Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Gary in the House'

Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings, 29 May 1999

Roland Clare reports from the opening night of the tour:

The heavens above my native Bristol decided to celebrate the Brooker birthday with a cloudburst so protracted and unrelenting that common-sense would have cried off an engagement half a mile away, let alone the other side of the country. Our small street became a torrent, dyed yellow with gravel swept from the studio opposite; as we battled our way to the car, windows peeped out on these mad neighbours, and fire, brimstone, boiling oil and shrieking steam all seemed to come in on cue. All that was lacking was a screaming guitar solo and Gary himself hammering at the piano: we embarked soddenly in search of exactly that remedy!

Sedate and smiling, Royal Tunbridge Wells had been nestling undisturbed all day in the cradle of The Weald, bordered by North and South Downs: the sun had ceaselessly shone, and prosperous serenity was still the watchword as we located the Assembly Rooms among the many large, ostentatious public buildings that throng the top of the town. 'Habitat' sells its homewares from a structure that resembles the Parthenon; the old Opera House serves its drinks and snacks to customers relaxing in the Victorian sumptuousness of theatre boxes all draped in maroon and railed in brass: but they wouldn't serve children there, and we had two with us: one, at seventeen, a veteran gigstress with her own band (more of which below) and one, at thirteen, looking forward to his first big rock'n'roll night out. So we went elsewhere to warm up, dry out, and while away the hours until show-time.

The Assembly Rooms, for all the grand title, looks like an architectural afterthought: bricky, square and uncompromising, it sits next to a Police Station obviously built with left-over materials from the same construction set. And Bill Wyman – his famous mnemonic skills evidently undimmed in his sixty-third year – opened the show with a pertinent question: 'How many of you were 'ere on 17 March 1964?' A roar of affirmation goes up from a forty-, fifty-, sixty-something crowd. 'Liars!' grins the bass-man, who goes on to recall how the Stones, in their only-ever Tunbridge Wells engagement, had ripped up a riot so devastating that they'd been obliged to abandon their second set. 'I don't want that to happen tonight!' he drily informs us, as the band, assembled behind him, launches into Let the Good Times Roll, led by that oh-so-familiar voice.

But I'm filing this report far from home, on an oh-so-unfamiliar keyboard, ergonomically-designed to confound the prestissimo two-fingered typing-style that I'm trapped in: so let's go to note-form – copied from my tiny notebook – for a survey of the evening's music:

  • Bill Wyman (front) with Albert Lee, Terry Taylor, Georgie Fame, Martin Taylor,
    Graham Broad, Beverley Skeete, Gary Brooker

  • How odd that the picture of the band in the tour programme (see above) shows Martin Taylor in the middle, yet on the flyer – printed earlier – he has apparently been edited out of the very same image (see left). Was there some doubt about his participation? It would have been a huge loss if he hadn't been there!

    I ask Graham Broad how he felt about the cancelled festival appearance. 'Were you fed up?' 'Fed up? No, something stronger.' Graham weighs his words. 'I'd say … I was peeved!' he impishly concludes. He was longing to work with Procol Harum again, though the Poland gig would have clashed with three months' work Roger Waters had offered him. 'I rang Gary and explained the difficulty, said I could find him another drummer, just my style. Gary really puts me through it,' he laughs, 'telling me "I might not like this bloke!" and so on and so on. Only after we'd been talking half and hour does he actually tell me the gig's been cancelled!'

    We wipe our sweating brows as Graham recalls the 1995 Harum tour, learning the songs as he went along. 'We rehearsed sixty numbers, but never did any endings, you know. And there's never a setlist! Gary'll suddenly say Grand Hotel and Matt Pegg and I look at each other, "What’s that?".' I tell Graham that the 'informal' recordings of that tour chart his rapidly-growing familiarity with the material. He explains that Gary likes to keep his band on their toes, and his approving tone reflects a conviction that this is the mark of a good bandleader!

    Our Peter confesses that he doesn't much care for the use of brushes on the first Kings' CD: Graham explains that they recorded as many as seventy tracks for that record, before Bill decided that he didn't want it to sound like a big rock band. 'He wanted it more intimate, so we did one with brushes. Then he liked that, so we scrapped the lot and went on. Each time I would say, "What this one needs is a bit of sticks!" and he would tell me it didn't. So it become a bit of a standing joke.' Peter seems pleased to be in on this joke!

    And how had the Kings' gig felt in the drummer's seat tonight? 'OK. They were a nice audience. Polite!' But if Graham had felt 'a bit edgy' with his monitor mix, nothing had shown amiss in the hall. BtP will talk to him in September, all being well: working with Roger Waters then Tina Turner, he won't be home until then!

    Finally, on the last few molecules of oxygen in the dressing room, the Commander himself, and some traditional questions: 'Your CV mentions that you're writing new material. Is that for Procol Harum?' 'Who says that?' I explain that I'm referring to the document recently put out by his office, you know, 'the one that says your luck started with AWSoP.' 'Well that's not true, is it?' Gary challenges. 'I wasn't run over by a bus before that, was I?' And with this deft, comic evasion, the important question is neatly passed over.

    'Tell us about Heartbreaker.'

    'It's a number.'


    'Yes. But we rehearsed it.'

    'Your own song?'


    'Dating from when?'


    But the effort of this impassive stonewalling overcomes him, and he bursts into a broad self-mocking grin.

    'It's for my new solo-album, you know!'

    Markedly less exhausted than he was after the Guildford concert, Gary continues to chat most amiably, asking if we're heading back to Bristol, then recalling that it's half-term break in my profession. He makes warm references to BtP: he sends his good wishes to Jens, and to all the community of Palers he says (and I quote!) 'Hello Palers!' I pass him a paper copy of Beverly's poem, in case he hasn't been able to check in to the website during the day. I finally ask if he's online himself yet. 'I think I might be. I was sent a disc. But when I pressed the button, nothing happened. So the answer is, yes, I think I am. I'm online without knowing it!'

    And there we must leave Dressing-room 6, The Assembly Hall, Royal Tunbridge Wells, and the Rhythm Kings, and a fine evening capped, as ever, by Maestro Brooker, El Gubernator, generous, humorous, an undisputed master-musician: yet effortlessly mysterious to the last!

    Rhythm Kings 1999 tour

    More Brooker / Rhythm Kings information here

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