green’s Playhouse in Glasgow (2 October 1970) to my twenty-first engagement with them at the Bottom Line in New York (11 May 2003). Visual entertainment and lucid commentary were furnished by Neal Fischer, who put together a fascinating mosaic of A Whiter Shade of Pale on the silver screen, an apt topic given our proximity to Hollywood.

It was during the first set – song thirteen of fifteen – that I was called upon to tackle Rambling On. I made my way on stage, a man with a mission. Just before take-off I made eye-contact with my fellow ramblers, Roland on piano, Jeremy on organ, Gary on guitar, John Crouch on bass, and Jens at the drums.

“Hey, guys! Look what I found ,” I hollered above their tweaking. They all looked towards me.

From my bag I unearthed the item Monsieur Marvin had recommended I get hold of, and pulled it over my head. It was a brand new Batman T-shirt, the logo of the airborne creature set boldly in black against a yellow disk of sun. Howls of laughter, nods of approval, and shakes of disbelief came from band members and audience alike. I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly as Roland rolled, Gary riffed, and Jens gave me the signal beat to start:

“Our local picture house was showing a Batman movie.
You see this guy fly up in the sky. I thought to myself, “Why shouldn’t I?”
So I bought a pair of wings, and climbed upon a wall ...”

The predicament in which I found myself was exhilarating. With a breeze of adrenalin rushing through me, up in the air I went:

“I must have flown a mile, or maybe it was eight ...”

In truth I don’t think – unlike our hero in Rambling On – I have yet come down to earth, for the catharsis of performing in such splendid company and circumstances is with me still. From singing in the shower, my habitual venue for a gathered crowd of one, to spreading my wings at BB King’s – what a blast!

With no broken bones to speak of, only a slight tear to my Y-fronts hardly worth mentioning, I swooped down from stage to audience upon completion, treated thereafter to celebratory ales in abundance. Small wonder I was as loquacious as I was –  rambling on again, so to speak –  during Lofty Peaks. It was the thrill of a lifetime. Something magic.


The elements – be they of earth, water, fire, or air – figure prominently in the lyrics of Keith Reid, so much so that at times you wonder if the power of them being invoked musically might not stir the planet to unleash them physically. Well, that’s exactly what happened when Procol Harum took to the stage at John Anson Ford Theatre after the first leg of the Palers’ Party had wound down.

It started with gusty winds in the late afternoon. Soon the sun disappeared behind a build-up of clouds. By the time we were taking our seats at the outdoor venue the sky had turned dark and menacing. The Well’s on Fire declared the emblem on Mark Brzezicki’s drum kit. So too, it turned out, were the heavens above us, for a loud peal of thunder was followed by a jagged zap of lightning. Might it rain on the coast of southern California in late July? No way! It will surely blow over, I told myself, as must have scores of others as Procol Harum filed on to the stage and started to play. The first drops fell during Bringing Home the Bacon. Not good. But when Pandora’s Box was opened, out jumped lashes of precipitation in earnest. The image of Geoff Whitehorn unplugging his guitar and running for cover – “ I don’t do electrocution, George,” he confided in me later – was the kinetic highlight of the show, and he had stiff competition from colleagues Brooker, Brzezicki, and Pegg. Only Matthew Fisher showed no great sense of urgency, walking stately from a scene that fellow band-members fled in unceremonial haste. Let down the curtain, and exit the play. What next, I thought?

The storm raged for an hour or so, then subsided. Like the conquistador he sings of so movingly, Gary led the troops back out to the fray. The decision to re-commence with Whaling Stories was inspirational, its shifts of mood and tempo at one with the weather. A dozen songs followed, among them War is Not Healthy, the first time I had heard it played. But nature is a force not even we humans can control. As in Barnyard Story, once again the heavens opened wide. I beheld no flaming chariot, just a tarpaulin being thrown over Gary’s piano, from which he’d been able to wring only one verse of A Whiter Shade of Pale before throwing in a very wet towel.

