Procol Harum

the Pale

PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home

Friday Night ... is Procol Harum night!

How the West (End) was Won • words and pictures by Charlie Allison for BtP

The Show

The last words in my Paris review hoped for an orchestral event in the UK sometime ... and hey! It has happened! I had genuinely known nothing about this BBC gig at that time, so must have been reading the tea-leaves. The build-up was great, in the constant correspondence, with some Palers now doing daily Facebook conversations ... from the Mull maniacs to Al in LA, Henry in London (BTW – has Henry got a book to plug, or something?) and of course Roland and Jens on the good ship
'Beyond the Pale'. The once-daily BtP bulletin may have gone ‘abdominal’ (or whatever Roland calls it!) but now they are augmented by an avalanche of opinion, music postings and a fever of anticipation for this event every single day ... often well into the small hours (thanks to a combination of time-zone variation and insomnia).

And what a night it turned out to be! What drama, what anxiety, what collective holding of breath – especially when we heard that Geoff Whitehorn had gone off to hospital with a chest infection and a new guy called Dave Colquhoun was to be deputising at very short notice (he was young, had played with Rick Wakeman on a tour with Matt Pegg – and his showreel looked fantastic). And then, on the night, young ‘Mr Calhoon’ came on stage with the help of crutches! You could not make this up! Is this some script for a feel-good Disney movie, or the back-story for Stars in your Eyes (‘ … tonight, Dave, you are going to be Geoffrey Whitehorn!'). But let’s go straight to the ending right away – no angst with spoilers here – it was a monumental triumph, a raging success, an evening of highs and huge public acclaim.

The Palers gathered in the pub round the corner (now that has a familiar ring to it!) – in this case the surprisingly-capacious basement snug of The Tottenham at No 6 Oxford Street. Many of the usual suspects were there – mad Scotsmen, Michel (the curly grey from Jersey), Al from LA, Axel and Juliette from the Danish province of Invernesshire, Oman man Ian Hockley, Londoners Peter Christian and John Grayson, and Olde Auchtermuchty Man flogging his memoirs and lamenting the possible loss of Denmark Street (possibly to be saved, thanks to Engelbert Humperdinck and ‘Henry Smith-Irvine’, as the BBC referred to him this week). I was really sorry to arrive late and miss both Diane Rolph and Mike Masterton. I had come with my journalist cousin Nina and her Aussie partner Grant – through whom I was introduced to some well-known people as ‘my cousin Charles from Scotland’ – a posh name not given an airing since my Mum passed away in 2006!

Now to the venue. Been there before for the Queen musical – loudest show I’ve ever been to, except for The Who in the early 70s. A big wide arena, quite plush, great sight-lines. The stage has warm pinkish musical motifs, a bit like the Christmas windows at Selfridges. The Band are set up on a stage not much bigger than a pallet at the front, with Plexiglas screens keeping the group sound from leaking into the orchestra. A simple aerial mike pair, set above the orchestra, seemed to be ‘the BBC way’, though the choir did seem to have microphones of their own ... it all augured well.

The band were introduced without fuss and trooped on to generous applause – surely not all these cheering people are Palers, but it must be our lot who are revving up the volume? One could not fail to notice the youthfulness of the guitarist ... and he is hobbling and using an elbow crutch! Matt Pegg no longer looks ‘the youngest member’ and indeed Matt fulfills a mentoring role all night at Dave’s left shoulder.

Now there is hush ... and we are into Homburg with the familiar angelic chorus, sweet as you like, some strings, a crescendo of saccharine ... then a moment’s silence before (right on cue) Gary starts things off with his piano ... and that voice! Gosh ... the sound is great and he sounds wonderful. A flawless start. Huge applause, quite sustained, some cheering. This is a promising start (hope the BBC sound engineer hasn’t been upset by this unexpected audience response and burst his headphones!).

If his levels were tested then, they would get a good trial with the next number: for after a quick ‘Good Evening’ from Gary we were into the crash-wallop of Simple Sister. Now here’s the first test for the boy David’, I thought, but he passed with flying colours, from the first notes through the solos, that sustained-notes bit in the middle, to the finish. I did notice his big smile as again the crowd went bananas. I think the Palers really wanted to welcome him to the fold.

