Speaking as one who was obliged to miss Guildford at the very last possible moment, I was somewhat incredulous of the fact that I had made it safely to Manchester. Even as I walked down the road to the Bridgewater Hall, I half expected a giant albatross to carry me beyond the pale until it was all over. And yet, here I am. The choir and orchestra are in place, and here comes Nicholas Dodd, the conductor, bearded, fairly long-haired (though not by Geoff's standards), and commanding. He bows, we clap, and then suddenly here is a quiet figure in jacket and open-neck shirt, who hurries, almost apologetically, across the stage to the Hammond, followed by the rest of the band, the Commander appearing last - a sort of sandwich of the two original AWSoP players with the newer members as the filling. Gary makes much of flapping his coat tails over the back of the stool, even though he is not wearing a coat with long tails!
All is quiet and the orchestra starts to play gently and suddenly we are into Homburg. The organ and guitar are inaudible to me but it's only the first number, and it might be deliberate, to highlight the orchestra. The piece is beautifully executed, and once it has finished, Gary leans into the mike and says "That's got the nasty bit over with!" As the wave of applause had broken all over the closing chords of Homburg, Gary then informs us that, in orchestral circles, it is the done thing to wait until "Herr Dodd lowers his arms", explaining that there might just be a quiet note, right at the end, which the orchestra had spent three days rehearsing!
Thundrous chords from the orchestra then led us into Simple Sister with the orchestra doing all the "heavy metal" work. I could just hear Geoff (despite being seated immediately in front of him, seven rows back) but still no organ or piano. Never mind - still there'll be more. After Simple Sister was safely locked away, Gary changed his seating position, saying "We always have to adjust our seats after two songs!" He then told us that the next song was "one of our trilogy of war songs, in two parts" - a Douglas Adams influence, that - "which we wrote in the Gulf War of ..." queries followed as to when the Gulf War actually occurred, and they finally settled on 1891 !
Once that was decided, Gary said "Oh! Wrong song. Forget everything!" and after some more introductions, the familiar opening chords of Grand Hotel left us in no doubt as to what the next song actually was. Sadly, I could only just hear Gary's piano - his vocals were, happily, always clear and strong all evening - and again, Matthew might as well have been miming, for all the difference it made to me. He had been clearly playing his heart out in the previous song, performing a lot of glissandos and sweeping his arm into the air, but not a note reached my ears. Before Hotel started, I noticed another pianist quietly sit behind a second piano half-hidden in the wings behind Gary, just in front of the percussionist. She, too, was inaudible. The orchestra was winning Three-Nil. At this point I was beginning to think it was "Gary Brooker Sings the Best of Procol Harum, Accompanied by the Hallé Orchestra". I had paid to hear the orchestra, so that was no problem. The only thing was, I had paid to hear Procol Harum too! I was beginning to feel resentful towards the sound engineers, sitting in their closed-off area several rows behind me. Oh well! Maybe I need to see my audiologist. [It's possible that people near the front were hearing too much from the stage monitors: these problems were not evident at all further back: the house sound was well-mixed from the start]
The following number was Holding On with the choir articulating all the cries of "Zika nor nama ... hesah!". The song was beautifully performed, as indeed every song was, and the choir and orchestra did justice to the piece. Geoff Whitehorn was clearly enjoying himself. Throughout the whole concert he was obviously having an absolute whale of a time, and he made me feel terrific just watching him. I do not know what that man is on, but whatever it is, I want some!
Song number five was Conquistador, in a slightly different arrangement, but more or less similar to the well-known "Edmonton" version. Exciting, fast-paced, moving stuff. I even heard Matthew clearly once he was given a chance to solo, right at the end.
Then came the first surprise: Strangers in Space. The Hallé Orchestra introduced this delightful arrangement with a marvellous piece of quasi-Holst, hinting very strongly at The Planets but not directly quoting any of them. The song arrangement itself was well-crafted and very delicately performed. The result was hauntingly beautiful, and very moving.
Gary now asked whether there were any fans present who had seen them earlier on the tour. There were not a few! A gentleman in the audience called out something about the US, and Gary, who may not have caught exactly what the speaker said, hesitated for a moment, then called back "Any more of that, sir, and you'll be out!" And then, cue Geoff, and Man With A Mission. This rocked along very well with orchestra and group nicely balanced.
At this point, Gary decided to introduce the band members. When he came to Geoff he said, "How long have you been with us now?" When Geoff said "over ten years," Gary laughed and said, "That's longer than the original Procol lasted!"
