Procol Harum

the Pale

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Thirty over Forty (2)

W George Lovell for 'Beyond the Pale'

I have been a fan of Procol Harum ever since A Whiter Shade of Pale insinuated itself on my consciousness in June 1967. Just turned sixteen, I had never heard anything like it before. Back then in Glasgow there was precious little sign, at least in my teenage travails, of the love that was said to mark the summer elsewhere, but I lived in hope. It took two more years for the arrow to pierce, and another year after that until I finally got to hear Procol Harum play live in concert. The two events are milestones in my life, ones I have been moved to write about in a memoir that takes its title, The Waiter Brought a Tray, from one of Keith Reid’s signature lines in A Whiter Shade of Pale.  My memoir charts seventeen of my twenty-seven concert outings with Procol Harum between 1970 and 2007, beginning at Green’s Playhouse in Glasgow and ending at St John’s Smith Square in London.

What follows are vignettes that bring my gig tally to thirty – itinerant forays across Europe and North America in pursuit of a passion that has lasted forty years, one that (like Procol Harum itself) shines on brightly.

Lofty Peak Twenty-Nine (Canandaigua, NY, 17 June 2010)

The drive down from Canada I had done by way of Vermont, as dreamy a part of New England as its old country namesake, but I did not make the long haul to Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, the next port of call on the Procol schedule. Much as I would have liked to hear the band headline on its own, as at Tarrytown the week before, work commitments made that impractical. A day off between gigs afforded me the opportunity to visit the John Carter Brown Library, which has offered me a fellowship for a two-month stint there in 2011. At Chris’s suggestion, we took the train to Providence, Rhode Island, and spent a pleasant day planning our next “conquistador” chronicle, which will be informed by what I find in the library’s prize holdings.

The car loaded with research materials Chris wished me to take to Canada, I left Boston early the following morning for Canandaigua, a town tucked in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. It was slower journey, by far, than I had anticipated, almost four o’clock by the time I pulled into the parking lot of the CMAC arena. Another colleague and good friend, anthropologist William A Starna, is co-author of an article called The Road to Canandaigua, which documents not my grueling passage from eastern seaboard to continental interior but that of an aggressive United States of America, whose juggernaut ambitions in the wake of Independence were tempered by the need to negotiate with the indigenous polity known as the Six Nations. The Treaty of Canandaigua, brokered in 1794, “ended a turbulent period of enmity that had threatened to engulf the fledging United States in what would have been a destructive Indian War.” It remains what Starna and his writing partner Jack Campisi identify as “the primary basis for Iroquois assertions of sovereignty.” These I found to be alive and well when Rob, a stout Native American in charge of the parking lot, asserted his own notions of “Iroquois sovereignty” after he found out how long and far I had driven to get to the gig.

“All the way from Canada to Boston, and then out here? Man, you must like that band.” Rob wasn’t referring to Jethro Tull, for whom Procol Harum again were opening, as he’d noticed my licence plate (WGL 1PH) and inquired what it meant (William George Lovell considers the number 1 rock band of all time to be Procol Harum). He hooted with laughter after I filled him in. His counsel on how to maximise my time in Canandaigua, and get from it what mattered most, was as savvy as that of his pertinacious forbears.

“See my car? Park yours alongside it, facing forward so that you can get away quickly when you leave. You’re way too early for show time. They won’t let you in until an hour or so before the start. If you approach the main entrance how you’re supposed to, they’ll turn you back. See those trees over there?” He pointed to a wooded area below the CMAC arena. “A trail goes through that comes out behind the stage, where the performers and VIPs go in. I told you nothing, never even seen you. Good luck, you crazy Canuck!”

Immigrant Canadian credentials on this occasion had trumped my home-grown Scottish status. I donned my eponymous first-album tee-shirt, packed a bag, and fled. Rob’s instructions were those of a frontiersman who knows the lay of the land. A trail skirted a pool inside the forest that indeed led to the rear of the arena. I peered through the trees at trail’s end. Beyond it, relaxing on a terrace, soaking up the sun, I noticed a group of familiar looking people, one pipe-smoking individual in particular, even though he had his back to me. A couple of them glanced curiously at me as I emerged from the bush, which I did as nonchalantly as I could, though I felt a bit like Davy Crockett.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen. Enjoying this lovely weather?”

Gary turned around when he heard my voice. “It’s George Lovell! Where’ve you come from? Honduras?” The woods I had tramped through were thick and had concealed me from view, but were not that tricky to traverse, certainly nothing like the back roads of Olancho province in Honduras. “From Canada,” I replied. “But via Boston. I heard you all play there a couple of evenings ago, great concert. And I’ll catch you tomorrow too, all going well, in Toronto.”