In passing I think I remember that Messrs Ball and Grabham both had baptisms at orchestral concerts: and both went on to do sterling work all round the globe.

It would be as well to make a confession about now. I wrote my notes in the dark and later found various columns upside down and out of synch (bring a torch next time?); and I really upset the usherette who stopped us taking photos ... as you can see, not completely!

Gary was splendid in his compère role, regaling all with the now familiar contrast of ‘burger meals and coming up on the Tube’ of today, compared with limousine travel and staying in those luxury European palaces of yesteryear. Grand Hotel was a rich treat as ever, with the brilliant, forever-coaxing David Firman drawing out a splendid rich soundscape from his choir and orchestra. The only slight disappointment was the leader staying anonymous on his chair, and not hamming up his gypsy solo ... but hey! this was radio. Another deserved ovation. How good is this? I will tell you at the end, but for now this must be the best-received Procol concert in years, certainly the best in the UK this century (a bigger and louder audience than at the Union Chapel).

We continue on the same album with Fires – what an impressive catalogue of distinctive songs Procol have – and the audience again are treated to perfect playing, much of it coordinated by Matt and the splendid Geoff Dunn, who rolls around his kit expertly on what was in my opinion the best-ever BJ performance in record. Josh then plays an excellent solo. The choir don’t scat like Ms Legrand, but make a glorious sound nonetheless. A fine finish is then rewarded with another long clap, many now standing up and cheering. Gosh, this is good!

Gary intimates that the band are going to play one of his solo songs, and jokes he’s left some drink under the chairs for the orchestra. Missing Person is well received and falls neatly into the vein of being very traditional Radio 2!

Next ‘all the chords, major and minor’ in Something Magic which literally describes this evening’s entertainment. There is both precision and passion in the delivery and those soaring strings have never sounded better. The orchestra is rich in its tone, and David Firman is firmly in charge, coaxing great performances from everyone ... while using his radar to coordinate with Gary and the band.

Now Gary tells us of a ‘green song’ from the early 70s – Broken Barricades which is impeccably played (and sung!) with the choir and orchestra adding considerably to the bare sound of the synths from the original, and flowing majestically to a wonderful conclusion (think the finish was slightly different from usual) ... and more fine applause.

Gary takes time to reflect on the recent centenary commemoration of the First World War, introducing the story of his neighbour Sidney White who went off to serve his country in the Second War, was captured early and came back profoundly deaf (presumably from the big guns?) Symphathy for the Hard of Hearing builds brilliantly and although the story is hard to follow as the words don’t always come across clearly in the hall (no-one would know he went to Poland for example), the phrase ‘We lose them, confuse them, abuse them’ absolutely hits the mark, before it races to a prolonged conclusion, where the guitar insinuates itself thrillingly in each run of the chorus. Dave absolutely nailed the virtuoso ending – he might have taken note of Geoff’s growl at Ledreborg, but this was entirely his own fantastic work. Biggest ovation of the night so far.

Gary muses on the loss of friends recently – Alvin Stardust, Jack Bruce – and dedicates this one to them, with best wishes to Geoff too. We enjoy the seagulls and the precisely enunciated Latin introduction to A Salty Dog (I also liked the more nautical feel of the Barbican version, but have got used to this one now). Once again the band plays to master-standard for the BBC recording, with Geoff Dunn making his entrance right at the ‘Wilson moment’. Gary sang as strongly as ever, a rarity in a business where some big names seem to be vocally deteriorating with advancing years. You could hear a pin drop at the end, then it was time to go nuts again, until Gary intimated they would be having a break.

No bar drinks for us (unusually) but ice-cream at our seats, where we noticed other musicians in the vicinity – Nikki Lambourn and Catherine Feeney (from Never the Bride), Chas Hodges (of Chas and Dave) and, immediately in front of us, Genesis’s Mike Rutherford (who knew my cousin Nina). He was impressed how Gary has kept going with Procol Harum for so many years, how his voice is still so strong, and how well these songs lend themselves to orchestration. (That was the gist of what he said – I was not taking notes at that time. He was there with his wife, and Chrysalis boss Chris Wright).

The second half opened with an explanation from Gary that they needed to re-do the opening of A Salty Dog owing to a technical hitch (‘I think the harpist broke wind’ he mischievously mused). I was enjoying it so much and got worried when it broke down again as Gary stopped singing ... but of course that was all planned and they would later splice the two takes seamlessly together.

