Nerves Trouble Procol Harum
It was a nervous concert, the Procol Harum – ESO – da Camera singers collaboration, and at times bordered on the bizarre. The 24 singers drew a laugh for their introductory shout to the song Whaling Stories, for which they all rose only to promptly reseat themselves.
Procol pianist Gary Brooker got one too for breaking down in mid-song and confessing quite honestly that it was all messed up. And the whole show received a standing ovation so warm that the three groups elected to play almost the entire program a second time.
The nerves were of course due to the tension under which the concert was placed – the obligations of a live recording. The decision to replay most of it was as much for the benefit of two reels of sixteen-track tape as it was for the enthused audience.
As Gary Brooker admitted, the group was a trifle shaky the first time around, despite ample reinforcement from the house, and would appreciate a second opportunity to 'get it right'.
I most emphatically agree, possibly as in my anticipation my nerves were quite as frayed as the performers', and my disappointment in anything less than perfection quite keen.
From the first song, Conquistador, I received the impression that an attempt was being made to force an excitement on a compliant crowd to which it should rightfully only be persuaded. The unusually heavy-handed drumming of BJ Wilson provided the clue, substantiated by guitarist Ball's over-extended solo that destroyed the orchestra's re-entry.
Not until Shine on Brightly, the fourth number on the program, did orchestra and group sound or feel comfortable. This time, Ball's guitar was under perfect control in the piercing introduction.
Luskus Delph followed the parallel construction of the piece, lending itself admirably to an arrangement for strings that was repeated just once too often to be compelling.
Salty Dog was perfect, Brooker's simple evocative chords the perfect scene-setter for a tale of ships lost at sea. Perhaps the string crescendo before the last chorus wasn't quite strong enough but the criticism is picayune.
The highlight of the evening for me was the cantata, In Held 'Twas in I, a collection of poetry and fine chord-progressions from a somewhat tortured soul. Its opening illustrated one of Procol's favourite orchestral tricks: the construction of musical tension by piling instruments layer upon layer in octaves.
The entry that followed lyricist Keith Reid's contribution to existentialism –'life is like a beanstalk, isn't it?' – was satisfyingly savage, the unison bass and guitar figure later doom-inspiring.
As a whole, the piece was performed masterfully; I would be somewhat reluctant to purchase this version on record, however, as it is virtually identical [sic] to the existing recording. Live, it was particularly memorable for the stage appearance of Reid, who tours with Procol Harum but rarely performs with them, reading an excerpt of the cantata that might be considered a rationalisation for its having been written.
For an encore, Bach's Prelude No 1 in C major from The Well-tempered Klavier sandwiched in an original composition. Aaaaaah Yes [sic!]
Then, a repeat of Conquistador, the second attempt joyously refuting [sic] the uncertainty of the first. The program ended in open triumph for Procol Harum. The flamboyant BJ Wilson, methodical bassist Alan Cartwright, the alert David Ball, Cossack-moustached Gary Brooker and youthful Chris Copping wore pleased smiles.
For the Symphony? Perhaps not the most challenging of performances, but an undoubtedly unusual one.
The record? Don't trust it to judge the show. They can do anything with tape these days.
Many more pages devoted to the Edmonton concert