Procol Harum

the Pale

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The Nights We Dined at Hotel Ritz

Richard Beck, for 'Beyond the Pale'

The album Grand Hotel has long been a favorite of mine. When I first listened to the recording, a few of the songs struck a chord within me, echoing events affecting my life at the time. Others reverberated in my memory, having heard some of this music previewed in concert during the band's Edmonton Live tour. I was fortunate in seeing them one last time during the Grand Hotel tour. Both concert events were quite different experiences. These are my recollections from each.

As with many cities, we have several venues for live performances. Each has its acoustical advantages and drawbacks which are weighed against the seating capacity. For years the Ellis Auditorium, an old-style concert hall, hosted ballet, opera, and contemporary entertainment. This hall, aesthetically, was the hall of choice for its friendly acoustics and because of its traditional seating, which I always preferred over the wrap-around seating at our Coliseum where concerts were performed 'in the round'.

An alternate venue was Memphis's Raoul Wollenberg Shell in Overton Park, an open-air orchestral shell with a seating capacity of around three thousand. It was built in 1936, during the depression era, by workers funded by Roosevelt's Work Progress Act and modeled after the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, California. On July 30, 1954, a budding act opened for Slim Whitman on the Shell's stage and stole the show: it was a young hometown boy named Elvis Presley, performing what music historians agree was the first Rock and Roll show. Performances by Benny Goodman, Carl Perkins, Booker T and the MGs and Jerry Lee Lewis, to name but a few, have added to the remarkable history of this landmark amphitheater.

Unsurpassed in its acoustics, it nonetheless went undiscovered by the rock promoters until 1970. With a rich tradition of many seasons of symphony orchestral concerts, it had a patina of formality and prestige nicely complemented by its intimate, yet pastoral atmosphere. It was these qualities that made it appeal to many of the best touring bands of the time. In short, it was perfect for the Memphis première of Procol Harum.

It is July 10, 1972. On this night Chess Master Bobby Fischer is preparing for tomorrow's opening match with Russian counterpart, Boris Spassky. At the Democratic National Convention, Senator George McGovern is about to win his floor fight for the huge California delegation's votes, which will secure the nomination in his ill-fated run for the presidency against Richard Nixon. And somewhere across town, the group The Ink Spots are gearing up for their appearance at Memphis's International Restaurant.

Meanwhile, restless rock music fans elsewhere are gathered under a fading sunset in Overton Park for a concert of another sort. Of all the concerts I ever attended, it was always the outdoor concerts I remember most vividly. I first heard Procol Harum two years earlier at the Atlanta Pop Festival. The prospect of seeing them up close was too delicious to believe. Of course PH was not the first rock act to grace the stage at the Overton Park Shell. Prior and subsequent concerts by other touring artists such as Poco, the Allman Brothers, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple established The Shell as the best entertainment for an afternoon or evening. Fans looked forward to every concert as a sure-fire good-time event; never to be missed, regardless of who was playing.

In attendance with me this night were two chums of mine. Out on presumably their first national tour, the Eagles were originally slated to open for Procol that night, but for reasons forgotten they never made it. One of my friends, David, proclaimed before the concert that he had come to see the Eagles. My other friend, Neil, was still talking about the recent Rolling Stones / Stevie Wonder concert in Nashville. For him, the best ever and forever – an obviously credible claim, I must admit. But we all liked PH. So no hard feelings. I will return to these two gents in due time.

The Shell today

I concede one tiny conceit perhaps shared by some readers: believing I was among a humble few who knew their music well, I have always taken the greatest delight in watching others respond to a Procol concert for the first time. This concert demonstrated conclusively to me that this was truly the best band alive. Up close and personal these guys pin back your ears and assault your imagination. And in a way, I was hearing them for the first time on this night.

