Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen ...
Text and pictures by Charlie Allison, for BtP
Procol Harum with the
Danish Radio Orchestra and Chorus, Conductor David Firman
Falconerhalle, Copenhagen, Denmark, Saturday 15 January 2011
Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen,
Salty old queen of the sea
Once I sailed away, But I'm home today
Singing 'Copenhagen, wonderful, wonderful, Copenhagen for me ...'
Great country Denmark, even in January, even at those prices (beer and wine simply extortionate, even a diet coke was about £3.50 in our hotel!) The Danes are supposedly the happiest people on earth – and they love Procol Harum. They define excellence – Georg Jensen silver, Royal Copenhagen pottery, smørrebrød, crown jewels – and Procol Harum. They don’t do anything by halves – the young Royals newly delivered of twins, half-a-dozen Royal palaces and no fewer than EIGHT Procol concerts with orchestra.
What a nation!
And what of our heroes? Well they are in a time warp for 2011. “Welcome to Grand Hotel!” proclaimed dozens of posters, even pictured at the bar with head butler Keith Reid (circa 1973) poised to serve you drinks off a silver tray. And in the hall a huge white backcloth of the top part of album cover, again welcoming us to this five-star establishment.
Ah, but wait a minute. What have we here? The ultimate nonsense Procol Harum souvenir, your own (very own) perfectly-formed, subtly-tuned mini-vuvuzela [see illustrations], complete with Salty Dog logos and (wait for it) a cartoon collection of the five members of the band, as never seen before. So roll up, come in to the full 2,200 seater theatre ... where YOU can enter into the fun of this whole carnival occasion.
So let's start with some nice popular tunes from David Firman and his merry orchestra – how about blasting off to Offenbach, or a quieter moment with Air on a G String (somewhat surreal this, considering Procol Harum were up in ten minutes' time) or even some community singing to that well known Danish anthem We’ll Meet Again (Don’t know where, don’t know when) ... prompted by the popular comedian/compère Hans-Otto Bisgaard, who did a full five-minute slot, the only words of which I understood where 'Sergeant Pepper's', '60s' then – as he upped the level – Procol Harum!
Then, keeping the general party mood going, on trooped the cast from a Busby Berkeley musical, resplendent in top hats and tails ... no, it couldn’t be ... but it was THEM! Leading them on, Commander Gary Brooker MBE, straight from that '73 album cover with just a hint of grey dusting and a slightly less athletic gait. Then followed Geoffrey Whitehorn, for once shoehorned into a suit, but with a dinner-shirt tee-shirt on underneath as a rock guitar non-conformist protest (well not counting the hat he totalled on Friday evening!). Third in line Matt Pegg, tall and elegant in the suit and tile hat ... but wait ... what about those silver shoes .... straight out of Strictly Come Dancing (and as he told me this very morning, a present from his Mum!). Next the wholly convincing and debonair Josh Phillips, who did have an important connection with that celebrated show through writing its theme tune. And finally the man who got his kit off the quickest for the start of the show, Geoff Dunn, drummer extraordinaire.
Meanwhile, as we longtime Palers gawked and gaped (and some, more sensible than me, took historic photos ... please send them in for BtP!), the crowd were going mental for their favourite band ... for us Brits it's rather uncomfortable to see how much they are revered and loved in Denmark. The band are quite compactly set up on stage and Gary is more angled to the front than usual.
Straight off into Grand Hotel, and right away we hear the sound is sublime: it’s Ledreborg, but better still if that is possible. And that first impression of excellence that is never lowered throughout the whole splendid evening. The clarity of sound, the sureness of playing (from both the little and the big band) ... and most of all the VOICE ... OK Gary occasionally flubs a word here and there, or repeats a line, but the voice is pure class in pitch, expression and indeed clarity (you couldn’t always get every word way back, but then most of us regulars are more word-perfect these days too!). The piano break is fluid. Geoff does the mandolins, even though there’s a part for something similar in the orchestra. The gypsy violinist is a fella this time and he hams up his moment in the spotlight quite splendidly before Mr Whitehorn bursts through in time-honoured fashion to herald a final verse with Gary maybe doing a wee bit more French than usual at the end? Pandemonium in the Hall ... and it's just the first song. What a reaction!
Shine on Brightly next. Slightly slower and more enunciated, less stinging (from guitar) than the band only, but it works OK with the orchestra, though this is one I prefer without. Josh Phillips nails the solo, and the rhythm section are solid, so there nothing has changed. Again it is afforded the status of a Procol Harum classic, as the audience again responds with huge respect.
More from 1973 (“some of you weren’t born” – yes there were second generation fans there!) with Fires (Which Burnt Brightly), allowing the chorus to swingle and both Gary and Josh to solo beautifully. This is a class act, this blend of rock and classic musicians ... and they all seem to be having a good time.
Toujours L’Amour is again elevated in the repertoire by being orchestrated and Gary tells the fine tale. Geoff, dressed rather tightly and incongruously (like a hairy bouncer deputising as an undertaker in someone-smaller’s suit) squeezes out two great solos and again big applause!
Time for a little solemnity with The Emperor's New Clothes, and yes you know how it is when the band do a song perfectly ... then better it.
Even the familiar sublime choral intro to Homburg brings the ripple of recognition – this audience knows their Procol Harum (from showings of Ledreborg on TV? Or maybe they all have the DVD?)