What came next –the real first song – was a surprise … Wall Street Blues (band only). I do like this raw song of financial meltdown and human greed. It is lyrically strong and a great vehicle for showcasing the band members’ talents, individually and in interaction: but I wonder at the wisdom of starting the second half of the show with this, and not an orchestral track. Perhaps this was just a warm-up for the Dominion audience?

Nothing but the Truth followed quickly (literally) and disproves any theory that Procol only do slow numbers. It had strings on the original record and it now has a chanting choir to help it bowl along merrily.

We are definitely on a run of fast ones with Into the Flood and this is firmly ensconced in Procol’s repertoire of up-tempo songs, though ‘never on a record’ (which is true, if you include only finished studio recordings). Gary sways about on his stool, driving this one on like the Head of the Hunt, but maybe he (and the others) regret asking us for rhythmic clapping during the strings’ ‘hoe-down’– the audience started OK, but soon sounded like a drunken sea-lions’ convention! Mind you it died out prematurely, so possibly it won’t mar the broadcast. Big response at the end again.

Gary then got all jokily sentimental, suggesting that when they first sang the song (AWSoP) which started it all in 1967, they never though they would be singing it ten, twenty, thirty, forty years later ... and going forward, maybe fifty? ‘We shall see!’ ‘Time I retired!’ he said; to which the audience hollered ‘No!’, and he retorted, ‘It’s all right for you!’. He gave a name-check to Darryl Way for the orchestration, and then we were treated to that wonderful warm pastoral feeling, particularly rich and true tonight with this excellent ‘big band’. Gary starts off on the piano, and then comes his timeless voice (and there’s applause), then a biggish audience roar when ‘the crowd called out for more’ (Gordon and John have obviously been recruiting in the bar at the interval) and then the Hammond organ comes in on the second verse to a further ripple of recognition. Gary takes it round again ... and again, with each chorus-start slightly slowed and bluesy. It is here, towards the conclusion as much as at the introduction, that makes this orchestral version a masterful enhancement of this great song. There are impeccable cues for the choir, then later the brass section, and that fine finishing flourish. Nearly everybody was on their feet cheering at the end. Gary looked very chuffed, acknowledging the adoration – do you know that, if we had a series of these concerts, he could become ‘a national treasure’ (a popular though somewhat-overused British accolade)?

Calming down we came to a more modern Procol song, An Old English Dream, orchestrated here (tastefully) for the first time. It’s a plain song with no middle eight, and the lyrics seem to come from a school literature class of yesteryear, but making contemporary social comment. It has a nice feel altogether, in normal concerts: and the score just gives it that little bit extra.

Gary then looked back to US tours in the band’s hey-day, when on late nights in New York they would drop in for a chat at a Manhattan fire station on 8th Avenue. He found the biggest shock of 9/11 was the loss of so many of these brave lads in the fall of the buildings ... and The Blink of an Eye is indeed Keith’s sensitive tribute to all that perished that day. The orchestration of Blink was similarly tasteful – no tricks or anything out of place – and finished with an excellent new guitar solo. Then with a shuddering (deliberate) discord, we just linked with those distinctive bass notes leading us into Grand Finale. Dave Colquhoun stands to deliver a raucous and original solo, some licks a little twiddly and Whitehornesque, but the majority pained and personal. The choir and orchestra soar in the last verse, overpowering the usual guitar notes at the end – maybe Dave didn’t know he had to assert himself in there above the mayhem for us Procol purists? No worries – it sounded absolutely OK.

No pretend-exiting the stage tonight – this is a broadcast recording – so just more introductions and thanks – then David Firman and the orchestra are invited to start Conquistador, which belts along at a fair lick with all the band playing their parts expertly, to take their audience to a final frenzy of acclaim and adoration ... or as Josh said so eloquently on the BBC video as they came off stage – ‘they love us’.

Josh also said ‘Albert Hall next time!’ and that indeed should be an ambition, when we could see some other great orchestral classics added to the programme – Whaling Stories, Pandora’s Box, Barnyard Story and the whole of In Held ’Twas in I. I might drop the band-only numbers next time (or maybe they give added light and shade?) and run for a little longer. And film it for television! Other than that – we await the nation’s view in response to this radio broadcast. Maybe the band will then get further invitations to appear in the media, or in the concert hall. We will be there, wherever.