The next song was something I didn't quite catch " ...in C minor. C minor?" Gary shot a questioning glance at Matthew, just as those glorious four notes, familiar to Procoholics ever since 1967, drifted soulfully out of the Leslie and Repent Walpurgis was under way. This proceeded faultlessly, the choir coming in with Gary for the middle-section quote from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, and then everything built up to the ending, with Matthew playing a delightful little three-note Bach-ish motif over the four main chords. The "false ending" was skilfully timed, everyone bang on cue for each separate chord, with Geoff improvising a little thread to stitch the five chords together into one glorious finale. So ended the first half.
The second half started with Gary playing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata - and then after a few bars, he suddenly stopped and laughed. The strings came in with a very "Psycho"-like riff and we were into Ghost Train. This thundered along , Matthew playing some neat chromatic runs.
Gary introduced the following item as a "nice, easy-paced Latin-American song," which was, of course, Pandora's Box. The orchestra played the familiar riffs normally played by the group and Matthew and Geoff improvised happily over the top.
The trilogy, now in four parts, was re-introduced by Gary, who helpfully told us that, as they had played the latest part earlier, they would now play the earlier one later, and the choir and piano led us into Fires (Which Burnt Brightly). This piece was another surprise item, for me, and, as with Strangers In Space, the arrangement was beautiful and the effect was quite lovely, Matthew delivering a blinding, short but intense organ solo.
Gary now told us that they had had a rehearsal before they came up, then he grinned and corrected himself "not before we came up - once we got here!" (or similar words). This formed the introduction to yet another surprise, especially with orchestra : Butterfly Boys! This, too, absolutely cooked and went down very well.
After the echoes had faded, Gary quietly looked up and said "On a more serious note ... D flat, in fact ...." at which we all laughed, but he went on to remind us of those who were no longer with us, naming Barrie Wilson, and now Douglas Adams also. Naturally, it was time for A Salty Dog. This was introduced by choir and piano, the choir singing the Latin words from Within Our House, and Matthew playing the little verse-connecting piece on the Hammond. In closing, as Gary sang: "your witness, my own hand", he held up his left hand. What can I say, here? This piece was so beautiful that it brought the first serious standing-ovation.
"Let's have a rest!" requested Gary. "Can't say I enjoyed that one : it was just sort of there." One of the things about the Commander's deadpan humour is that you are never quite sure whether he is joking. Gary then referred to the Live At Edmonton album and told us that one of tonight's orchestra members had actually been present at the Edmonton concert back in 1972. "He was sweeping up at the time!" This led us Into The Flood, another piece of serious rock, which saw Mr Brooker thoroughly enjoying himself, repeatedly throwing himself back on his stool until his feet left the floor.
Gary now referred to the fact that Procol once had a very famous hit, after which they fell from the sky as far as some people were concerned, imagining AWSoP was PH's only record. This was Matthew's cue and here was that sound, those opening notes, that track that we never tire of hearing - unaccompanied by the orchestra. YES!! The band played as a five-piece and it was utterly beautiful. The second verse was "She said 'I'm home on shore leave'" and the orchestra came in quietly part-way through. The third and final verse was "She said 'There is no reason'" and the choir joined in, with the orchestra now playing more loudly and Matthew soloing delightfully over the top. WOW!
And then it was all over ... we had waited months and months, with growing excitement, ... and, already, it was history. Gary was hugging Nicholas Dodd, then the band came and stood together and took their bows, and then they all trooped off. We clapped and clapped and clapped, but they did not return for an encore. We went on clapping and clapping - no response. The orchestra just sat there. Still the clapping did not stop. After a long while, Nicholas Dodd re-appeared, with the band behind him, and we subsided into our seats. Mark and Matt had done sterling service all night - solid, accurate, perfectly-timed playing, and it was fitting that they should lead us into the encore. This they did, playing a very familiar, simple, link and we were into Grand Finale. Again, words fail me (some hope!). Absolutely beautiful. Choir, orchestra, band, all blended into one glorious and well-loved sound.
When the echoes had died away, Gary said they would play Mendelsohn's Hawaiian March in F which turned out to be also known as I'm Be Satisfied - another total rock-out with everyone enjoying himself with gay abandon. And then it really was all over. We clapped and clapped and clapped, but finally the lights came up, and we could clearly see the orchestra were leaving as well.
This time, it really was over.