Procol Harum

the Pale

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Of Gods and Men • Procol Harum in Norway and Finland, July 2009

Concert reviews by Ian Hockley for BtP (1)

Procol Harum playing at some festivals in the Summer of 2009? Glastonbury? No. Cropredy? No. The Northern Norway Fish-Drying Festival? Yes! Well, perhaps.

There had been a brief flurry of Procol Harum-related activity over the last two weeks, commencing with the screening of the long-lost film Separation in London on 14 July. A few days later, Procol Harum headlined the third of four nights at a Blues and Roots Festival in Brønnøysund, about halfway up the west coast of Norway. Seemingly remote, it was a fair trek to get there from London via Oslo and on stepping out of the tiny airport, apparently with only two staff – handling check-in, security and immigration – my first thought was, “Where will the audience come from?”

I have always wanted to visit the Nordic countries and have only managed Denmark so far; I love the music of Grieg and Sibelius, and their compositions seem to evoke the rich colours and smells of those lands, with wonderful depictions of pine forests, lakes and glaciers. Wagner too, looked to the North when seeking inspiration for The Ring: the Nordic legends of the Gods and men of Valhalla gave him the substance of his marvellous opera.

I wasn’t disappointed. The scenery is spectacular in the area around Brønnøysund, with pretty little islands, fjords and low lying mountains, and the local people tall and darker-complexioned than their compatriots in the south. The air is also noticeably cleaner and fresher than in London; the temperature is warm but the occasional chill wind serves as a reminder that we are only a hundred miles or so beneath the Polar Circle. The short two-kilometre taxi-ride takes us to the fishing port of Brønnøysund, a small town of 5,000 inhabitants with a pretty harbour, a couple of small hotels and a few shops. Everything is situated along the water’s edge and the concert venue is a few minutes’ walk out of town.

The influence of fishing is clearly visible everywhere: almost everything seems to be made of wood in Scandinavia and various old wooden fishing-sheds have been converted into restaurants, hostels and concert halls!

Procol Harum are playing at an old cod-drying shed in Brønnøysund: it sounds deeply unglamorous but in fact was a great venue, the sort of spit and sawdust place I like, refitted for concerts. Acoustically it was OK, and it had a certain character, with plenty of nooks, corners and staircases, a bizarre collection of old brass instruments hanging on the wall, and a bar which did extremely brisk business, all surrounding the main hall, a high room with a standing area for around 600 people. And it was full up; many other punters spilled into the adjacent rooms, happy to listen to the band from the bar area. One got the impression that the entire population of Northern Norway had turned out for this festival, the quietude of Brønnøysund’s town centre belied by the boisterous crowd that evening. The bar was crowded and many of the locals were fairly befreshed before the band took to the stage at a quarter past midnight. It certainly didn’t feel like such a late hour because it was still broad daylight outside.

I had a chat with One-Eye just before the show and he ventured, “This is a Memorial Drive crowd”. I couldn’t help but agree, and when the band ambled on to the stage with typical understatement after an absence of eighteen months from public appearances the opening piano notes of Broken Barricades delicately penetrated the noisy throng. Flying into Brønnøysund that morning, in the tiny 38-seater Dash that Widerøe Airways operate in these parts, I looked out of the window at the myriad display of tiny islands and rocky outcrops that pepper the fjords and lakes like emeralds. I couldn’t help but think then of the words of Broken Barricades’s opening stanza. “The oceans have ravaged and strangled the land” was remarkably prescient in 1971 and chillingly appropriate now, especially in a place with such a fragile eco-system. It was played straight, as it is on the parent recording, Josh Philips’s Yamaha Motif synthesizer doubled the piano line. Gary’s absence from the stage for over a year wasn’t apparent in any way and the voice was clearly as good as ever. Great drumming from Geoff Dunn, the key element in the long play-out of this song, brought it to an effective and affirmative conclusion. A brave opener: the audience seemed to like it, and then what I thought was going to be Kaleidoscope turned into the now-familiar One Eye on the Future. It had a completely revised introduction, played with much enthusiasm, and it was received well. This song has an unusual lyrical directness for Keith Reid, full of good cheer and nostalgia, and although harmonically straightforward, I could imagine it being subjected to a variety of treatments by a wide range of artists, even someone like Max Bygraves singing it in a British variety review. A great live song: we must be grateful to Allen ‘One Eye’ Edelist for his part in encouraging Gary to wipe the thirty year-old patina off the original.

Gary wasn’t particularly chatty with the crowd at first but after the first two songs informed us that “You might know this one if you’re old enough” before launching into Homburg. Given a standard reading – there isn’t much room in this song for exploratory playing anyway – it featured Geoff Whitehorn’s habitual tick-tocks in the horologist’s verse. Then came another nice surprise: Gary introduced the next song as, “About one of those guys on the talk shows, thinks he’s a big shot,” and we were into TV Ceasar. An unfairly-neglected track from Grand Hotel in my view – with the reasonable charge of over-production being sometimes leveled at it – it’s a good live song and some scorching lead guitar work from Geoff Whitehorn in the instrumental break compensated for some uncharacteristically flat pitching in the lead vocal department during the song’s repeating wind-up.

Another lengthy discourse with the crowd followed: Gary explained, “We are very excited about playing and we haven’t played for eighteen months so some of the beginnings might go wrong, some of the endings might go wrong,” before introducing “Three songs all of which have the same word in the title.” I was thinking we might get “the Truth trilogy, of which there are only two parts”, but the familiar strains of Pandora’s Box took us across the seas once again with a leisurely, laid-back rendition. Norwegian beer, made by the Trondheim brewery EC Dahls, is strong, and although I was not impaired by severe pintage like certain of the assembled company, a degree of pressure on the bladder couldn’t be ignored any longer, requiring me to sit (well, stand) the second half of the song out.

