Procol Harum

the Pale

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Procol Harum at Snoqualmie Casino, WA, USA

Friday 12 November 2010 • Michael Moore in Kitsap Sun, online

I don’t routinely go to casinos; I can count with one finger — and I use the middle one, for emphasis — the number of times I’ve ventured inside a gambling house. They are smoky, boozy, sad places, all light and noise and Sturm und Drang, full of empty people sitting furtively in front of blinking, bleeping robots, waiting for something to happen, and paying dearly as they wait. It’s Disneyland for the dull and dim.

So the pull of Procol must’ve been strong indeed for me to make the two-hour trek, via ferry and freeway, to the vast, glitzy Snoqualmie Casino, to take advantage of a rare, and possibly final, opportunity to see Sir [sic, passim] Gary Brooker pilot his vehicle, Procol Harum, through a set of the music that always has defied definition, but defined “art rock,” defined “prog rock,” and mostly just rocked.

My fellow travelers and I booked early, so there we were in the Fourth Row — just a top-of-the-key love-jumper away from Sir Gary — in the admittedly rich acoustic setting that is the casino’s somewhat boxy ballroom. One consequence of sitting so close was that the vocals were a little low in the otherwise excellent mix. But being within earshot of the between-songs stage banter between Sir Gary and his mates more than made up for it.

Two nights removed from their reunion with the Edmonton Symphony and De Camera Singers up in the Great White North, Procol seemed in top form, ripping gracefully and powerfully through a set that touched on nearly all of their albums, from a hard-hitting Conquistador to a solid version of An Old English Dream (from 2003’s underappreciated The Well’s on Fire) and an as-yet unrecorded but often performed newer tune, One Eye on the Future.

Sir Gary complained that the dry air in Edmonton had adversely affected his R&B bellow (“My voice is completely off after that; you should hear me on a good night.”). But any weakness was hard to discern from the gallery. He hit thrilling highs on A Salty Dog, and playful, growling lows on a particularly fine run-through of Grand Hotel (“We used to stay in these big, beautiful places,” Sir Gary said in introduction, “and now we’re all in the Motel 6 down the hill.”).

The rest of the band were equally potent. Geoff Whitehorn continues to amaze with his ability to channel both of Procol’s most notable previous guitarists, Robin Trower and Mick Grabham, and still put his own unmistakable stamp on every song (he went almost note-for-note with Trower at times during a satisfying stomp through Simple Sister). Josh Phillips upped the orchestral ante with layers of synth atop his atmospheric, and historically accurate, Hammond B3 contributions. Matt Pegg’s bass playing was redoubtable and — dare I say it — even a bit funky at times. And the band’s newbie, Geoff Dunn, was a strongman on drums, but still managed to muster plenty of BJ Wilson-worthy moments, including the cowbell clink of Whisky Train.

The one complaint I had about the set was that it seemed somewhat abbreviated: eleven songs spanning an hour and a quarter, with a two-song encore fortified by Sir Gary’s bluesy intro and Dunn’s muscular solo (on Whisky Train) and the three-verse rendering of A Whiter Shade of Pale — even Whitehorn seemed taken aback, in a bemused sort of manner, when Sir Gary launched into the seldom-heard “middle” verse.

Perhaps we have Santa Barbara to blame, as Procol had to break camp early and get down the coast for a show there the next night. Or maybe it’s just their “casino” set — Sir Gary did mention, after a belt of agua, that he might be “ready to move on to something stronger” at some point in the evening.

Or maybe my hopes were just too high, fueled by years of patience (I missed them the last time they were in the Puget Sound area, for 2005’s “Progman Cometh” festival at the Moore Theatre in Seattle), and steeled by the aforementioned long trip (which was nothing compared to the couple next to us, who had flown up from California).

Anyroad, I got what I went for — albeit not as much of it as I would’ve hoped (the absence from the set of Whaling Stories is a particular stinger). Procol in performance were everything a longtime fan could’ve hoped for, and more than a neophyte just wandering in to get out of the smoke could’ve dreamed.

Forty-three years into this singular little enterprise, Sir Gary, at 65, seems anything but reconciled to retirement, having apparently repulsed any and all attempts by the sand at taking seed, and remains a formidable and impassioned performer, as well as an affable bandleader. And in Whitehorn, Pegg, Phillips and Dunn, he’s got a band that stands with any of Procol’s many previous incarnations.

I went — long trip, damned casino et al — because I felt it might be my last chance. But now I’m not so sure. Procol Harum seems to have abundant life in them still, and another West Coast swing in the near future doesn’t seem so remote a possibility as it once did.

Thanks, Michael, for sending this to BtP

Setlist from this show

Procol Harum concerts in 2010: index page

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