The night, however, was young. Back to BB King’s we retired, where the Palers’ Band in various guises was soon back in action. To our great delight – in the midst, appropriately enough, of Quite Rightly So – Procol Harum themselves showed up, treating us to a handful of songs that more than compensated for the interrupted and truncated concert. First up was A Rum Tale which Gary sang as a piano solo at the first Palers’ Festival in Guildford in 2000, when Richard Beck conceded that his soul-mate Donna Roberds – Toujours L’Amour – indeed had fuddled his fancy and muddled him good. Richard and Donna were in rapture at BB King’s. A Rum Tale was followed by The Emperor’s New Clothes and Echoes in the Night, after which came a raucous rendition of Juicy John Pink. A groovy serving of Green Onions finished off the unexpected offering. The Palers for their part reciprocated with several more covers, which culminated in the mammoth task of enacting Whaling Stories, with every Paler on deck at BB King’s to trumpet SHALIMAR by way of voicing thanks and appreciation, truly a “grand finale” to an unforgettable day.

Tuesday 29 July
The tour schedule had Procol Harum playing San Diego this evening but in order to hear the band in San Francisco the day after I headed north instead of south, hugging the California coast as much as possible, motoring past Santa Barbara and Morro Bay to Big Sur and on towards Santa Cruz. My friend Victor had taught journalism and creative writing at the University of California there, and Santa Cruz was where he had spent his final days after a debilitating stroke. I pulled in for the night near Capitola, at a motel called Ocean Echo. The sound of the sea lulled me to sleep.

Wednesday 30 July
No Dead Man’s Dream disturbed me, despite the palpable presence of Victor lurking at every turn. The morning mist turned to drizzle as I strolled along the beach, bracing myself for the final leg of my pilgrimage. I drove up to Half Moon Bay, beyond which I again stuck as close to the coast as I could. It was slow going on the winding road, but I made it to San Francisco by mid-afternoon. A bed-and-breakfast I had stayed at a couple of years before while attending an anthropology conference I knew to be a short walk from the legendary Fillmore, my field site for the evening’s investigations. I checked in and rested up for what I reckoned would be another memorable night.

The Fillmore. East or West, how can anyone who came of age in the sixties, as I did, not yearn to experience the Fillmore? I arrived early in order explore the place leisurely, which I did with great nostalgia, imagining what it must have been like to have been in San Francisco during “flower power” and to have heard music played at the Fillmore in its heyday. The sound palace of the counter-culture, no denying it, now looked a little the worse for wear, but who cares about threadbare carpets and lumpy upholstery when the walls of the establishment are lined, top to bottom in the upstairs bar, with posters documenting row by row which two or three or four epic bands shared the bill night after night when playing the Fillmore. I perused the displays awestruck, spotting Procol Harum a number of times, drooling at the prospect of having been at the Fillmore then.

But you can’t turn back the page. I wasn’t in San Francisco to hear the band play in 1968, but I was in 2003. A quarter of a century on the music of Procol Harum is still sensational. With no adverse elements at hand to wreak havoc, we were treated to twenty-one songs stretching from the first album to the last. If My Girl, which came across (given our gay setting) sounding like My Guy, was a bit of a surprise, so too was the rarity (for me at any rate) of hearing Memorial Drive played live. Other highlights were a tour-de-force Quite Rightly So and the sombre majesty of Repent Walpurgis, which closed the show after a three-verse delivery of A Whiter Shade of Pale. Everyone was in fine form, but Mark’s drumming was outstanding.

There being no BB King’s to retire to, we had to make do with hanging around the hallowed space of the Fillmore. Some lucky Palers, myself among them, were afforded one-on-one time with members of the band. I had a wonderful conversation with Matt as we trawled through the poster displays, with him getting a huge kick out of determining which gigs his father would have played at when he was in swaddling clothes back home. He photographed a bunch of posters, for him family keepsakes as well as rock memorabilia.

It was the wee small hours, much in excess of sixpence, when Gary joined us in the bar. He noticed I was wearing my Batman T-shirt, at which juncture Roland informed him of my adventure with Rambling On. Gary looked at me quizzically. “How does that one go again?”, he inquired, bit by bit unearthing the lyrics of the song from the vast archive in his mind. I helped him with a couple of lines and we engaged in an impromptu duet. It was all over in the blink of an eye. Gary smiled and put his arm around my shoulder. Roland clicked his camera, capturing two passing birds frozen in time at the Fillmore. Back up in the air I went.

W. George Lovell teaches geography at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada and Latin American history at Universidad Pablo de Olavide in Seville, Spain. A third edition of his first book, Conquest and Survival in Colonial Guatemala, in which the Conquistador imagery that Procol Harum sing about resonates throughout, was recently published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. There are more illustrations to accompany this report, which will eventually find their way into the text at the right points.

Thanks, George!

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