I came back for Robert’s Box, one of my all-time favourites; the fretmen put the “doctor doctor” refrains in enthusiastically; Brooker sailed effortlessly up to the top of the high range and Josh put some 50s’ British holiday-camp style chording with lots of bright Leslie over verse three which fitted the mood of this song perfectly. Lift off two-thirds of the way through the song into its glorious tailpiece and conclusion was deeply satisfying as the room shook.

The ‘boxed set, as Gary called it, finished with Shadow Boxed given a furious reading, the lead vocals at full throttle; Geoff Whitehorn blasted out the ascending bridging chords – originally assigned to the organ on the recording – and the song came to an effective dead stop.

Some banter with the crowd followed about “Brønnøysund being famous for having a mountain with a hole through the middle – known as the polo” and a “song dedicated to the Icelandic bankers”. The Wall Street Blues was originally seen perhaps as something of a filler on The Well’s on Fire when it initially appeared in 2003. Returning to the set after six years, it now seems remarkably contemporary, with grimly perceptive lyrics. Procol Harum, at their heaviest and most dangerous, gave it a long, moody reading with the base metal elements clearly to the fore. Brooker produced an aggressive, stabbing solo during the first instrumental break, giving a nice unexpected twist where one might have expected the guitar to blaze. The second break gave Geoff Whitehorn a chance to shine with an almost Van Halen-esque solo, brilliantly executed.

The equally bleak landscape of Barnyard Story followed. The sound world couldn’t be more different . It was played straight (Gary resisted any temptation to sing “Haddock in the cod-house”), pretty much as on Home but with some additional twiddles from the guitar. A clear rhythmic quotation from Chopin’s Marche Funèbre emanated from the piano, solo, linking to an instrumental re-tread of the “flaming chariot” section of the verse but with the guitar to the fore in a blaze of fury; Gary rejoined vocally with a repeat of “Now and then my life seems truer” as everything fell away and peace returned, but with a defiant minor key cadence at the end.

This was a popular number with the audience and the mood of introspection continued with Sister Mary. Hearing this for the second time since its début at Smith Square in July 2007, it really needs several more listens before detailed comment. It’s a long song – almost nine minutes – and as far as I can recall has changed significantly since its tentative first airing. Sister Mary begins with a moody upward rising figure on the Fender Electric Rhodes sample on the piano in E minor before the insistent six note rhythmic figure that seems to be the key to the whole song is played as a chord sequence, with a fairly swift (and audacious) modulation up a semi-tone to F. This harmonic rhythm appears as mysterious chanting from the backing vocal department, almost in the half-sung manner of Sprechstimme. It’s hard to make the backing vocals out and I am not going to attempt to here. The Brooker-lead verses are more conventional, speaking of the protagonist and someone called Brother Michael. The first couple of verses are followed by a lengthy instrumental section allowing the guitar to shine before some more intoned chanting in the background, something about “Sister Mary being a sister on a mission”, perhaps. The second set of main verses has lyrics along the lines of “Sister Mary, you know you’ve had your fling, Brother Michael you’ve got to sing”. This song has the nice trick of falling into strange harmonic byways, with false endings and a strange, eerie sound world. Gary pointed out at the end that “I don’t know what that was called but it started in E and finished in E”. Quite.

A much more conventional sing-along, Beyond the Pale led us into the home straight (although that song is anything but harmonically obvious) with the customary recapitulation of the last stanza for the audience to shout out an impassioned “oi!” at the end. The penultimate “Who vill share diss Bitta cup” began a very slow wind-up before the key change and last chorus.

Apologies for not playing in Norway since 1947 (!) when “we played in Trømso” preceded Missing Persons. Another new song, it has developed considerably since 2007 and has been shortened and tightened up. I think the keys have been played around with as well with modulations that weren’t there before: it seems to start in C minor before winding up in D minor with a change half-way through. The words speak of “a baby torn from his mother’s arms, voices on phones, the passage of time that we read every day, faces in the paper have just passed away” – something like that. Not at all cheerful subject matter; but I can’t wait to hear this song when it’s properly recorded.

A surprisingly positioned Grand Hotel followed, played without any great surprises, save Gary starting the Viennese waltz/ascending sevenths sequence in the middle on the “wrong” note; the ensuing tango was decorated with some nice rhythmic flourishes on the drums and a tastefully exotic sample from the synth, somewhere between a mandolin and a Greek bazouki. The last surprise of the evening was Cerdes, not played live for many a year, and given an absolutely massive reading which suited the crowd. The whole band blazed on this one, with Geoff Whitehorn really going for it. It’s remarkable how this song still sounds so contemporary, 42 years on.

Conquistador and A Salty Dog were to have followed but owing to time constraints the band left the stage, returning for the inevitable A Whiter Shade of Pale. Expecting this, Gary wrong footed everyone by immediately launching into No Woman No Cry; the crowd joined in enthusiastically and then of course it morphed into the biggest hit of all. Straight ending, no piano coda and Procol Harum left the stage at about 1:40am in spite of repeated chanting from the audience to come back.

Leaving the gig was a curious feeling; after a few more drinks I walked back to the hotel with a few rather tired Palers at about 3:30 am in broad daylight. It is the strangest sensation and one I shall not forget. I went to bed quietly satisfied with a good show and a great setlist; the Brooker voice and associated band in excellent shape and a very happy occasion, Andrè Romkes and our own webmaster Jens welcoming us all to Norway with great enthusiaism and keeping us all amply fortified with food and drinks. Omens were good for the following week’s show, or so we thought.

Click here to read Part II of Ian's account

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