Matt, with whom I’d hung out most memorably at the Fillmore in San Francisco in 2003, grinned at me. “Come on up and join us.” I did, introducing myself again to Josh and to Geoff Dunn, giving the other Geoff a manly embrace. We chatted away, Josh teasing me after Gary, to whom I had gifted one of my books some years ago, told him what I write about.

“Conquest and survival in colonial Guatemala,” he repeated. “A bit of a niche market that is, I’d have thought.” The Gravesend guitar guru quipped, “He’s thinking of following that one up with a study of Greek coins. That’ll top the best-seller lists.” A good chuckle was had by all. Then Gary, noticing that the Jethro Tull sound check had concluded, stood up. “Don’t want to make a nuisance of ourselves. But if they’re not on, it’s our turn.” Off they went.

I wanted very much to catch the Procol Harum sound check, but a zealous security guard was zooming in fast. I had to think quickly. The tour bus in which the band was traveling was parked nearby. Out from it, most opportunely, stepped manager Chris Cooke, who recognised me. We exchanged greetings. I asked Chris for clearance to set up shop at the retail stand where Procol CDs and DVDs would be on offer, thus allowing me to display copies of The Waiter Brought a Tray, which I had packed in my satchel. Proceeds from sales of the book help support ‘Beyond the Pale’, the Procol Harum website ( that sustains us all.

“Fine by me, George,” I heard Chris say, mercifully within earshot of the security guard, who was now hovering behind me. “But get the OK also from Karen, who works for CMAC. That’s her over there.” He nodded toward a woman who not only escorted me to the retail stand, where Jethro Tull merchandise far outstripped that of Procol Harum, but who also provided me with a chair. No sooner had I finished displaying my wares when the sound check started. Karen volunteered to keep her eye on my corner as I dashed off.

For almost half an hour instrumental fragments, including extended portions from The Blink of an Eye and Conquistador, were served up by Messrs Dunn, Pegg, Phillips, and Whitehorn. Then Gary sat down and the band played, from start to finish, no holds barred, The Devil Came from Kansas, Grand Hotel, and Shine on Brightly. As Gary’s voice tailed off on the last song, Josh snuck in a bit of A Whiter Shade of Pale. Geoff the drummer stayed behind fine tuning as his four mates left the stage and returned to that sunny terrace behind it, where he later joined them.

The corner locale Karen had designated me afforded an unobstructed view of what was clearly the band’s preferred CMAC rendezvous. Drinks were served as the sun beat down, culminating in a decision by all four sound-check instrumentalists to take off their shirts. Ever the paragon of good judgment, Gary kept his on. Milk-white English torsos, meanwhile, absorbed the glorious June rays until it was time to return to the stage, fully attired.

I spent about an hour selling and signing books to diehard Procol fans, among them Howard Christie, Mark Storrier, and fellow geographer Arturs Kalnins, as well as catching up with fellow travelers Jennifer and Kerry Holloway from previous Procol excursions. We all agreed that security arrangements on the North American circuit made fraternising with the band difficult if not impossible, much preferring how things were handled at European venues, especially ones that involved attendant Paler festivities. I left my station in Karen’s capable hands when I heard Shine on Brightly start up.

The first six offerings were the same as the Boston set, save for Whaling Stories making room for a sumptuous Grand Hotel. Gary reminisced, “We’re in a motel just down the road, so the lines of this song are just memories, a little indulgence.”

At the sound check guitarist Geoff, instead of singing “the nights we dine at Hotel Ritz,” had crooned “the nights we dine on fish’n’chips.” He didn’t mix up his lines this time around, though he and his associates were out of synch in the build up to the next song.

“I’ve been doing this for forty-five years,” Gary moaned, “and still they can’t count!” He tried again, this time successfully, to coordinate the unleashing of The Devil Came from Kansas” one of the best versions of it I’ve heard. Its thumping delivery was followed by Conquistador, A Salty Dog, and Simple Sister. From a field above the seating area, where I roamed as the set drew to a close, I heard A Whiter Shade of Pale played as the sun slipped to rest and Lake Canandaigua turned a silvery dark blue. No Barnyard Story this evening, but a warm inner glow nonetheless.

I thanked Karen for helping me out, and bade Rob farewell. I rolled down the car windows and sucked in the fresh night air. Wafts of Jethro Tull’s Bourée sped me east to Syracuse, then north to Watertown and across the St. Lawrence to Kingston, Ontario, where I arrived home in the wee small hours with one more gig on the horizon.

More about George's excellent Procol Harum book

More writings by W. George Lovell

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