Procol Harum

the Pale

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MMX • Procol Harum live in 2010

The download album , reviewed by Bert Saraco

There are only two types of people that ought to buy MMX, the new Live Procol Harum album: people who are already fans, and people who are not yet fans.

Does that just about cover it? I certainly hope so. All other types of people need not apply, I suppose.

If you're one of the faithful followers that have thrilled to the majestic phrase, “once I stood upon Olympus – then the heavens opened wide,” as well as the more visceral, “streets awash with blood and pus,” you'll recognize that this is indeed a wide-ranging collection of Procol Harum songs, masterfully performed by the powerhouse current line-up of Geoff Whitehorn on guitar and backing vocals, Matt Pegg on bass and backing vocals, Josh Phillips on organ and synthesizer, Geoff Dunn on drums, and of course, on keyboards and vocals, The Commander himself – Gary Brooker.

If you're a long-time fan, MMX is a long-awaited treat: a live album that trades out some coveted CD space (previously occupied by well-covered and well-loved Procol standards) to allow room for fresh, lesser-heard live versions of such concert treasures as The Idol, Robert's Box and Toujours L'Amour.  The decades-spanning set-list (culled from a variety of venues) reaches as far back as the first well-known single (A Whiter Shade of Pale), all the way up to the last studio album (The Well's on Fire), and beyond – featuring three songs being officially released for the first time. Certainly keeping one eye to the future and the other on the past ...

For the uninitiated, a Pandora's Box of delights! As previously mentioned, Procol Harum is sometimes a band of contradictions – earthy and elegant, lofty and visceral, possessing at least as much of a sense of humor as gravitas. Here you have all sides of Procol Harum – an appropriate primer.

The 'full' version of the download is made up of fifteen live performances – thirteen band-only tracks book-ended by two songs with choir and orchestral accompaniment. Barnyard Story, with full orchestration, is the newly-extended version featuring a glorious come-back after the point where the studio track ends. Grand Finale is Gary's original arrangement adapted by David Firman, ending the album with power and elegance, Whitehorn's fiery solo singing a wordless song full of bluesy passion as it winds its way through the wall of sound to emerge a triumphant victor at the last notes, along with band, orchestra and choir.

Sister Mary, the first of three never-before-recorded songs, has a more involved structure than your typical (?) Procol Harum piece. Starting and ending with a middle-eastern flavor (much of which is thanks to Josh Phillips's synth work), the vocals start in a half-sung / half-spoken style before going into the more standard rock-time chorus. There's a wonderful instrumental section in the middle, introduced by a descending keyboard/guitar line, allowing Whitehorn some space to lay out a fluid, fiery solo while Geoff Dunn turns in some spectacular work on the drum kit. The ambitious piece comes full-circle, back to the rocking chorus, then ending in a minor key as the organ and guitar go back down that descending tandem run.

Yours If You Want Me is a low-down blues with the humorous, ironic edge that you'd expect from Procol Harum. After detailing a long list of horrible personality traits and physical defects Brooker sings, “I've got two left feet – dance like a spaz. And the music I like most – is jazz. But I'm yours if you want me – yours if you don't.” The song is either a plea or a threat but I'm not quite sure which. Of course, the playing is wonderful, with spirited soloing from one and all.

War is Not Healthy starts out with a barrage of drums leading into a nasty-sounding riff that would make any blues-rock band envious. The sing-along chorus followed by the list of things that war is (“it's lunacy, it's history, it's victory..... war is not healthy for adults and children”) sounds like something John Lennon might've written in his Give Peace a Chance days, although War is Not Healthy has an interesting instrumental bridge and a more involved structure than Lennon's ant-war anthem. Brooker plays with the timing in and around the chorus to keep things interesting and to raise the song above the level of the typical anti-war chant.

Of course, highlights are many. The fully orchestrated Barnyard Story gives one of those special  moments right off the bat – the kind that makes the hair on your arms stand up. As Strong as Samson has found its definitive live version here – lots of great stuff going on throughout the performance. Listen to the way the band absolutely cooks on the opening of A Dream in Ev'ry Home. Savor the fine ensemble playing on the bluesy, increasingly beautiful Strangers in Space – especially the stunning interplay on the 'so hard' section. Josh Phillips's atmospheric synth gives way to a rich, blues-drenched organ sound at the song's end. Of course, Pegg's melodic, fluid bass shines throughout this track.

All controversy about whether or not a guitar solo should be in A Whiter Shade of Pale should be put to rest by the exquisite solo by Geoff Whitehorn captured on this recording. Studio-perfect? no. Daring and breath-taking? Yes.  As a matter of fact, that's one of the wonderful things about MMX. Here you have a real live recording, even though it's a composite of different performances. Nothing's been fixed in the studio – no auto-tuning, no filtering out random sounds, no fixing minor mistakes. You're hearing a real band, warts and all – and there's not too many warts. These five men are what Frank Zappa used to refer to as 'a tight commando unit.' They can play.

And Gary can sing – oh, yes he can! Brooker's phrasing manages to still hold delightful surprises in a live context. The most identifiable 'instrument' in Procol Harum keeps improving with age.

The consistency and dependability of this Procol Harum line up is an amazing thing, and I'm betting that, if the performances were juggled around and chosen from alternate venues, the result would once again be a fine album, as MMX certainly is. Oh, Gary's phrasing might be different and Whitehorn's solos would explore different areas – and this is certainly what happens at Procol Harum shows ... you get what you came to hear and so much more. After all of these years, they still play like they have one eye on the past and one eye on.... well – you know.

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