Procol Harum

the Pale

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Procol Engineer a Great Show in Göteborg • “A Group in the Making?” Hardly!

6 October 2013 • text and photographs by Charlie Allison for BtP

Procol Harum at Konserthallen Liseberg, Göteborg, Sweden

Let’s start by looking at a critique of the band’s show at the same Liseberg venue on 27 August 1967, whose setlist is described by BtP as having nearly all the songs unreleased (the first album was still in gestation) .... AWSoP being the exception, of course!

Björn Lundholm’s review read (warning! spelling mistake right away ...)

Procul [sic] Harum, the English "jack-in-the-box"-group that sold 3 million copies of the first record of their career, played their Scandinavian first night at Liseberg concert hall in Göteborg Sunday evening. That the group should meet the inhumanely high expectations of the pop audience after A Whiter Shade of Pale is of course absurd. To a large extent, Procol Harum is still a group in the making.

The quintet took the stage in Peter Pan-dresses: short cape, eel-tight trousers and knee-high boots. The group's singer, Gary Brooker, is also a pianist and moreover they introduce an organist – an unusual combination. The group's music has an unusual sound and shows definite influences from baroque music, Bach and especially Bob Dylan.

The melodies are long, sentimental things with heavy chords. Gary Brooker is a very mediocre singer, and the group succeeded best in an instrumental number: juicy, beautiful, peculiar. The group's melodic material is their main asset. Without it, Procul [sic] Harum is one of many bands.

Before the main event, the audience got to see a film about milking of cows, listen to one of Sweden's comedy-acts, the Malmoe trio Gonks, see a cartoon movie, listen to a leathery and unimaginative cacophony from Harlem Kiddies and experience the happiness in watching a self-styled fakir from Denmark nail his tongue to a board.

It’s now October 2013 and Procol Harum were back in Göteborg, second city of Sweden and pride of its West Coast, to play in the same concert hall in the Liseberg fun-park on the final day of its ninetieth summer season. There were no eccentric warm-ups, no comic costumes and certainly no “mediocre singer” on view tonight.

Liseberg’s wonderful wooden roller coaster and ethos of family fun remain, but there have been many new breathtaking engineering advances for thrill-seekers – and Procol Harum also has evolved over the decades into a well-engineered unit. Their melodic material is indeed full of sounds that are “juicy, beautiful and peculiar” but the fans don’t traverse continents to follow “one of many bands”: they but travel expectantly to hear one of the best! Tonight the boys are back on their own again, after a successful orchestral sojourn in the Spring. There are about 600–700 fans in the hall for this 6 o’clock Sunday show. There were to be closing pyrotechnics outside in the park .... but were there real fireworks in the hall?

The guys trooped on to a warm welcome, Gary wearing a smart suit (well he did get separate billing on the posters and tickets!) and everyone else in their own comfortable gear. As ever, the band delights in foxing us regulars, so a short but definite Piggy Pig Pig introduction morphed into Shine on Brightly, a not-unexpected opener. Our usual concert concerns were immediately dispelled – the dry sound was excellent (well done new Geoff, or is it Jeff?) [Geoff Curtis, sound-man], the band were tight and Gary’s voice was as good as ever.

After GB’s short Swedish greeting (“we have been coming here for a long time – there are still a lot of gardens (with people falling down?) but a lot of new buildings”), his keyboard briefly became a marimba and we were into a worthy rendition of Pandora’s Box, more jazzy than I can recall before, with GB asking Josh if he’d finished (such was his closing flourish). It did merit an early introduction for Mr Phillips though – the others got their name checks later in the first half.

“When we play anywhere North of Clacton-on Sea we like to play this one, where we are looking for Valhalla. Actually I think that was written in Poland.” – and of course we had Beyond the Pale. Tight and spirited, but a muted “Hoy!” at the end suggested not too many regular Palers here tonight. I did see Roland on patrol near the sound-board, and I was sitting in Row M directly behind Jens with his big camera (so our photos might be remarkably similar).

A few more snatches of Swedish observation preceded Homburg, with a ripple of recognition applause at the start. A good “standard” rendition, with a very full and richly balanced sound. Has Geoff dropped the tick-tock in the second verse?

Gary asked if everyone knew who David Frost was, paying tribute to the talent and worldwide fame of that great interviewer and satirist. It was a nice topical touch to include TV Ceasar in the set at this time and I enjoyed Geoff W’s grippy punctuation as the whole band swung along in style. Matt Pegg and Geoff Dunn do provide such a strong foundation for the flourishes of the others. Gary was singing just perfectly and we were back in 1973 – an era of Procol Harum and David Frost both enjoying great success in the United States. Gary even recalled the band appearing on Frost’s New York TV show.

