Procol Harum

the Pale

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Two for the Road (1)

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-One (Harrisburg PA, 4 November 2010)

Dark. The texture of Home is in synch with my pre-dawn departure. The sun comes up as I head east along the Saint Lawrence Parkway. A ten-minute cameo is all the light it radiates the entire day, a wan peek along the river. Black clouds shut down the sky. I cross the border, and on comes the rain. It falls, at times heavily, from Watertown (how appropriate, I say to myself, as the windshield wipers arc back and forth relentlessly) to Harrisburg. The journey from upstate New York to southern Pennsylvania turns into a sodden, eight-hour drag. It was dark when I headed out, and it’s dark when I pull the car up to the Crowne Plaza Hotel, my home for the night. A bath and a change of clothes give me a much-needed lift, and I’m good to go.

The Forum Theatre, a short walk away, lies adjacent to the grounds of the handsome state legislature, and there I bump into some familiar faces – Freddie, the self-anointed Unsteady One, who in fact has been a stable fixture at many of the Procol Harum events I’ve attended over the years, and Marvin Chassman, Tito Davila, and Evan Wagshul, a trio of Procoholics who have become dear friends. In attendance, also, is the incorrigible Allen Edelist, a salty dog who I am certain could get himself to a Procol Harum concert were it staged on a Polynesian atoll unknown to man, but not to One-Eye’s travel agent. Even though Marvin secured me a ticket several months ago, Allen has an extra one a-begging, in the very front row. I take the prized seat next to that Devil from Kansas, Pat Keating, in whose company I heard Procol Harum play on Cape Cod in 1995. The house lights dim. Positions on a crepuscular stage are assumed to scant applause. The attendance on this chilly damp night is loyal, but thin, the tastefully restored theatre less than half-full: a pity.

Gary Brooker counts the beat – one, two three, FOUR – from his seat at a Yamaha, not a Roland piano, and Shine on Brightly bursts forth, sunnier by far than any weather I witnessed on the drive down. That emblematic opener is followed by Homburg and The Wall Street Blues. Gary reminds us that Keith Reid penned the lyrics of the latter, most presciently, several years before Lehman Brothers became household curse words, shorthand for financial crisis. He then leads us into The Idol, which features some adroit guitar work by Geoff Whitehorn. TransAtlantic passage, however, is taking its toll. Gary yawns and starts dozily droning Lee Marvin’s I Was Born Under a Wandering Star before easing us into A Dream in Ev’ry Home. Up next comes a piece “written for the electric guitar,” the rollicking Simple Sister – composed with the bass guitar in mind also, if Matt Pegg’s stellar playing is anything to judge by. Matt is in top form, too, during the ethereal Strangers in Space, Josh Phillips on organ as well. Two up-tempo numbers, The VIP Room and Juicy John Pink, are interspersed by tongue-in-cheek asides.

“An Englishman and his breakfast can never be parted,” muses Gary, recalling the group’s jet-lagged arrival at a restaurant that morning, when they sat down to break their fast only to discover that the designated hour for the most important meal of the day had long since passed. “Good job we’d brought along some Marmite,” he quips, before coaxing Geoff and Matt into “Monkee-ing” around by mimicking “Hey, hey, we’re the Procols / We all love Procol-ing around.” A sombre volte-face puts paid to any further tomfoolery, as Barnyard Story is recounted. I spare a thought for my brother Henrik in Denmark, and hope he’s paling well. Next comes one of the band’s “Three Boxes,” the one about Pandora. Gary turns reflective.

“Anyone ever been to England?” he wonders aloud. “Not like it used to be.” The poignant An Old English Dream sees him look back not only in time but, literally, upward in space, his eyes catching a beautifully-wrought frieze that adorns The Forum’s ceiling, its ornate circular form decorated with the signs of the Zodiac. I had noticed it earlier, during a leisurely reconnaissance of the premises, and glanced up at it during apt lines in Strangers in Space and Juicy John Pink. Like the words of the song he has just finished singing, Gary brings us back down to earth. “Make a good album cover that would,” is his critical appraisal of the frieze’s aesthetic potential. Then, completely unexpected, comes what for me turns out to be the highlight of the evening.

The material at hand for the eponymous first album, I recall Robin Trower once stating, was among the best ever available to Procol Harum when studio recording was called for. Salad Days (Are Here Again) has always been a favourite of mine, Repent Walpurgis too. It takes me a while to figure out, after a celestial lead-in keeps me guessing, that the band are about to launch into Kaleidoscope, a song that now ranks right up there for me, its riffs and chords resounding with new-found edge and vitality. I am mesmerised by its reinvention, amazed at hearing a song I believed I knew well played as never before. What a galloping way to wind things down, I decide, with Geoff Dunn’s resourceful drumming keeping the ensemble tight and focused throughout.

The patience of the faithful few, who clapped loud and long for an encore, is eventually rewarded by A Salty Dog. Gary’s respectful dedication “to those who watch us from above” is complemented by a visceral “and who can see we’re having a bloody good time.” Great to hear and observe! The lines of Conquistador make me think of what I’ll be getting up to the next day, and A Whiter Shade of Pale closes the concert in time-honoured fashion, with the crowd (or what passes for it) calling out for more.

No “more” is delivered musically, but at the Appalachian Brewing Company I rub shoulders with the band during post-gig revelry, standing guitar maestro Geoff a draught of local ale. Gary opts for a vodka and coke. Josh shouts for a pint for me, Matt and drummer Geoff on a roll of their own. The wee small hours, like the bar bills, accumulate to considerably more than sixpence. It’s 3 am by the time Tito and I walk back to our hotels, the magic of Kaleidoscope still ringing in my ears.       

More about George's excellent Procol Harum book

More writings by W. George Lovell

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