Procol Harum

the Pale

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Thirty over Forty (3)

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 Number Thirty (Toronto, 18 June 2010) 

Kingston lies on the northeastern edge of Lake Ontario halfway between Montreal and Toronto, due south of Ottawa. Procol Harum last played in these parts seven years ago, at the now defunct Le Spectrum in Montreal. My partner, Maureen, had accompanied me on that outing, and was coming along with me to hear the band play in Toronto, its first gig there since 1993, as part of her birthday celebrations.

We breezed west along Highway 401 until we hit the outskirts of Toronto, crawling into a city centre not only choked up with cars but also with streets blocked off in anticipation of the upcoming G20 summit. The advice of our friend Wendy Kramer – her daughter Maya’s Bat Mitzvah featured some Procol Harum karaoke, a first for me, and also for bemused guests astonished by my sing-along antics – was to follow Bathurst Street all the way down to the lakeshore, then turn right and keep our eyes peeled. It was very slow going, but we reached Ontario Place in plenty of time.

I got scalped $20 for parking – Iroquois Rob had spared me at Canandaigua – and found a place in the vast expanse of asphalt not too far from the Molson Amphitheatre. If security was tight the night before on the American side of the border, Canada upped the ante. It was as if the concert had been taken over by security personnel for a G20 training camp. Our tickets were asked for three times and, as at airports, not even a bottle of water was allowed through. My heart sank when I saw a long line of people, all of whom already had tickets, waiting to go through one solitary turnstile. The sight of a face I knew well, however, cheered me up.

“Jens,” I hollered, delighted to stumble on to one of our two illustrious BtP webmasters, who was with his wife, Titti, and two other Procoholics from Scandinavia, Ingelise and Peter Justesen. They absorbed Maureen and me at their juncture in the queue, saving us (with the kind permission of people behind them) from more extended waiting. All four were bound for Chicago after the Toronto date, the last gig of the tour, another one I couldn’t make.

We took our assigned seats and compared notes about the age profile of those in attendance. At Le Spectrum in 2003, fifty-year-olds like us were the dominant demographic. By contrast, the range around us at Molson Amphitheatre was impressive. Three teenagers sat excitedly to our right, a more sedate elderly couple to our left. And not everyone had come primarily to hear Jethro Tull, for a rowdy threesome behind us, after Procol Harum kicked off, kept screaming for Piggy Pig Pig, which I would have loved to hear also.

Honed to perfection, the set replicated that of Canandaigua and, as it transpired, that too of Chicago two evenings hence. Contractual obligations apparently demanded a performance that lasted no more than an hour, so fitting in twelve songs required tight and disciplined as well as accomplished playing. Gary, consummate showman and maestro extraordinaire, made sure to ground his interlinear comments in the specifics of time and place. Introducing Conquistador, for instance, he recalled Procol Harum’s fruitful collaboration with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in November 1971, noting also that it was in another Canadian city, nearby Stratford, that the band first performed live in an orchestral setting, in July 1969. Dedicating A Salty Dog to “All those who watch us from above,” Gary invoked the late Procol drummer who played on those orchestral dates and countless gigs besides, BJ Wilson, whom I suspect was the celestial source behind ensuring that real seagulls circled and cawed when the Brooker/Reid masterpiece was played, to rapturous acclaim.

When A Whiter Shade of Pale triggered a prolonged standing ovation, Geoff Whitehorn channeled the crowd’s approval toward “the man we really wanted to be our next prime minister.” Gary Brooker, to the best of my knowledge, did not attend the G20 summit. Had he and the rest of Procol Harum been invited to do so, playing As Strong as Samson and The Emperor’s New Clothes would have given delegates more of substance to think about than the selfish deliberations of rich countries about a poor world.

As we wandered off, I marvelled yet again at how music I first heard as an adolescent sustains me still in middle age – and how, especially, the prospect of hearing that music played live keeps me looking forward. Two performances early next year with the Danish National Concert Orchestra and Choir have already caught my eye. Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen, here I come.  

More about George's excellent Procol Harum book

More writings by W. George Lovell

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