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the Pale

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Procol Harum : 'Scenes From A Doll's House'

Alan Matthews reports

A long three-year absence from any Procol Harum performance ended with another major event in the long history of this remarkable band. Sunday 17th September 2000 at The Web Arts Festival in Guildford marked the time and place for Procol’s latest venture into the world of orchestrated pop music. The band’s previous ‘conducted’ outings are well documented, the most recent being the glorious performance with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican in 1996.

So how would this latest extravaganza compare? The trouble with time is that expectation can increase with its passing and perhaps such a long gap ensured that such high expectation would become impossible to fulfil. The omens weren’t encouraging. The sky became cloudy and threatening as the day wore on. The stage looked just about adequate for the impressive array of regional young bands who performed during the day, but to accommodate a band, orchestra and choir? But more worrying to these eagerly anticipating ears: Gary Brooker’s voice sounded decidedly croaky during the previous night’s rendition of A Rum Tale at the fan’s convention. Was he recovering from every vocalist’s bane, a cold or throat infection?

Weatherwise the gods must have been smiling, for as the hour approached the most wonderful sunset glorified the scene. A crowd of in the region of a thousand souls gathered around a slanting doll’s house to witness its occupants act out an ambitious musical drama comprising tales of discovery, conquest, war, gluttony, decadence, extravagance, madness, evil and much more besides.

"Cosi fan tutti," was how Gary described his temporary house-sharing arrangement and somehow you just knew there would be no ballet interpretation of Simple Sister this time around. As they entered the living room the orchestra members fought over the plastic chairs rather like a perverse grown-up version of musical chairs whilst the choir had the indignity of being squeezed reluctantly into a giant wardrobe upstairs in the main bedroom. I’ve often wondered what classically-trained musicians feel about slumming it with pop groups. The band members took their places at various locations as if ready to play hide and seek. The welcome mat was laid down and Mark Brzezicki from the porch got the ball rolling with a bass drum, snare, and cowbell pattern signalling the start of Bringing Home The Bacon, a dependable opener, with Mick Grabham reproducing those tremendous lead guitar solos. But, what, no orchestral accompaniment? More on this later. Still, just as well really, as two violinists were still squabbling over the last available chair!

The orchestrated version of Homburg was next up. After the sugary Disney-like intro it was well performed, with subtlety, but during each verse Gary gave the last syllable at the end of almost every line a descending three-note phrase which I found very distracting. By the time Conquistador kicked in I realized that all was not quite right. The sound mix was quite awful. Very little regard was being given to the choir and orchestra which could only be heard with comfort during the quieter passages. Whether meant or not, Mick’s guitar was coming across like an arrogant bully intent on drowning out the more refined cries of the acoustic ensemble whenever they played in tandem. Gary’s voice, which indeed I have previously heard with much more power and assurance, was way too far back in the mix - being seated in the newly-decorated study, he sometimes sounded like he was wandering for the garden fence! Was this situation a consequence of the premium placed on stage space, there not being enough room for adequate miking for singers and musicians? Not being a sound engineer I didn’t take note of the quantity or placing of microphones.

Shine On Brightly next. No need for embellishment here. Never fails to move; a timeless classic, with Mark (as on Bringing Home The Bacon) doing a grand job of paying homage to BJ Wilson’s dramatic drum part and Matthew Fisher coming into his own with those baroque flourishes. The orchestra and choir should have dominated on Grand Hotel. However their diminished placement in the overall sound balance resulted in the song not quite having the same amount of grand style and elegance as the recorded version. Again, Gary makes little distractive changes to the melody; this time lazily delaying each line of the descriptive second parts of each verse.

The orchestral opening of Pandora’s Box made way for a jaunty rhythmic rendition of the song. "I know that sounds a bit of a shock, doesn’t it?" said Gary, sarcastically describing its mid-70s chart success. A nice change in feel to what had gone before saw Procol in their not quite funky mode. I even spotted several female members of the choir bopping along to this one. As best they could anyway - pogoing wouldn’t have been appropriate somehow. Whether by artistic judgement or forgetfulness Gary decided to reverse verses 2 and 3. Not being one of Keith Reid’s more comprehensible or meaningful lyrics it made no difference. Again you could just about hear the brass and strings mimic the marimba motif during the chorus above the sustained guitar sound.

A false start gave Beyond The Pale a comically stuttered intro. "No, no, I didn’t mean then." Gary interrupted. "Ever pressed the transpose button when you should have pressed the tune button?" he enquired as way of explanation. Not on a Steinway surely! Matthew, who was quietly assured and superb throughout, however played a rather monotonous barrel organ-like phrase between each line of each verse on this one and Gary’s voice sounded weak in places.

The next track was poignantly dedicated to "our friends and loved ones that hopefully live somewhere nicer". We could guess which ship would be launched and we knew to whom he was particularly referring. A Salty Dog was introduced by a bell, those piano chords and a hesitant choir reciting Latin until the captain cried the first verse. The greatest song ever written (only a personal view you understand).