Gary lamented how problems in the world stay the same and never find solutions, and the value of $50 back when Keith Reid wrote As Strong as Samson. (I wrote a lot more down here about the message, but it was very dark in the hall and I cannot read my own spidery scrawl today). This has never been one of my favourites, at either tempo, though we know Douglas Adams liked it a lot. Roland told me they played the tender Nothing That I Didn’t Know in this spot last night – a Malmo treat I was sorry to have missed (BTW there is one number (GH) from Malmo up on You Tube).

“Moving on to something lighter,” we have the Hawaiian serenading of Robert’s Box. I always love this tale of the errant medic and am pleased again to hear the sounds and rhythms of Gary’s youth, listening to his Dad Harry playing in one of the top bands of that era. You can hear the Pacific waves, feel the warm air and see the sashaying grass skirts. It's all in there, without the need for any of the doc’s extra prescribing. The transition to the finish can be something of a car crash, as there are ‘timing looks’ across the stage, but it was almost flawless tonight and I do love the guitar steaming in at the end.

Our Swedish friends (since the 70s) Göran and Doris (“named after Doris Day!”) had been in St Andrews (Scotland) in the summer and gone home with a Procol Harum anthology to gain familiarity with the music. Doris, recalling coming here as a teenager to see Jimi Hendrix, was desperate to hear Grand Hotel. She worked out, from Gary’s preamble on the band’s decline from luxury living on tour to Travelodges and hot dogs, that that indeed her favourite tune was next up. Gary played some great piano, Josh was the gypsy violinist on synths and Geoff Zhivagoed for a while before unleashing his power return to the last verse with Swedish girls and that nice French line. It was peace, perfect peace at the end, then rapturously received by one and all.

Deep hush changed to the rumbustuous Simple Sister, with Gary encouraging Geoff at the start with some air guitar and Josh and the others inciting the audience to clap along. Matt and Geoff (no, not Mutt and Jeff!) lay down a thundrous foundation, Gary sings with tremendous spirit and Josh obviously found some good notes to play tonight, having gone off-stage at the orchestral gigs during this number. Geoff looks quite pained as he plays the repeating notes and breaks off a shade early to solo rather than sustain that ball-crushing automaton bit. After this auditory assault, it was deemed a good time for everyone to have a short intermission. A good first half – all familiar stuff, but played with great gusto.

We resumed after a brief conflab with the Clares outside, under a tree decorated with a thousand white Xmas lights and a big wheel undergoing constant colour changes. Roland suggested it was the nearest Shine on Brightly had ever been sung to a real Ferris wheel. My tongue it seems had run aground (my befuddled brain had think for a moment ..... and this dullard could provide no witty riposte) but he suggested I soldier on and conjure up a concert report. One has to state definitively at this point that Roland, chief of the musically-talented Clare clan, is no “eunuch friend”. Linda, also present on this four-concert tour, would testify to that! [Steady on, Charlie ... ]

Back in the hall I reflected on the meatier sound sans orchestra. Just another band? No – the original recorded material was now worked on with superb musicianship, bringing freshness to the repertoire. This was a well-oiled machine, but one blessed with consistent human invention and emotion. Our friends remarked on the audience being reserved and not going nuts like they would do with Elton John. I told them it was always this way with a Procol Harum audience – and that no-one would be dressing-up eccentrically or jumping up on the piano tonight!

The opening VIP Room was a great second-half starter, a firm favourite in the Procol shows for new and old listeners alike. A song for the new century, its rock-like foundation allows for good interaction in the band, with Geoff sliding expertly and Gary just at the limit of his range – always there to extol the virtue of dying in style, not in some old folks' home or falling down then trying to sing with four rib fractures! He also briefly showed a bitter edge in regretting the scum who had cheated the band out of so much money.

Gary and Geoffrey had a discussion on 2/4 over 3/4 and some 4/4 before we started one of my personal favourites, A Rum Tale, a rumbustuous song with a lot of chords (maybe 58?), some of them from lost and found. Good piano (nothing new about that!) and a grand solo too from Josh.

Next a surprise, a Gary Brooker song (“it's sometimes easier just to be Gary Brooker”) – Missing Person (a Brooker/Sutherland song from Echoes in the Night): a change to have a lighter mood and a poppy tempo, and the band fill the song out with enthusiasm.