This night will forever be a cherished memory. The night the band came home to the UK in triumph, ‘crossing over’ to a mainstream audience with orchestral rock music of the highest quality. For those who have been doing the European rounds of these events, it came as no surprise that they have perfected this art-form to a T.

And for true Procol historians (if one may finish on a cowboy idiom) this was the night that the young Deputy Ca-hoon came to town. In true cowboy fashion, he earned his spurs, shot up the joint, playing his part on The Night The West (End) was Won. The rest of us rode off into the sunset – feeling content and looking for a saloon to celebrate!

Two final greetings of fond regard – first to Gary for keeping this all going so long. Hope you will get a greater reward with this broadcast. And to Geoff Whitehorn – get well soon! As the BBC guy Tom Sandars announced proudly on his excellent promo video – ‘Friday Night is Procol Harum Night!’ [See also Tom Sandars's backstage film, here]

Postscript (on hearing the Broadcast)

First there was the eager anticipation (indeed anxiety!) about how this would sound, how it would be presented over the airwaves. Taking no chances, and in the spirit of celebration, we set up with a bottle of champagne and some Scottish smoked salmon sandwiches!

It was apparent that we were hearing an expansive sound stage and there was considerable detail I’d obviously missed in the hall on the night, both orchestral and group. The choir were brought forward where appropriate – I don't know if this was actual or at the mixing desk. The orchestra was well balanced – the strings seemed better picked up on the radio than in the hall.

Dave Colquhoun played a more muted colour than Geoff, and Josh’s playing was immense in the broadcast, being heard on places where perhaps we’ve heard more guitar in the past. Matt Pegg and Geoff Dunn both played impeccably and kept perfect time all night, so important in combining with an orchestra. The drums were mixed exactly right – they seemed loud on the BBC promo film, but not here. Gary's piano spots were excellent. On a few occasions he was further down in the mix vocally than he would have liked. He sang well hitting all the notes and the words came over better on the radio in Symphathy.

I have made a few notes tonight on the individual songs – sorry both for any conflict or repetition with the main review, but I call it as I heard it.

Homburg – a lovely start for the radio as in the hall, showing the ‘marriage’ of orchestra, choir and band to perfection. Now noticed great organ from Josh in the second verse. Sure to have impressed the listeners, as will the applause!

Simple Sister – a tour de force for the new guitarist as it is for the usual one, but aware of the great drums and organ here too, and Gary's piano solo excellent. Some xylophonic notes I had not heard before. Very atmospheric, both loud and quiet. Again huge applause.

Grand Hotel was excellent. More organ was noted in the verses, giving more colour to the piece. Gary’s piano duet with the violin was better heard here than on the night, where I thought the violin was very quiet (and the guy didn’t seek the spotlight). Dave’s ‘balalaika’ was clearer here than at the gig (well done!) but the big guitar return at the end was different from usual. Oh yes Geoff Dunn – superb drumming throughout this one.

Fires is arguably the best-played track on the whole broadcast, starting with the excellent Crouch End Festival Chorus and the orchestra, but chiefly the wonderful perfect playing by all the band. We had good solos from Josh, then Gary near the end, but special mention must be made to Geoff Dunn who paced this perfectly, rolling round his kit as good as BJ in his heydey. No higher praise than this!

Missing Person sounded just right and more interesting on the radio – and yes, it was a rest for the orchestra (‘to find the wine we’ve left under their seats’ said Gary). Dave played an excellent guitar solo and there was a fine finishing chord. I would still express a preference for Pandora’s Box which was left out (a strange omission, as it was the key song on the BBC advert for the concert)

Something Magic was really impressive, especially the orchestra in the last verse. Did I hear a cowbell from Geoff in the instrumental break?

Broken Barricades had a perfect piano intro and we then had the old synth part as featured strings. The brass came in perfectly towards the end and then the guitar, a bit delayed, but very effective.

Symphathy for the Hard of Hearing followed after a long spiel about Sydney White’s war story and Gary’s timely dedication to all who have served. The words were much clearer on the broadcast so listeners could follow the tale. Good meld of guitar and brass (and indeed organ) in the fast climax and Dave’s Whitehornesque finish was memorable – though quite different from Geoff’s.

