Paling Well in Wuppertal
April 2013 • George Lovell for BtP
George is the author of a much-read memoir about his life and Procol Harum concerts (order it here). Here's the first instalment of the 2013 update that will one day be part of the new edition. Photos from various contributors ... thanks, all! Part II is here
After four mere days, a mammoth set was tasked. There had been Palers’ Fests organised to coincide with Procol Harum concerts before, six to be precise. No town, however, was sacked (metaphorically speaking) as much as Wuppertal, its towers destined not to be robbed but filled, those of the Church of St Laurentius, the Historische Stadthalle, and Live Club Barmen especially, with the music of Gary Brooker and Matthew Fisher. The alphabet was stolen long ago by Keith Reid, but its articulation between Tuesday 2 April and the wee small hours of Sunday 7 April (AD 2013) surpassed all known previous bounds. Caprice is at hand, I trust, with that bugle of hers, to blow away the cobwebs.
For a year and more beforehand, webmasters Roland Clare and Jens Anders Ravnaas kept us posted at “Beyond the Pale” as to all sorts of logistics regarding the Procol Harum concerts scheduled for 5 April and 6 April with the Sinfonie-Orchester Wuppertal and the Kantorei Barmen-Gemarke. The latter, it turns out, is not a guild of accredited drinkers but a choir in which sings one Michael Ackermann, a man with a mission and a mane of hair whose organisational talents offstage (he runs the Gary Brooker fan club “Whaling Stories”) complemented those of Roland and Jens in helping set up the festivities that would both precede and follow the concert performances. The name of a Gary Brooker solo album, and the title track from it, Echoes in the Night, was the banner given to the week-long celebrations – commemorative tee-shirt included. Over thirty Procol Harum fans – Palers, please! – had offered their musical services to play and pay homage in a tribute band, travelling to a very wintry Germany from all across Europe and the United States, indeed from as far afield as Brazil.
As on other such occasions, I was fortunate to mix business with pleasure, visiting archives, libraries, and museums in Berlin and Leipzig the week before Procol proceedings got under way. Among their holdings I searched for material to include in a new edition of my very first book, Conquest and Survival in Colonial Guatemala, the subject matter of which concerns the deeds of Spanish marauders sung about in one of Procol Harum’s most emblematic songs, Conquistador. I struck a rich vein, not fool’s gold, at the Ethnologische Museum in Berlin and in the Hauptbibliotek 'Bibliotheca Albertina' of the Universität Leipzig. In Leipzig, a city historically associated with Johann Sebastian Bach, I heard the youthful Berliner Meistersolisten, led by Olga Pak, play the Air from his Orchestersuite Nr. 3, believed to have had an influence on the composition of A Whiter Shade of Pale. The Jacques Loussier Trio version of the Air, also influential in how the song came about, was among the musical selections I listened to on my iPod during the long train ride from Leipzig to Wuppertal, which saw me traverse one snowy landscape after another. Bach, in one form or another, I consider a reliable travelling companion; he certainly was on that trip.
Chilled to the bone, I arrived rather tired at base camp in the Arcadia Hotel to find – surprise, surprise – that the lobby bar was well populated by Palers refreshing themselves after the first full day of rehearsals, among them my New York “Bottom Line” buddies Marvin Chassman, Tito Davila, and Don Milione. I joined them after I had sorted out my room and taken a hot bath. They gushed at how thrilled they were to be at a Palers’ Fest again, the last one, in London, held a long six years ago. My sense of anticipation only heightened, I turned in for an early night while several stalwarts, Long Tall Dave Ball to the fore, shone on brightly.
Wednesday at Rainer’s Studio
With Jens and his son, Torjus – Runar Todok in tow too – I headed to nearby Barmen, hailed (along with Elberfeld) as being the “German Manchester” and textile metropolis of the nineteenth century. The emperor’s new clothes are made elsewhere now, but mills once powered by the waters of the Wupper still stand, or stand still, adapted these days to myriad post-industrial needs. Jens parked the car and we carried gear to Rainer Emerson’s percussion-teaching studio, tucked and hidden away at the end of a narrow alley, up a tricky flight of stairs. As we ascended, down drifted the strains of The Dead Man’s Dream. It was all life, however, most animatedly so, inside our rehearsal space, where a sizable stage (much like that of Domus Felix in Lejre, the scene of Paler antics in 2006) was laid out with musical instruments and related paraphernalia galore. A marimba, considered best left off stage in the interests of saving room, attested to the range of artefacts that would be drawn upon to play the music of Procol Harum. Centre back Andrè Romke’s 'Rule Britannia' drum kit made for an assertive presence, as did a battery of percussion instruments. While Palers took turns strutting their stuff, Roland orchestrating matters with customary aplomb, Rainer’s wife Louise, a schoolfriend of Linda Clare’s, made sure that anyone still peckish after a grand Hotel Arcadia breakfast got topped up nicely. Besides tea and coffee, water and juice, and nibbles aplenty, Louise also furnished herbal infusions that, at least for some, helped keep sickness at bay.