And finally in the first half it's time for the orchestra to bang the big drum and rock along to the lead of Geoffrey Whitehorn – to Simple Sister. Only the underemployed Josh Phillips doesn’t appear to follow every beat, as he spends most of the time in the wings. Maybe he has to uncork the Chardonnay for the interval drinks? Anyway “young shiny-shoes” Matt Pegg gets to start off the middle section with some nifty handiwork and everyone goes flat out for the first-half finish. Time has flown by and we are all exhilarated. And, I reckon, the best may still be to come in the second half?
Something Magic starts the second half and it sounds just like the recorded version, with Gary and conductor David showing perfect understand in their leading of the whole ensemble, both front of stage and rear.
Broken Barricades is a bit less sure, both in tempo and pitching: and I think this is often the case with this song in live performance. I remember it started the Redhill event and was a bit car-crash compared with what followed. It is however a great song and it's always good to hear it. Geoff Dunn paid homage to the great man in the playout and the finish with the orchestra is better than a humble fadeout any day. OK, three stars here, but nothing has been less than four and a half all night.
Now to the sublime moment of the evening – a Procol Harum blues. No, not any of your 'seem to have the blues' or 'poor Mohammed' ... but the wonderful, perfect, fantastic, great entity that is Whaling Stories. There are so many elements for all the band to shine brightly here, and indeed for all sections of the orchestra, from strings through woodwind and brass to the percussion guys on big drums and even an anvil (picked out well in the spotlight by the impeccable lighting designer). I think the chorus even do the hisssssing steam, and though I didn’t hear a big rumble of thunder, Geoff did recreate his own sirens of Hades in the mid-section. A wee phrase of Grieg and a big dollop of Gary herald the dawn, before everyone finishes, spent, to huge applause – with many on their feet cheering. Brilliant.
And just when you think “it can’t get any better than this”... it does just that. When Barnyard Story became extended with a tour-de-force guitar solo for Mr Whitehorn, it was just lying in wait for orchestration to the next level ... this is now just elevated to the top ten Procol moments, or higher you might well argue. Again awesome, truly awesome.
Next the song that shouldn’t work with the orchestra, or this audience, but does brilliantly, just as it did at Ledreborg – Butterfly Boys. Gary invites everyone to join in with clapping and those little vuvuzelas ... and again there is cheering at the end. Amazing. (And I bet not many in the hall would have heard of Chrysalis records).
Next, for those departed friends, and perhaps the best new orchestration of the evening, A Salty Dog, with a lengthy creation of a misty harbour night ... closer to the Long Goodbye version, but not the same ... this prelude to the perfect song is now perfection itself. The Latin is less prominent now, and better for it. Gary comes in with his famous piano notes then nails the vocal from start to high finish, and still in the 1969 key. (Bridge over Troubled Water never sounded as good as this – Art G did have tighter trousers then, and can’t quite get up there nowadays?) Gary never fails to hit the spot in your emotions either, and, as it all fades to black, the local salty souls go mental with adulation again.
Olé! Let's rock again with a superb Conquistador. A little brisker tonight and everyone clapping along. Geoff and the now-upright Josh do sterling solos – I just wish the trumpeter could stand up to get his due recognition.
Now to finish ... and to illustrate the Procol knowledge of this audience ... they start clapping, during the extended string intro to A Whiter Shade of Pale! Then there’s further recognition with Gary starting to sing with just his piano accompaniment, and a third ripple when Josh’s Hammond comes in for the second verse. The finale is perfectly judged and the band come forward to accept the crowd’s adulation ... and (in time) respect that they have called out for more (well, at least, one unruly Scot did!).
Friday night's encore had been Grand Finale (a favourite, I have to confess), but Gary had judged the mood of the audience perfectly to storm through Into the Flood, with good slide from Geoffrey and a bit of hoedown & then Beethoven V from the orchestra. All swinging together and many of the punters maybe thinking about dancing? A great end to a great evening ...
And it was later that the millers told their tale (in the bar). A motley gathering of the inner grouping - the very-steady Freddie from the US was seen chatting with Antipodean veteran guitarist Dave Ball and then the band materialised from the elevators, just as I took my leave. I thanked Gary for such a great show and then maybe got misunderstood when I said it was a bit of a marathon (eight concerts in nine days) – I think he thought I meant the concert was a marathon! “Hum,” I’m sure he said.
No the whole night flew by. It was the dream show ... in wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen. The best in my mind since Union Chapel ... and that of course was a most celebrated day.
The crowd here cried out for more ... and got it big time. That’s Denmark right on board. Where next to conquer? What about more in the US please ... and the homeland UK?
One big televised orchestral show would do the trick. A costly investment for immortality!
We had a great weekend in Copenhagen, though it's fair to say it's not really a winter destination, as the canals are frozen and the Tivoli is closed. Apart from some retail therapy, we did manage to watch the changing of the guard, climb the Round Tower, walk the frozen paths to the Little Mermaid, gawk at the Crown Jewels at Rosenburg Palace, visit the Design Museum, and spend a silent reflective fifteen minutes in the marble-domed church. Best of all we enjoyed an excellent Italian meal in the company of Gene and Marti Deverick: they had just arrived from Indianapolis, and we truly put the world to right, as well as sharing a lot of Procol Harum memories. They planned to see a further three concerts round Denmark this coming week. Lucky them – I have to go to London for a conference, and my only cultural input will be musical theatre - Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom sequel and the new musical of Love Story – bet that will make Barnyard Story a happy ditty by comparison!