A Salty Dog was introduced as a tribute and sounded just perfect, with a different interpretative guitar in the second verse and an enormous crash as the gun fired in the last. Of course all ears were on Gary hitting the high note, and he sang the song as well as he did when I first heard it 45 years ago. (I remember that morning in the booth in Low’s record shop well!) The edit we were told about on Monday was not evident at all on the broadcast.

There then followed a twelve minute DJ lecture on prog rock – bookended by Shine on Brightly and containing a snatch of In Held (represented by ’Twas Teatime at the Circus) – but chiefly going over Yes, Deep Purple, King Crimson, and Bowie, with a chief contribution from Rick Wakeman. If I had known that was coming I would have made tea and toast at this point. Procol were recognised as being different from the others, always having R’n’B roots ... but it was one long yawn.

Wall Street Blues – in the light of what had just preceded (particularly the snatch of Yes) it was great to hear the rawness of our band on its own. This song established the credentials and was a work-out for all members, especially Mr Colquhoun, who played a superb solo. Gary sang this well in a suitable half-rap style.

We then had the story of Pegg bringing Dave in ... with a broken ankle ... and ‘How would he play without a broken ankle?! Nothing but the Truth (cue song). Then Gary gulped some ‘vodka’ – shocked it was water (he jested!)

Into the Flood was flawless, apart from our dodgy clapping, fortunately unnoticed/mixed-out in the broadcast (phew!)! Good organ licks, often heard on guitar. Really good guitar at the very end.

AWSoP got a lovely spoken build-up from Gary posing the question about whether they would be performing it after fifty years. (The crowd gave its answer by calling out for ‘more’ quite loudly in the first verse!). This was perfection tonight, just absolutely without flaw, with all elements just at their very best to showcase Gary at his peak getting to those sublime start-chorus moments. ‘Jolly good,’ said Gary. ‘It’s always good when it goes down well!’

An Old English Dream had a great blend of guitar, organ and brass in the second verse; there was a nice orchestral break, then a good guitar solo at the end. Fleshed out nicely now.

Gary introduced Blink of an Eye with a well-judged tale of visiting the 8th Avenue firemen, then proceeded to lead this respectfully-restrained tribute to 9/11. A landmark song, deserving further recognition, sympathetically orchestrated. Superb guitar solo at the end, then a marvellous discord before quietening to Matt’s notes opening Grand Finale. Gary’s piano was excellent, bass/drums/organ perfect colour and percussive drama, a different but excellent guitar solo. The only flaw perhaps was the tone of the brass in the last minute which – with a few tinkly bells – gave this a bit of a Christmassy feeling, not as churchy as previous orchestral outings.

Conquistador was well-paced, good band playing and the orchestra doing their stuff at the start and finish. Nicely cracked trumpet playing, almost Mexican! The solo spots all went well, but top marks this time to Josh Phillips!

A great concert. All in all a triumph. It was obvious the entire audience were aboard and one hopes the UK radio listeners liked this enough to explore Procol Harum and its excellent repertoire. The best results would be invitations to further single-event (Proms anyone?) or touring performances, and maybe the chance to record new material? Very proud to listen to our band right there in the public ‘ear’. The BBC certainly played enough promos for everyone to know it was on tonight!

The only ‘downer’ was the prog-rock tutorial in the middle. We would have been better informed with interviews from Gary, the band and David Firman discussing all the elements of this successful collaboration.

Finally I must add something I’ve just posted elsewhere – how excellent Gary was as a master of ceremonies. He was most gracious with his thanks to the other musicians and the choir, and indeed to Darryl Way prior to that wonderful, flawless AWSoP. All, of course, with his usual, engaging humour. Do you know, going forward, a key element in future success is that the British public really like him ... and indeed like the rest of the band, if they get to know them.

Keep going lads! We love you and your music! And hopefully, so will half a million new people. We will read the press with interest over the next few days and also watch out for any follow-up media appearances.

‘Procol Harum Night’. Yes indeed.

Thanks, Charlie!

Procol dates in 2014 | Procol Harum dates with orchestra | More images from the same camera and occasion | Charlie Allison reviews Procol Harum's next orchestral show

PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home