Procol Harum

the Pale 

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Procol Harum : 'Live at the Union Chapel' 

Jon Sobel, online at

This concert DVD will be a real treat for fans of Procol Harum and classic rock in general. It presents the band in all its glory, playing the final show of a world tour that ended in December 2003 at the beautiful and majestic Union Chapel in Islington, London. The band is in top form, the sound quality of the recording is excellent, and the filmmakers took full advantage of the grand setting to create gorgeous visuals. There are just a few special features - arty alternate camera angles on a few songs, an interview with Gary Brooker, and some fan quotes - but there's so much music here that you won't feel the need for more extras.

In two full sets plus a four-song encore, the band plays the songs everyone knows, along with quite a few others from its back catalog, plus a healthy chunk of its new CD, which (unlike with many "dinosaur" bands) does not consist of inferior material. In fact, the casual fan (one who knows only Whiter Shade of Pale and Conquistador, say) will probably not be able to identify which are the old songs and which the new.

Gary Brooker sounds a tiny bit hoarse compared to when I saw him several years ago with Ringo's All-Starrs, but he obviously knows how to husband his resources, as any singer who does a lengthy tour of two-hour-plus concerts must. Suavely avuncular, he leads the band without unnecessary flashiness or antics, while clearly having a good time, as are the other musicians. Guitarist Geoff Whitehorn, in particular, is one of the happiest-looking middle-aged rockers you're likely to see. Brooker's piano and Matthew Fisher's incisive Hammond playing comprise Procol's trademark two-keyboard attack. Whitehorn's bluesy but precise guitar playing rides their waves, while fashion plate Matt Pegg and hardworking Mark Brzezicki cover bass and drums respectively. Pegg makes it look easy (take it from a bass player, it's not). Brzezicki especially impresses; even with the somewhat restricted palette of rock drumming, he paints spacious canvases of sound the way a jazz drummer might.

Not surprisingly, the band has gone through personnel changes since its 1967 début, but its sound remains intact. Brooker's been the constant, of course, and Fisher is an original member as well. Along with the signature organ, it's Brooker's soaring voice and unmistakable songwriting that make Procol Harum Procol Harum. The first set includes Homburg, whose chromatic melodies and slippery minor chords couldn't have been written by anyone except the man who came up with Whiter Shade of Pale. It's followed by the bombastic verses and oh-so-European waltz-march choruses of Grand Hotel, always a fan favorite. But Quite Rightly So is, for me, the high point of the set, with the band building a symphonic resonance atop a simple, stately structure. Whitehorn does his best Martin Barre in the acid-rocker Simple Sister, and the spotlight's on Fisher during the new instrumental Weisselklenzenacht, where the organ chords consciously suggest Whiter Shade of Pale (as if we needed to be reminded that it was on the menu for later).

The second set opens with the dramatic rocker Shadowboxed, followed by the bluesy jams The Question and Wall Street Blues. The band's lyricist Keith Reid is at his most affecting in the emotional hymn This World is Rich, the set's first emotional high point: 'We don't even own the ditch where we're dying; this world is rich, but it is not mine.' Procol Harum displays its American soul influence, for which Brooker's voice is nearly perfect, with As Strong As Samson and the good-natured if obvious Every Dog Will Have Its [sic] Day. The still-fascinating classic A Salty Dog is another emotional peak: Procol at its best. And they "end" the show with an appropriately grand version of Conquistador. The encore set begins with VIP Room, a great ode to rock and roll success (doesn't every band need one?). The southern-fried blues-rocker Whisky Train includes an excellent drum solo from the indefatigable Brzezicki. And they finish up with (say it with me now) A Whiter Shade of Pale, which here includes an extra verse you don't normally hear. I'm not going to give you the words to it, you'll have to buy the DVD, and it'll be worth every penny.

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