“I have a scratchy throat and a bit of a fever,” I told her. “I feel decidedly below par.” No golfer, I confess, am I, unlike three fellow Scots who also made it to Wuppertal: the Tobermory duo John and Gordon, and BtP’s ever-dependable and acute correspondent (he’s a doctor after all) Charlie Allison. The golfing metaphor, however, summed up my feeble, sick, and weary brain, to say nothing of my body, to a tee.
“One sage tea coming right up,” Louise replied knowingly. Two more later I felt much better. In retrospect, I am convinced that Louise’s sage teas were sage interventions, for they kept me going as others fell, day after day, to a digestive malaise for which not even 'Robert’s Box' held a cure, though I bet Charlie might have.
We rehearsed fifteen songs that morning. One was run through twice, prompting me to reconsider whence it came. “The only Procol album in need of outright reappraisal,” Roland writes in his liner notes to its Salvo CD reissue, “is 1976’s Something Magic.” Well said, esteemed critic. On my vinyl copy of Something Magic, it’s Strangers in Space to which I habitually cue, skipping the arm of the record player over the first four tracks of side one to get to that haunting fifth. How I love to hear it played live, a rare treat. I forego the second side of the album entirely. But how could I have paid such scant attention, I asked myself sitting transfixed as Palers played and Hans Tammes sang, to a gem like Skating on Thin Ice? Its piano opening is waltz-like, light but assured, the lyrics of the chorus (how does Keith Reid get away with it?) three unabashed clichés that somehow pack an emotional punch when strung together and sung plaintively: 'Skating on thin ice / shaking the wrong dice / swimming against the tide'.
|The Palers' Sinfonietta||Hans|
Inspired horn and woodwind backing arranged by Roland filled Rainer’s studio with heart-wrenching tenderness, Stewart Bryson’s trombone and Kari Warhuus’s French horn capturing the mood of longing and regret perfectly. By the time I went for lunch with Gary 'guitar maestro' Shepard, lines of the song had wormed themselves, treeless, inside my head, where they looped for days thereafter.
A former swimming pool turned restaurant did nothing for us, so we made for an eating place that I had spotted on the same civic square as the Rathaus. Gary excused himself after he had placed his lunch order, allowing me time to ask the barman in Barmen if he could arrange, having seen his impressive array of sound apparatus and musical selections, for the waiter to bring forth a tray. No sooner had Gary returned and lifted his Weissbier when A Whiter Shade of Pale came on. Gary shot me a knowing glance. I nodded. We both smiled. The barman in Barmen was left an appreciative tip as we paid our bill and returned to Rainer’s studio.
First up was About to Die, belted out by Luiz de Boni in sympathetic anticipation of what loomed ahead for all those unfortunate enough to succumb to the mysterious Wuppertal wipeout (Gary’s bass-playing friend from North Carolina, Dave Goodwick, his barricades broken, was among the first to fall). The gloomy warning was followed, appropriately, by All This and More, Elizabeth Bryson’s lovely voice bestowing at least some consolation on those about to wilt, if not expire. A rendering of Without a Doubt completed the medical/musical diagnosis. 'Latin Bananas' is what Long Tall Dave called a jam riff struck as Roland left the studio in search of his fellow webmaster, dispatched for celebrity pick-up. As six o’clock approached, he and Jens arrived back upstairs with none other than Gary Brooker, MBE. The Commander made a welcome entrance, smiling and waving greetings, before taking to the stage to rehearse Hear What You’re Saying and Saw the Fire, two songs of his that he’d been invited to sing as a member of the Palers’ Band some months before. The thrill of their performance was to be mutually relished.
I had not seen Gary since his traumatic experience in South Africa last year. The piper’s tune played there had taken a round out of him, without a doubt: 'They say they laid a careful trap / And now you’ve fallen in their lap / They’re out to make a sacrifice / And you’re the one to pay the price'.
|Gary at the Palers' Band Hammond||Gary and Gary||Long Tall Dave|
He may have fallen hard and hit the ground, but Gary’s quirky sense of humour is unscathed. “Glasses, hearing aid,” he muttered to himself as he looked inquisitively at the sheet of lyrics placed in front of him. He screwed up his eyes in feigned surprise. “I haven’t sung this since we did it in the studio,” he joked. The hiatus, however, did not hold him back. The Palers started up and off he went, that voice of his never letting him down, even if (as happens to us all) sometimes an errant line got sung.
