Procol Harum

the Pale

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A Pair for the Prairie (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-Three (Edmonton, Alberta, 9 November 2010)

Like so much else in a canon that reeks of avant-garde, Procol Harum may be considered the pioneers of “symphonic rock.” Other groups most certainly deserve a mention – Deep Purple and The Moody Blues, for instance, The Nice and, of course, The Beatles. When it comes to engaging creatively with classical formats, however, and challenging the traditions of established genres, Procol Harum blaze a trail like no other. 18 November 1971, the night they played at the Jubilee Auditorium with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, accompanied by the Da Camera Singers, is a musical milestone.

“To say our one and a half days of recording had gone smoothly would not be true,” confessed one “GB”, penning thoughts that would later appear on the back cover of the Chrysalis vinyl release of the concert in April 1972. “Mr Brooker” was of the opinion that “instead of confidence” the state of readiness most apparent was “excited nervousness.” Nothing’s better left unsaid, right? The Salvo CD reissue, which enhances the earlier album by incorporating three additional tracks, contains a fact-filled booklet that expands upon Gary’s straight talking, alluding to conditions laid down by the Symphony’s Musicians’ Union, the detention of equipment by Canadian Customs, and how to ensure that “we and everybody else will be at our best.” Gary’s leap of faith is articulated despite the fact that the Edmonton gig featured two newcomers to the Procol lineup, Dave Ball on guitar and Alan Cartwright on bass, as well as the participation of a non-professional choir whose members, because they were gainfully employed during the day, could not attend an afternoon rehearsal. How did they pull it off?

“When it came to actually putting the record together, there were lots of edits,” observes Chrysalis producer Chris Thomas. “It looked like a zebra crossing, but fortunately every single edit worked. I felt that God must be looking after us.” Having been invoked in Whaling Stories, in which débutante Ball struts his stuff in style, the Good Lord surely did watch closely from on high, facilitating a collaboration that drew critical praise from an often parsimonious, and always picky, British musical press. Writing in the New Musical Express after being treated to a sneak preview, Tony Stewart described the Edmonton endeavor as a “new rock classic,” disclosing that “Journalists near on wet themselves in Edmonton, Canada, last November, when the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and a choir joined Procol Harum for a concert that was to fuse the classics and rock into a firmer foundation than ever before.” A critic in Melody Maker concurred, though not with quite so much gush. “One of the finest pieces of music released this year,” it was hailed. “The orchestra is used to colour the music rather than running away with itself.” Stewart relates that, for Gary, the experience was “exciting, really exciting – especially with the choir. I don’t know if I’d enjoy playing with only an orchestra. But a choir … Maybe it’s because I sing as well, but I really like choirs.” A year shy of forty later, with the Winspear Centre replacing the Jubilee Auditorium as the scene of enactment, Procol Harum are to reunite with the Edmonton Symphony and the Da Camera Singers. I’m there.

Conductor William Eddins greets the sold-out house impishly. “Did you remember to set your watches back?” he inquires, in reference to the end of Daylight Saving Time over the weekend. An hour is not what he has in mind, though, when he sees some members of the audience nod their heads: insufficient amount of change. “Tonight we go all the way back to 18 November 1971,” Eddins announces. “Returning to play with the Edmonton Symphony, YOUR Procol Harum!” His emphatic iteration of civic attachment, of esteemed past affiliation, elicits a thunderous ovation as Procol Harum align themselves in front of conductor, orchestra, and choir. History, once again, is about to be made.    

Even though he is in the midst of a battery of instruments, and musicians who know how to play them very well, Gary opts for solo piano and voice to start things off. I have heard him play Homburg this way before, and other Brooker/Reid songs too, which prompted me to devise a “wish list” of Procol Harum numbers singled out for such rendition. “Who’d be interested in that, George?” was his quizzical response when I plucked up the courage to mention it to him. Many of us, I hazard. The minimalist manner in which the music begins lasts for most of the first verse. By the time we hear of “the town clock in the market square … waiting for the hour” the acoustics of the Winspear Centre have been probed to full accompaniment, and pass the test cum laude. To my ears Shine on Brightly which follows, sounds far more muted, Geoff’s guitar almost gagged. Maximum potential is re-attained with a majestic Grand Hotel, Gary dressing for the occasion by donning a pop-up top hat. He collapses his headpiece once Simple Sister gets going, embellished by flutes and a xylophone.