It is a clear night and the air is scented with the familiar aroma of pot, especially when I or my friends exhale a cloud of musical enhancement agent into the night air. In the mantle of darkness above us a few of the brightest stars are becoming visible. The stage lights are off. The curtain of trees around the amphitheater is festooned with non-paying onlookers precariously draped over branches, having secured their balcony seats through their own yahoo brio and simian daring.

We are sitting perhaps thirty yards from the stage. I need no stage lights to see the familiar forms creeping from the shadows up on to their instruments as the MC makes his sudden appearance in the spotlight. Concluding his introduction, he finally shouts out the words 'Procol Harum' and he is blasted off the stage by the crashing opening of Shine on Brightly. If the accompanying applause is recognition of this commercially-obscure masterpiece or just an opening salvo from a rock and roll party crowd, I cannot tell.

Simultaneously I scan the faces of the band. A quick head-count reveals the addition of Alan Cartwright on bass and another head sitting atop a tall lanky guitarist which does not have the face of Robin Trower. Oh Shit! Can't any of the great bands hang on to their star players? Now I will probably spend the rest of the night obsessed with comparisons to Trower and I will miss the show. Not so! I can think of nothing else all evening except how damn good they sound; every verse, every nuance of the music. They are 'in your face' live this night, and taking prisoners left and right.

By my best recollection, the Edmonton Live album was either imminent, or was already in the store racks, still awaiting my discovery. It wasn't until later on, when I bought the album, that I learned the identity of the mystery guitarist I was hearing this particular evening. I wish I could offer a fair and accurate assessment of his performance at this time, but understandably the years have stripped away all but a few impressions of Dave Ball's appearance with this new incarnation of the band. [The author would later play a gig with Dave Ball, of course!]

I can safely say that I can recall seeing a definite onstage rapport with Brooker and that his playing was quite competent, detracting nothing from the performance. As I now scan the mental picture in my memory, he looks rather like a younger David Carradine, on hiatus from his Kung Fu television series. Wearing jeans and a T-shirt and his hair cropped short, he looked as if he had just rolled out of bed. And for some reason, I want to say I recall that he had big feet. In fact, for someone filling the sizeable and well-worn shoes of Robin Trower, he cut a maverick figure, appearing quite comfortable in his rôle as soloist and showing considerable spirit; not attempting to emulate the Trower style but playing with a suitably reckless abandon that seemed appropriate for the music. The only fault with Mr Ball that night was that ... well ... he simply wasn't Robin Trower.

As for Mr Cartwright, he was an obsequious sideman, whose sober countenance and smooth playing were a palatable alternative to the tasty and energetic thumping style of Chris Copping, who appeared right at home behind his Hammond organ. All in all, this line-up of musicians was tight and focused. The arrangements clearly had more room to breathe in live performance.

It is obvious that on this night the star of the show was the music. And it simply could not have been better. Whether agile, stolid, or sentimental by turns, it is ever-engaging. As I mentioned earlier, this night's performance was like hearing them for the first time. They played several new songs which I would not hear again for another year when Grand Hotel was released. The first surprise of the evening came with a simple introduction.

Beginning with a haunting and gentle piano intro played in the upper register, like the clinking of champagne glasses raised in a toast, Procol Harum swung open the front doors of the Grand Hotel for a brief glimpse into a world all its own. The words are a litany of opulent comforts and supreme indulgences; a palace of 'mirrored walls and velvet drape' where 'waiters dance on finger-tips'. Then the music gets interesting. A transitional burlesque waltz haltingly begins, and BJ Wilson's drums are playfully accelerating the maddening joke. Fast forwarding to its clattering conclusion, it gives way to a sweet piano refrain that floats upon a cloud of rich Hammond tones as a delicate web of thematic exposition unfolds in all its glory. A piano glissando sweeps the music to another level. Played with such grace, they achieve amazing dynamics with nothing more than sheer volume and verve. I couldn't have known that an orchestral embellishment of his own keyboard terpsichore was playing along in Gary Brooker's head. This song has engaged this audience, suspending the reality of our open-air setting. Under this black sky it is as if we are in a cosmic bubble floating in space with a mighty force at the helm. And I find myself shredding my return ticket for fear I will be returned to earth at any moment. With the waning refrain of 'the nights we stay at Hotel Grand' we are ushered out and the doors close behind us. We are on our feet applauding. This is no Rock and Roll party now. I, for one, am marveling at this feast of musical surprises and brazen artistry. But still there'll be more.

