In February 1970 my father died peacefully in his sleep in the wee hours following his sixty-second birthday. I was eighteen, and a senior in high school.
In March of that year, a friend of mine acquired Procol Harum's A Salty Dog album. He wasn't particularly interested in it, and knowing that I had been fascinated by its cover for some time, he very graciously laid it on me. I slipped the LP out of its jacket while staring into the enigmatic eyes and ironic smile of the HMS Hero sailor staring back at me.
From the opening chords of the title track, with its strange harmonies evoking a romantic voyage on the high seas of a distant time and place, I was swept overboard into the music of the band that would become my favorite for years to come.
So many things resonated in Procol Harum. The marriage of classical music as a rich harmonic rhythm bed for bluesy rock 'n' roll. Gary Brooker's unique soulful voice, seemingly the voice of my own soul! The poetic and literary themes of Keith Reid's lyrics. The cinematographic imagery the music evoked. And from my own personal situation at the time, it stared death in the face [like the salty dog on the cover] and gave some kind of dignity and meaning and comfort to my father's death, and the inevitable contemplation of mortality, that I could find nowhere else.
During the long, hot summer of 1970, my friends and I became aware that Procol Harum would be appearing at Hemisfair Arena along with Ten Years After! So, on the afternoon of Sunday 26 July 1970 we piled into my Dad's 1964 Plymouth Valiant and headed off down the road from Kingsville, Texas [in South Texas], past the King Ranch main gate to old San Antone, the sublime horn chart from Neil Diamond's Solitary Man playing on the radio [Hey, it was 1970! AM radio was all there was!].
Arriving in San Antonio, we parked in the parking lot of an adjacent Spanish-styled motel [no problem in those days!] and found our way to our quite decent seating situation. Hemisfair Arena is just round the corner from The Alamo [Ozzie Osbourne not withstanding!] and right across the street from the San Antonio River Walk. I wondered if Procol Harum were staying in one of the hotels along the river and imagined them as scurvy English seadogs invading San Antonio's colorful Spanish heritage [A curious culture clash backdrop for their performance: ("Sack the town and bar the gates!)]
The opening band was a local band called Josephus who were enjoying regional airplay with their single that summer which employed the motif from Wagner's In the Hall of the Mountain King: not entirely out of place with Procol Harum for that reason, and we rooted them on! Their set was mercifully short and as the roadies changed out the equipment we prepared for Procol Harum to go on. (By the way, my only previous 'Major League' rock concert had been there in San Antonio the summer before when a little-known Jethro Tull, by all accounts, upstaged an extremely hot Led Zeppelin in August of 1969!)
Now, with the lights low and anticipation running high (I had no idea what to expect!) Procol Harum launched into a bluesy and frantic (kickass!) Whisky Train! The difference in sound between their professional rig and musicianship (and, I dare say, Robin Trower's Black Beauty Les Paul and Marshall stack) was a quantum leap from the local band's, and this was immediately enhanced, as hundreds of joints suddenly appeared out of nowhere and the religious sacrament of the time began to circulate through the congregation (Communion Sunday!).
The sound was mind-blowing and the sights were a visual delight as well! Gary Brooker seated at that brown Steinway(?_, pounding out those 'steel drum' chords (Pirates of the Caribbean!), long hair parted in the middle, dignified-looking in a brown jacket (the captain of the ship!); Robin Trower in denim bell-bottoms, black T-shirt, the jean jacket from the inside photo on Home, ripping off those mother licks, smiling and playing to the audience, drawing us in; Chris Copping in red corduroy bell-bottoms and a rather pirate-looking white shirt with big swashbuckling sleeves, treading the deck and doing a little dance that suggested the rocking motion of a sailing ship as he laid down the bass on his Fender Precision(?); and then, the most piratical of all, BJ Wilson, his arms flailing, the grin from the salty dog on the cover transmogrified to his face, the master of time and space, taking it back to the Gold Coast of Africa as he delivered that wicked beat!
Without pause at the end of Whisky Train, the band dove right into another bluesy guitar-driven number which I've always presumed would have been Juicy John Pink (and I'm quite sure they played that at some point), but looking at some of the set lists you've compiled from the same year, I see it may have been Well I. At any rate, at the end of this two-pronged assault, the audience was theirs! And as the wild, uproarious and grateful applause died down, Gary Brooker introduced the band, in his friendly, affable way, saying "We're called Procol Harum. We've come a long way to be here tonight and we're going to enjoy ourselves!" Yes sir! It was both an affirmation of the band's intent, and a good-natured command to the audience (one that we were more than 'ready, willing, and able' to comply with)! And the part about coming a long way to be here tonight, I took both literally and figuratively and it seemed to include us, the audience, as well as the band! I've remembered this vividly all these years (what a wonderful invocation, introduction, and invitation to a splendid evening!).
The more-than generous set seemed to be composed mostly of songs from A Salty Dog and Home, with maybe Shine on Brightly ('Thanks') thrown in the mix. Using the set lists you've posted, I've compiled my own fantasy line up of the batting order they used that night, but of course I don't really remember for sure: if anyone knows, please let me know!
The Dead Man's Dream caught my attention from the opening chords, Gary Brooker seeming to be the piano player at an old silent movie, the narration of which was projected on the silver screen of the imagination by Keith Reid's words and Gary's voice and just like the record; it was followed by the eerie subterranean coffin-sound of that bass note, and then the countdown, "1-2 ... 1 2 3 4" into Still There'll Be More.
I'm pretty sure they rocked out on The Devil Came From Kansas and Piggy Pig Pig. Nothing That I Didn't Know was a poignant moment and a real show stopper! A Salty Dog was delivered with uncanny facility, just like the record! It was fun watching Trower and Copping play 'musical chairs' on the different numbers and Copping's organ playing was nothing short of great!
The very next day, I went out and bought Home and came home and put it on – and it was as if I got to 'see' the whole concert all over again in my bedroom! What a great album that was! But because the two experiences became so intertwined, it seems like they played all nine songs from Home, About To Die as well as Barnyard Story! (Is this possible!?)
Nevertheless, without a doubt, the concert reached a crescendo with Whaling Stories. It was like seeing an epic movie, or somehow being magically transported by a time machine and getting to experience the splash of waves at the prow of a 19th-century sailing ship first hand! And that cathartic feeling as the storm at sea subsides and the triumphant 'SHALIMAR' chorus and then ... "Those at peace shall see their wake."
The appreciation of the audience was palpable and the applause exuberant; the band reciprocated with a triple encore including two old 50s rockers capped off with A Whiter Shade of Pale!.
Ten Years After came on and they were not bad! (Highlights included Alvin Lee playing a classical guitar passage on electric guitar and of course a reprise of Woodstock's Goin' Home from the previous summer); but clearly the evening belonged to Procol Harum!
Next time: Procol Harum in Houston, Texas, 1972, 1973 (in which yours truly gets to meet the band! and 1974!
Mike Morgan, Kingsville, Texas: more from this correspondent
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