“Let’s celebrate a bit of sunshine,” the vocalist declares, as he moves to centre stage to sing Mr Blue Day, with Josh replacing him on piano. The three selections that end the first set – Whaling Stories, Something Magic, and A Salty Dog – push the collective effort to the limit.

Gary opens the second set much as he did the first, with solo piano and voice turning A Whiter Shade of Pale prior to band, orchestral, and choral involvement. During Toujours l’Amour a columnist for The Edmonton Sun, Mike Ross, reported the next day that “the band bullied the orchestra to the sidelines.” I didn’t think so, but most definitely the Edmonton Symphony has more of a say in Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) and the Da Camera Singers in Butterfly Boys – plenty of commission for everyone involved in these two numbers.

Then comes a moment I have waited close to four decades to delight in once more, the culmination not only of this evening but of many an outing – hearing In Held ’Twas in I narrated and played live in its entirety. Though I actually participated in its being performed at the Palers' gathering in Denmark in August 2006, not since the concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Chorale at the Rainbow Theatre in September 1972 have I heard the five-part suite performed by Procol Harum. I wallow in its sobriety, the antics of Teatime at the Circus notwithstanding, from “the darkness of the night” to the epiphany of Grand Finale. An enraptured audience calls out for more and is rewarded with an encore of Conquistador, Josh furnishing some outstanding flourishes on the organ. What a night!

But it’s not over yet. As I exit the Winspear Centre on to Churchill Square I bump into Dave Ball, who might not be playing guitar with Procol Harum any more but whose sense of what it all means has brought him back to Edmonton. He introduces me to Iris, for whom the logo on his business card – Truth, Trust, No Fear – seems perfectly struck.

"We’re meeting the lads at Sherlock Holmes,” he beams. “Why don’t you join us?”

"I have to go back to my hotel and make a call. I can come along later. Where is it?”

“Elementary, my dear Watson,” he responds, and gives me the coordinates of a nearby watering hole that bears the great detective’s name. There, sure enough, the “lads” are assembled, and (like chandeliers) in full swing when I arrive.

I happen to be reading Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked. The novel revolves around the delusions and excesses of Duncan Thomson, a devout fan, in relation to his idol, the legendary (and reclusive) Tucker Crow. The singer/songwriter has attained cult standing in the eyes of a cadre of loyal followers like Duncan, who dissect Tucker’s legacy and subject it to minute scrutiny, concocting theses on what his music and lyrics are all about. Hornby’s insights about over-the-top reverence and manic mores unsettle as much as they raise a smile. I do my utmost to keep my love of Procol Harum grounded and in some kind of perspective, and try hard not to let it become an obtuse fetish, the object of unwelcome derision in the minds of the vast majority of humanity for whom the name means nothing. Above all else (confusion reigns) I aspire to behave around band members as I would in the company of any other person – naturally and normally, wishing to be neither intrusive nor invasive, contentedly hanging out and chatting if the opportunity arises, hoping not to be thought imprudent or in the way, perhaps able to offer something in return besides unmitigated worship. I confess, though, that parts of Juliet, Naked cut close to home for me, and I don’t mean (for once) that fabulous fourth album, perhaps my favourite.

I am on guard, then, and I trust not too self-conscious, when I speak with Josh and Matt, carouse with the Geoffs, and converse with Gary in the clamour of Sherlock Holmes. As luck would have it, I can actually do a good turn by going outside to let Gary know – he’d left the premises for a smoke – that the spring rolls he ordered await him at the bar. This perfectly ordinary action gives me the confidence to inform him, while he eats and I sip a stout, about a long-lost love of mine, one dating back to when A Salty Dog first came out, a German (not a French) girl with whom I have become re-acquainted. He smiles and expresses his pleasure at the news. I ask him to autograph a CD booklet for her, which he affectionately does, as well as original Deram and Regal Zonophone 45s of A Whiter Shade of Pale and Homburg. I tell him how much I enjoyed hearing Kaleidoscope played at the gigs in Harrisburg and Collingswood, and In Held ’Twas in I this evening, especially Look to Your Soul. He takes it all – be kind and humour those like me – in his stride.

"Cool as a cucumber” was Tony Stewart’s assessment of “understated, thoughtful pianist/singer Gary Brooker” in his NME profile in 1972. If the lesson lies in learning, an even wiser man’s fool keeps Procol Harum on track four decades on.

More about George's excellent Procol Harum book

More writings by W. George Lovell

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