Procol Harum

the Pale

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A Pair for the Prairie (2)

W George Lovell for 'Beyond the Pale'


I wasn’t at all sure that I’d be able to fit them in, but I did. It took a fair bit of improvisation, for I was teaching two big undergraduate classes that fall term, with enrolments of some four hundred students. I was able to arrange good cover for the one class I would actually not be at Queen’s University – the one in Kingston, Ontario, not its UK namesake in Belfast, Northern Ireland – to deliver in person. I braced myself, furthermore, for a couple of contingencies at an iffy time of year: come November, the weather on the US eastern seaboard, to say nothing about the Canadian prairies, can nix the best-laid plans of mice and Procol Harum fans. But the prospect of hearing the band play four times in the space of a week, two gigs on their own, two with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, was too tempting not to pursue. Having added three concert outings in the summer of 2010 (see here) to the twenty-seven documented in my memoir, The Waiter Brought a Tray, I relished raising my lifetime “heard-them” tally to thirty-four. The vignettes that follow afford admiration and appreciation of a rock group whose star, unlike that of most, still shines on brightly.
Lofty Peak Thirty-Four (Edmonton, Alberta, 10 November 2010)

George's tome
My room at the Chateau Lacombe overlooks the North Saskatchewan River, along which float tell-tale chunks of ice: no doubt about it, winter is fast approaching, is already here. Off to the east, the sun peers above the horizon as a tiny orange disc. I watch it rise into a clear morning sky, where stars linger then fade in a blue sea of heaven. The city I look down on is still recognisable as the one in which I arrived as a dreamy twenty-two year old, but it has grown considerably. Despite what my school pal, Dougie Low, always alleged, I didn’t actually apply to undertake graduate studies at the University of Alberta because it was in Edmonton that Procol Harum’s concert with the Symphony took place: I applied to the U of A at the suggestion of Philip Ellis, who lectured to us at Glasgow University and who himself had pursued his Master’s degree out in Edmonton. My affiliation with the city, and its university, began in 1973, two years after the great event, but I did hear the band play (without orchestra and choir) at the Jubilee Auditorium in 1975. From that very stage I received my doctorate in 1980, walking across it with Conquistador playing in my mind’s ears, a fitting tribute given the subject of my PhD dissertation – the impact of Spanish colonial rule on native peoples in Guatemala. In 1993, after Procol Harum played at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California, I gifted a copy of the dissertation in book form to Gary. The cover, adapted from a sixteenth-century drawing housed in the university library of my alma mater in Glasgow, depicts a mounted conquistador “with sword held high” waging war against Indians who resist, in vain, with bow and arrow and feathered shields. In 2003, following a conversation with him at the Bottom Line in New York, I sent Keith a copy of another conquistador-related book of mine. These gestures of appreciation on my part may be symbolic, but are nonetheless real.

I revisit old haunts – the rickety houses on 89th and 84th Avenues in which I rented a room, what remains of the Department of Geography in Henry Marshall Tory Building, elsewhere on campus the soccer field I played on with the U of A Golden Bears – and feel at ease with the ebb and flow of memory. At Rutherford Library, for the holdings of the School of Music, I drop off a copy of The Waiter Brought a Tray, having already deposited one downtown at the Edmonton Public Library. I have lunch with David Johnson, a member of my doctoral examination committee, and afternoon tea with Osbert Francis George Sitwell, one of my geography professors with an English literature pedigree. On Whyte Avenue I stumble across Blackbyrd Myoozik, a record store in which I buy the Salvo CD reissue of Procol Harum Live. In Old Strathcona I stroll past the basement apartment I used to live in, and wonder if I can track down the woman who occupied the flat two floors above. After a couple of inquiries, I manage to get her telephone number.

Her name is Sheila Laughton, and though we have not spoken in decades, she remembers me right away. Sheila joined the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in September 1975, and has played ’cello for it ever since. She’s not on the 1971 Procol Harum Live recording, but was in the ranks when orchestra and rock band regrouped in 1992. According to Sheila, unlike the charged circumstances that prevailed in 1971, rehearsals for the 2010 concerts have gone “very smoothly”; she attributes much of that, from an orchestra member’s point of view, to the “clear charts” scored by “Mr Brooker.” She dashes my hopes, though, that rehearsals as well as concerts this time around are again being recorded.