I don’t like to keep harping on about Gary’s interpretation of his own songs but I must say that (compared with the perfect rendition on the original recording), I dislike the way he now sings the phrases "a sand so white and sea so blue" and "this seaman’s log". I just find them too histrionic for the text he’s conveying and stylistically bordering on schmaltz.

"I’ve just got to stretch my legs, don’t go away," he now uttered as a change in personnel necessitated a great deal of squeezing and fidgeting onstage. Geoff Whitehorn’s more aggressive guitar sound started Man With A Mission, a song I’ve never particularly liked. However tonight Matt Pegg’s lovely funky walking bass part and the Stax-like brass arrangement improved greatly on the original for me.

Cerdes was quite simply superb. All the elements remained intact: steady, simple rhythm, the distinctive high bass guitar but oh so low piano riff, bluesy guitar, terrific Hammond and soulful voice screaming those impenetrable lyrics. "Anyone from Swahili [sic] here?" Gary jokingly enquired before Holding On was performed. The poor sound balance took away from the dominant part the choir should have had while Gary failed to keep tight control on his voice which sounded strained in parts.

Again Gary seemed very curious about the cultural makeup of the crowd: "Got any Goths here at all?" while introducing Matthew’s "great gothic classic" Repent Walpurgis; perfectly executed and without too long a false ending. Straight into Piggy Pig Pig, one of Procol’s more underestimated songs. Gary struggled with its low key which was a shame because the lyrics are particularly engaging. A great opportunity was lost here in that with encouragement audience participation could have added a somewhat surreal element to the event. One could imagine a thousand adults heartily chanting the "piggy pig pig" coda at the top of their voices creating headlines along the lines of ‘Cult of mad sow worshippers in rural Surrey’ in the tabloids the following week.

"A few variations on one we hope you know," was how our leader modestly introduced the next item, often referred to as ‘that song’: this time a full eight minutes and four verses of it. Chopped up, churned out, with verses changed around and a horribly inappropriate soft jazz saxophone solo by Frank Mead in the middle. The nearest you’ll ever get to a Procol Harum dance remix. I know intentions were good but this just didn’t work at all for me. The reception that Matthew’s Hammond received on its introduction before verse 2 (or should that read verse 1?!) told you what has always been and always will be the song’s magical element. Ain’t broke - don’t fix.

Having only heard Into The Flood once before, at the Barbican concert, I was glad to hear it repeated. After further digestion I would suggest that it’s better than anything created since the comeback (or at least on a par with Holding On and King Of Hearts). It’s got so many different elements to commend it: a heavy rock setting comprising changing time signatures, chopping guitar rhythms and riffs, a nice slide guitar break, killer brass hooks and, the icing on the cake, a super classical-to-howdown string middle section. A great one to almost end the evening.

A thoughtful lament in the form of New Lamps For Old started to wind things down a touch before the track we were informed in the festival programme would end the set. This time Frank Mead added nicely to the song with some tasteful improvisation on alto sax. Gary should have encouraged us all to sing along to it, saving his voice a little. Grand Finale was the obvious and perfect … er, grand finale. It now goes without saying that by this time the choir sounded more like a four-piece than forty-piece and the orchestra had seemingly shrunk to a string quartet, trumpet, triangle and cymbal. "Thank you so much … it means so much to us," Gary acknowledged the crowd’s cheers at the end as the fireworks shot out of the doll's house chimney and exploded into the now dark sky. Thank you: Gary it means so much to us too.

I wouldn’t quite describe the performance as something magic; circumstances conspired against that but there were enough highs to send me home quietly satisfied. Putting aside the terrible sound balance I did question the relationship between the group and orchestra. Did they rehearse sufficiently together, if at all? They sometimes seemed to work as two separate entities. During the ‘thank-yous’ Gary looked very unsure as to who the leader was. "Is it you?" he appeared to ask as he held out a tentative hand to shake. I guess economics and time constraints dictate. I also thought that they were a little underused. The ascending instrumental link in Bringing Home The Bacon would have sounded terrific using strings with brass to accent those last two chords. Similarly, what better way to emphasise the dark nature of Piggy Pig Pig than by accentuating its riff with staccato double bass and 'cello.

I also feel it would have been a nice contrast to have had a small ‘acoustic’ section in the set, if only to give those noisy electric guitars a rest! How about Luskus Delph, a lightly orchestrated version of Your Own Choice with, say oboe playing the harmonica coda theme, A Rum Tale solo by Gary at the piano with strings coming in during the key-change organ-solo part, and a string-driven Boredom accompanied by strummed acoustic guitars?

However, these are all just personal fancies determined by my own interpretation of the Procol world developed over many years of delving into the many riches contained within its recorded catalogue. A special event it surely was for all those there who treasure the timeless quality of much of the music. Furthermore for Procol Harum’s music to act as a catalyst for such a global gathering, however comparatively small, given how many people had travelled from so many different places so far away, is testament to the growing influence and of the World Wide Web, and a positive example of its power to unite.

Hopefully there will be plans afoot to organise something very similar in the not-too-distant future. Perhaps after some investment into a sizeable extension to the doll's house?

‘Guildford 2001: A Strangers In Cyberspace Odyssey’.

What do you think, Gary? …Gary?

Thanks, Alan.

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