We then have a short interlude, as Gary muses on the dubious topic of global warming, reflecting all the prophecies of planetary doom since the 70s, with carbon capture and other government revenue measures that have seen energy prices soar in England, as well as in Sweden..... and then a volcano in Iceland pumps out more carbon in one month than all the centuries of our existence. Rule 1 - Never Trust a Politician and I think Rule 2 was Never trust a Lawyer. I think Wives were mentioned in relation to Rule 3, but I don’t want to get my quotes wrong here (big trouble!). This extended preamble was an introduction for Broken Barricades, not really regarded by me as having an environmental message back in 1971, nor indeed now. A flawless performance though, in which Geoff Dunn (and the others) excelled in the playout to a finely-formed finish.

Gary then remembered a conversation he had at an event with Johnny Depp, who was thinking of doing a pirate movie ('oh no, never going to work!') and who then said he was looking for help from Keith Richards ('definitely not going to work!') – “how wrong can you be,” thought Gary! There was a further chat with Brian May at the same “do” when Brian acknowledged the inspiration Queen had taken from Whaling Stories in writing Bohemian Rhapsody. Brian thought both songs started and finished slow, but theirs had a more commercial bit in the middle! We were then treated to a rendition of the Procol masterwork with all its moments of titanic cacophony produced just by a five piece band, without the aid of a massive orchestra with percussionists dashing about like men in white coats trying to put out a fire. I must make mention of Geoff Dunn and Matt who gave us a steady thumping bottom end, while Geoff Whitehorn was tender and delicate in the dawning of the day. (I am referring to the music here Geoffrey!). What a treat! Fantastic!

The aforementioned Bohemian Rhapsody got a wee work-out before giving way to Bach, which in turn segued neatly into A Whiter Shade of Pale. By now it had become apparent to alert aficionados that there had been a small crisis on stage, with some frantic gesticulations and the appearance of extra bodies on the right side. It transpired that there had been some major “engineering failure” as Josh’s Leslie speaker went down. Fortunately modern technology now provided Chief Engineer Phillips with a working synthesiser, so the auditory continuity of show was assured and we heard the familiar organ melody from his Yamaha Motif keyboard. The moment of Josh's cool, brilliant transition has been captured on a You Tube video – see AWSoP was a three verse version but with the vestal virgins heading for the coast ahead of the mermaid who took Neptune for a ride, and punctuated by a reflective solo from the aforementioned GW. A huge standing ovation here.

Time to up the tempo and decibels a bit with Drunk Again like In the Wee Small Hours and Long Gone Geek before it, this B side merits an occasional outing, as it really ROCKS, with all five musicians showcased.

We pause now in quieter, reflective waters to “think about those who have left us, who we pray will stay with us forever”, a customary dedication to A Salty Dog. This is the litmus test not only for the emotional range of Gary’s measured singing, but also for the sensitivity in the band, tonight shorn off all that seabed orchestration and Latin incantation. We just hear the simple beauty of 1969, just with those later adornments like the whiny guitar (first done by Mick Grabham?), the synthesised choral notes and Geoff Dunn’s really great drum fills (which the great BJ would have approved of – never has that gun been fired so well as tonight!). Perfection. A reverential silence. Standing ovation, cheering. Time for a band-bow and retreat, with those in the hall stretching their lungs, asking for that promised encore.

Conquistador tore along with pace and style, giving each band member a chance to shine on brightly for the final time. At the end Gary revealed the broken Leslie and bizarrely told us his real name was Harry Pahene! (he was on good form in sundry communication tonight!). There were handshakes for some at the front and a couple of bows before departure.

We exited into the cool night air to find thousands of others returning from a fireworks display, but we had no feeling of missing out. We had seen a spectacle of equal colour and dynamism – restoring, once again, our love and affection for this group of musicians and their great repertoire, which has sustained us now for nearly fifty years.

Oh I forgot – the “self-styled fakir from Denmark who nailed his tongue to a board” was nowhere to be seen. No fakers here – we had been listening to the real thing – from the musical masters. Long may they continue!

Later, in the 53rd floor panoramic bar of the Gothia Towers, I came upon the “supporting quartet” in good cheer, having a few beers and some unrequited puffing on electronic ciggies. They told of a late night in Malmo (which explained Gary's going to bed early) and were looking forward to Stockholm and Helsinki ... and beyond. I rendezvoused with our webmasters and others attending some or all of this short Scandic tour. Elspeth and I were all the happier for supping wine with two lovely Finnish ladies – Pirjo and Sintto – and from hearing this general up-beat bonhomie from the band, who we hope will go on for ever. Cheers gentlemen ... and travel safely. 

Procol dates in 2013 | Setlist |

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