We called it quits around seven in order to get to church on time. With Hans and Jonas Söderström I hopped on the Schwebebahn, the train that rides the rails from the top down, not the bottom up. Three middle-aged ebullient boys, we marvelled from our position right behind the driver as the train swayed along the course of the Wupper from Alter Markt to Ohligsmühle, the station closest to the Church of St Laurentius. There, on two different organs, Ian Hockley gave a virtuoso recital that included music by Bach, Robert Schumann, Giovanni Battista Pescetti, and Charles-Marie Widor. As at St John’s in London in 2007, Ian played Gary Brooker’s The Thin Edge of the Wedge too. The crowd called out for more, upon which an extraordinary day of music ended with an encore of Matthew Fisher’s Weisselklenzenacht. The church’s Grosse Seifert-Orgel had never heard it so good.
Thursday at Rainer’s Studio
I got a ride out to Rainer’s studio again courtesy of Jens, chatting with him, Torjus, and Runar along the way. Sixteen songs got full hearings that morning, starting with A Whiter Shade of Pale and ending with Too Much Between Us. A quintet of young Palers – Beth Pellegrini and Justin Tetlow still in their teens, Carlo “Jack” Ponissi on the eve of his twenty-fifth birthday, Peter Clare a couple of years older, and Torjus a pup in his early thirties – blazed a trail with The Mark of the Claw. No lost generation here, I remarked to Juliette and Axel Leonhardt sitting next to me – nor lost touch either, when Axel took to the drums after decades of retirement. Allen 'One-Eye' Edelist had us in stitches at his expletive response to Ghost Train almost leaving the station without him. He caught it by the blink of a proverbial eye and did a swell job afterwards coaching Hans on his vocal entries to Skating on Thin Ice. That was among the last we saw, and heard, of poor Hans, alas, one of the victims of the Wuppertal fury.
|Beth||Justin and Peter||Carlo|
After lunch, the afternoon session saw us congregate around a blackboard on which, at Roland’s request, I had chalked the titles of all thirty-four songs to be performed on Saturday at Live Club Barmen. Roland talked us through them, having devised five sets in all, four to be played on Saturday afternoon, before the Procol Harum concert, and one on Saturday evening, after it. He then led us through what he called the 'tops and tails' of most of our repertoire before we closed up shop. A rehearsal of another sort beckoned.
The Dress Rehearsal
I’ve been lucky enough to sit in on several Procol Harum sound checks, but had only one 'full-dress' rehearsal hitherto been part of my concert log, back in August 2006 in the stately grounds of Ledreborg Castle. Almost seven years later, my second 'full-dress' rehearsal was experienced in Wuppertal’s equally stately Stadthalle, its neo-classical elegance only enhanced by a sixties-style laser show after the house lights dimmed and the music began.
It was a near-perfect harbinger of what was to follow on two consecutive evenings, 'near-perfect' because a couple of things needed some tweaking. The first had to do with the overall sound. Ever since I sat with Sam Cameron adjacent to the mixing crew at Stoke Park in Guildford in 2000, that particular 'in-house' location has been my preferred spot at subsequent Procol Harum outings, audio central so to speak, where wizards ply their trade with a clear ear as well as a clear eye. I lucked out during the fortieth anniversary celebrations of A Whiter Shade of Pale in London, sitting next to Keith Reid on that occasion, the wordsmith also tuning in next to the sound gurus. At Edmonton, Alberta, in the acoustic ambience of the Winspear Centre three years later, I lucked out again. Tonight was open seating, so I made a beeline for audio central; Runar did too. After Procol manager Chris Cooke came back and forth several times, mumbling in the technicians’ ears, I assumed that he had heard, or been advised of, something amiss of which I was unaware.
|Chris Cooke||Gary Brooker||Josh Phillips|
The second tweak pertained to an issue that conductor David Firman wished to address. At one point he actually called the music to a halt. “This is a dress rehearsal, you know, and I have to speak with the choir,” he told us. The conductor reminded me of teachers back in school when they’d excuse themselves by telling their pupils to “talk amongst yourselves” while they attended to whatever. In no time at all the music re-commenced, problem presumably solved.
Gary was in fine form as raconteur as well as vocalist. Recalling having been in Wuppertal before, he quipped “I think it was when the Schwebebahn went up.” He endeared himself that night to one person in particular, the youngest member of the Kantorei Barmen-Gemarke. “It’s her birthday!” Gary announced after asking the teenage girl to stand up and identify herself, whereupon Procol Harum, the Sinfonie-Orchester Wuppertal, and the choir played and sang her birthday greetings that she will remember all her life.
|Geoff Whitehorn||Geoff Dunn||Matt Pegg|
I ate dinner afterwards with Runar. One of the dividends of these gatherings is to find out about other Palers’ lives. It transpires that Runar and I share not only a love of the music of Procol Harum but also spent formative times in war-torn Central America in the 1980s. The disasters of war had been sung about earlier that evening, in Symphathy for the Hard of Hearing and Fires (Which Burnt Brightly). These compositions would be reprised twice, the reality that they allude to, sadly for humankind, repeated many times over, world without end.
Procol dates in 2013 | Palers' Band setlist | George Lovell's Procol Harum book | Next instalment of the Wuppertal sequence