Procol Harum

the Pale

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One Night in Rome, a quick report on the first part
of Procol’s Italian “Trilogy of Life”

Ian Hockley, for BtP • 26 October 2006

Comparisons with the Italian Pasolini’s heady celebrations and tales of human existence are not invidious, and I wonder if I have ever seen this band play with as much energy and obvious enjoyment as two evenings ago? As a sheer celebration of musicality, band interaction and great words and music, this one was hard to beat.

The evening before over copious amounts of pasta, One-Eye, Linda and Roland and myself had speculated that after the Summer triumphs in Denmark, this first outing of the Autumn might be hamstrung by a venue in the recesses of an industrial estate so far out of the capital that ordering a post-gig taxi proved impossible (thanks PH for a lift out of there on the tour 'bus), no evident advertising, the first show with a new drummer and a Procol that had got up at sparrow's for a very early flight out of London over twelve hours previously. On top of all this, a valve in Geoff Whitehorn's rig had blown, post-sound check, rendering it out of action: and covert torchlight mutterings from the crew on the stage at kick-off time really made some of us wonder if the show was even going to happen.

We need not have worried. Whilst the appealing former converted brewery of Stazione Birra suddenly filled with an enthusiastic and respectable audience (it’s redolent of the Guinness factory in Dublin, with the same kind of equipment still there), any visible band tiredness and backline problems just fell away and as soon as the opening piano notes of Conquistador began we all knew that this was going to be a good one. Roland and I had taken a friendly punt on the curtain raiser and neither of us got it right!

Yes, we all know this song so well, but as a band-only opener? An unusually-positioned Grand Hotel followed, with a very loose and free tango in the middle: and then the fun started with One Eye on the Future. Only the second time I have heard PH play it; it’s a great number with real commercial potential; the tune is easily memorable, it’s economical in construction and the words have a nostalgic and unusually direct quality (for Reid anyway!)

One-Eye had said there were surprises at the sound check and after An Old English Dream they came thick and fast. Long Gone Geek was the first big one and with it came the feeling that – as so often happens in Europe – we were going to get the bluesy/heavy set tonight. Long Gone Geek was structurally faithful to the recording but with some great free playing, and cracking organ from Josh: in fact I have never heard him play as well as he did this evening. The whole band were going flat out in this, with a crystal clear and loud sound balance; and at this point I realized just how effectively Gary has preserved his voice. He sang this song fantastically well and I think it was probably my highlight of the night. Matt and Geoff W put the crazed backing vocals in at the end.

All the songs were in the original keys and the only concession this evening was to the high tessitura at the end of Perpetual Motion, (another nice surprise). In truth there aren’t many singers who will go out on the first night of a tour singing songs they wrote forty years ago in the keys of their original creation (maybe only Jon Anderson is Gary’s other distinguished peer here? I stand to be corrected); whilst transposition downwards becomes a fact of life (ask any organist!) as the hairlines recede and the bass lines fall, so much of an original song's character can be lost by this (try playing the opening ASD scrunch a tone lower!) and it’s wonderful that we are still getting things vocally on the mark. A scorching Simple Sister ended the first half and Geoff Dunn really excelled himself, effectively playing melodically all the way through and really driving the song; the Yamaha kit also has a really tight and clear sound.

A quick interval for some much-needed lubrication ... and Bringing Home the Bacon and Pandora’s Box, with new jingly synth samples and then maybe the biggest surprise of the night: Fat Cats. Not a great song, but much more effective live than on the record: the audience liked it and it was nice to hear. Something Following Me let the blues groove really kick in with extended soloing and three more surprises followed: Butterfly Boys is fresh in the mind from Denmark, but when was the last time the band played it? Then we got an extended and heavy Juicy John Pink. Short but effective as the opener to Side Two of A Salty Dog, this turned into an extended blues jam and really let Geoff W shine out.

The last big surprise of the night came with Barnyard Story. The same Side Two opener style cut on Home as the previous song, again this turned into an extended Ray Charles-esque gospel-style paean, the song treated faithfully until a retread with more extended soloing. The final chord was more optimistically in the major than the minor key on record – a cadential tierce de Picardie at the end of a dark F minor (described as 'the obscure, plaintive key' during the baroque era) certainly leaves room for hope in a desolate sound world. A Salty Dog followed, introduced and dedicated by GB to BJ Wilson who 'was put under the daisies sixteen years ago this week' and encores of The VIP Room and a two-verse, piano coda version of AWSoP.

A brief overview then, before it fades in my mind, of a really outstanding and unusual set. A few highlights must be: overall the condition of GB’s voice, really good tonight; a cracking drummer, driving things on and playing melodically all the way through (was it my imagination or were the tempi generally slightly faster and looser this evening, propelled onwards by the rocket fuel coursing through the drum-sticks?). Finally, an imaginative set list and some bizarre song-choices illustrating once again the great riches in the PH canon and the successful translation of so much of it to the live arena. And perhaps more than ever, I have been struck by the lyrical content of the songs, their inability to age and their visual potential; the first night of the Procol “Italian trilogy” has given rise to thoughts of songs like Something Following Me, One Eye on the Future, and Long Gone Geek one day indeed forming part of a future literary and cinematic celebration of timeless human qualities and bizarre fantasy – visualize that “gun toting tabby cat”! 

Thanks, Ian

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