“I don’t think so. At least I haven’t heard anything to that effect. The union would have a say in any such proceedings, and would surely let us know.” While she enjoyed last night’s performance, she tells me she thought it “rather lame,” an opinion similar to that shared with me by Geoff Whitehorn when we were communing in Sherlock Holmes. Both Geoff and Sheila believe that tonight’s show will be more animated, less restrained. “Don’t miss this one, George,” the Gravesend bluesman (his label of himself, not mine) urges me.

I don’t, and how right they turn out to be. It could simply be a case of where I am seated, right next to sound control central, which is manned by audio guru Graham, all concentration as he points to a spot next to him. I had enjoyed a pint with him last night, but he makes it clear there’ll be no time for exchanging any words at the moment.

“Don’t talk to me,” he mouths. “Don’t talk to me.” I do as instructed and position myself silently to his left. He has a set of headphones on for the duration of the concert. The dials of his console he adjusts and calibrates, orchestrating what we hear. I notice a set list taped on one of his monitors, and recognise exactly the same menu as was served last night. This I don’t mind, and resolve to listen for anything that falls on my ears differently. What I am more aware of is how Geoff the drummer is cordoned off from the orchestra by a Plexiglas barrier, which Sheila explained was erected to ensure that his playing is not picked up by the mikes of the orchestra.

Homburg and Shine on Brightly come across much the same, Geoff’s guitar still rather muted, though Josh’s organ anything but. After Grand Hotel Gary asks how many members of the orchestra played with Procol Harum at the Jubilee Auditorium in 1971. Three individuals identify themselves, get to their feet, and take a bow. Simple Sister sees the Da Camera Singers in full voice, and conductor Eddins rocking at his podium. There’s some nifty guitar from Geoff during Whaling Stories, superb drumming from the other Geoff at the “beating of a heart” in Something Magic, and lovely Latin chants from the choir as A Salty Dog takes us to the intermission.

I run into Sascha Kuhlmann (in whom Hermann Braunschmidt cultivated an interest in Procol Harum) in the men’s washroom, and we compare and corroborate notes, which Sascha relays Beyond the Pale to Roland. Back in the concert hall, there’s a man and a little girl now next to me alongside Graham. It turns out that Nicole, the seven-year-old daughter of Johann, is an aspiring singer. Her father has brought Nicole along to hear her music teacher, one of the Da Camera Singers. She’s having a ball, and polishes off an ice cream to the airs of A Whiter Shade of Pale. The song elicits a standing ovation, which Gary nobly acknowledges. He, in turn, extends recognition to Dave Ball, who, in the glare of the aching, baking spotlight, makes his presence known, telling me afterwards that he was “fair chuffed” by Gary’s consideration. Toujours l’Amour – here I now beg to differ with Mike Ross of The Edmonton Sun – is for me proof positive that indeed orchestras can rock, and how. An assertive Butterfly Boys – no fingers in anyone’s ears as best I could tell – again takes us to the pinnacle of the evening.

“Happiness,” volunteers Gary, “is not one of the great Procol things.” He leaves us, however, “alive and well,” if “looking up and wondering why and wherefore” before he passes the baton of spoken words along to Matt Pegg. There is nothing remotely raw in the bassist’s silky delivery, and it all works out in his capable hands. A savage by the name of Ball makes me laugh, though, when we see each other later, at the prospect of Matt narrating his part of Glimpses of Nirvana in unadulterated Brummy. The departing birds of an autumn of madness fly off to be sought in the soul of Winspear Centre, which Procol Harum take their leave of after the rousing romp of Conquistador.

There is no doubt that symphonic rock has conquered Edmonton anew. All we can do is pray that posterity won out over legality, and that (as in 1971) a pair of historic concerts, one of them at least, actually got recorded. Something that magic certainly warrants it.

More about George's excellent Procol Harum book

More writings by W. George Lovell

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