Procol Harum

the Pale

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Thirty over Forty (1)

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-Eight (Boston, 15 June 2010)

Much as I enjoy the thrill of San Francisco, the buzz of New York, or the glitter of Chicago, Boston remains my favorite American city, its charms (whether of people or of place) myriad and captivating, visit after visit. I never tire of the leafy look and romantic feel of Beacon Hill, where I once toiled away with my colleague and friend Chris Lutz working on a book about the ravages unleashed on Central America by conquistadors who arrived “with sword held high”. Chris, with whom I have collaborated on research projects for over three decades, was aware of how much Procol Harum means to me, and even knew some of their songs; but he had never heard the group perform live. I planned to fix that, so with my long-time Procol pal Wilson Brown, whom I first bumped into at the Paradise Club when the band played in Boston in 1992, we met up and headed over to the Bank of America Pavilion, a premium venue on the city’s historic waterfront, an area very much in the throes of urban renewal. We basked in the sun of a warm summer evening, relishing the breeze and admiring the scene, crowned by the sight of the USS Constitution, illuminated in tall-ship splendour on the far side of the harbour. Drinking a cool Harpoon Ale, brewed on premises just a stone’s throw away, made me wonder if its seafaring name might auger well for a rendition of Whaling Stories. I wasn’t to be disappointed.

At 7.30pm prompt, as they did the very first time I heard them, when they also opened for Jethro Tull, Procol Harum started with Shine on Brightly. Geoff Whitehorn’s guitar riffs swirled resoundingly around the arena, filling up the covered space and spilling over to the open section that I circumnavigated in search of an optimal vantage point. Homburg and Pandora’s Box came next, followed by Whaling Stories; another Harpoon Ale felt more than justified. Sporting a smart white shirt and an elegant red jacket, Gary Brooker, at the helm of his piano keyboard, looked very much master and commander of HMS Procol and crew. When he addressed the audience, however, he assumed the role of financial consultant.

“Anyone out there have money invested with Lehman Brothers?” he inquired. I heard a few disgruntled remarks and some jeering whistles. Gary then turned spiritual advisor, adding “Well if you did, you’ve now got what we’ve all got.” He swung assertively into The Wall Street Blues, reminding us that “they couldn’t have done it without your greed” – point well taken: complicity stalks us at every turn. Tongue-in-cheek reflection of that particular Manhattan malaise became decidedly more solemn with a second song pertaining to New York, The Blink of an Eye, Keith Reid’s meditation on the events of 11 September 2001. No more living on easy street after that incident. A crowd-pleasing Simple Sister changed the mood completely, only for Gary to revert to a more melancholy vein with his next choice. He joked at first that he needed to “slow things down” because of cramp in a dodgy shoulder, and maintained the revelry a few seconds more by introducing bassist Matt Pegg as “formerly of Jethro Tull.” Then he got down to business.

“We don’t play this often,” he remarked. I recognised immediately the sombre strains of Barnyard Story, which I was about to hear played live, four decades in the waiting. Roland Clare’s liner notes to the Live at Ledreborg CD offer some insightful comments from Gary himself about the repertoire, and how best to draw from it.

‘“A lot of Procol stuff is darkness,” he acknowledges. “We have a few slow sunset songs; it’s harder to get the atmosphere of slow ones across – unless it’s a Procol-friendly crowd.”’ Having judged the Boston audience to be “Procol-friendly,” even though most people were there to hear Jethro Tull, Gary’s instinct led him to deliver as dark but beautiful a song as ever was written, right up there in my estimation with Henry Purcell’s finale to Dido and Aeneas.

“Chicken in the farmyard, there’s an oven in your bin,” he sighed. “You are growing old with sorrow; you are growing fat with sin.” Midway through, Geoff strummed a funereal march, after which came the plaintive cry “Maybe death will be my cure,” the Procol Harum lyric echoing Purcell’s imagery of the grim reaper at times being hailed as “a welcome guest”: ‘When I am laid in earth, may my wrongs create / No trouble in thy breast. / Remember me, but forget my fate.’

Having ploughed a reflective furrow, Gary decided to stay put, offering next a heart-breaking rendition of A Salty Dog, during which I drifted back to the shores of my youth. The roll of Geoff Dunn’s drums was like the swell of the sea, furnishing nostalgic momentum. A rollicking Conquistador, featuring some stellar playing by organist Josh Phillips, led almost instantly into A Whiter Shade of Pale, with Geoff cupping his ear to prompt the crowd in calling out for more. It did, but to no avail.

“Always been a good town for Procol Harum, has Boston,” Gary responded as the band lined up to sustained applause, “despite that business about the tea.” Spoken like a proud, mindful member of the Order of the British Empire.

More about George's excellent Procol Harum book

More writings by W. George Lovell

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