The breakneck pace of Toujours l'Amour pokes good fun at Brooker's assertion that 'this next one is a love song'. Fine drumming by an ever-busy BJ Wilson re-establishes the rock and roll mood and has the crowd sprinting along; trying to keep up with the musings of a spurned lover, a story of regret and betrayal. The sound system is holding its own against the thunderous pounding of the bass and drums. I look over at Neil, his eyes closed and head lowered and bobbing uncontrollably, his private smile erupts into a laughing scream. 'The goddam drums are killing me!' David and I are laughing at the absurdity of our own expressions, as if we were saying to each other 'I wish I had said that!' As the song slammed to an abrupt stop, that first split second of silence was stunning. The crowd called out for more.

Fires (Which Burned Brightly), with its recurrent grand and melodramatic theme of cascading octave intervals in stark contrast to the more sobering sentiments of its anti-aggression lyrics, is a surprise hit. When the organ solo begins over the band's plodding rhythmic accompaniment, the audience starts to erupt with applause and whoops of delight. Proceeding laboriously towards a prolonged climax – but instead of resolution, the tension gives way to a whirlpool of descending unison notes and drum rolls intricately woven into the returning central theme pounded out on Brooker's piano. All of us, never having heard these new songs, know we are just along for the ride; at times, a roller-coaster ride of bold inclinations and anticipation of each impending twist and turn.

The next Grand Hotel selection is a different sort of thrill ride. Bringing Home the Bacon, with BJW's drums and cowbell counterpoint, starts things off sounding like an entire percussion section. The jagged rhythmic motif, a variant echo of the Fires theme, demonstrates that Procol Harum can create more dynamic tension with well-placed silence than anyone else. One could imagine the origins of this tune coming from an inspiring case of the hiccups that had afflicted Brooker whilst he played his piano grande. But this song galloped along steadily with all the unsettling grace of a three legged thoroughbred in a steeplechase. I hardly noticed the words, which are as unlikely lyrics as I have ever heard. I think I hear spitting references to 'breast fed babies blubbering in cream and gobbling all the cakes' that only a smirking cynic or a parent could appreciate. Being more the former than the latter, I loved this song instantly. This is Rock and Roll like no other. And there should be no doubt among the fans present that BJ Wilson was a master of his art and capable of totally unexpected counterpoint and daunting feats of drumming.

A Rum Tale is a gentle waltz whose words and music unite to form that rare and perfect union of ironic beauty and emotional poignancy seldom experienced. Both flowed over me as one warm rush of sentimental catharsis. What I will never forget is my first hearing of Brooker's most ingeniously-composed modulation of all time. 'I'm buying an island somewhere in the su..uh..uh..un. I'll hide from the natives; live only on rum'. Immortal. Simply. Let's all pause and go have a listen, shall we?

Procol offered up splendid renditions of all of my favorites. A revamped Conquistador, and the apocalyptic masterpiece Whaling Stories were resounding successes. At one point during the evening, GB calls our attention to the obsidian sky above us, noting, in his characteristic British tones, that 'if one looks up we could very well imagine ourselves at sea'. Taking the bait, we all raise our eyes to the blackness above us only to hear the familiar sound of seagulls – a clever ruse to begin the classic, A Salty Dog.

By the end of this show the fans are standing on the bench seats. The band is clearly delighted with their performance this evening, affirming the symbiotic connection that they can have with their audience. In hindsight, we were all fortunate to have been spared the type of difficulties with the sound system and mix which were reported at the Hollywood Bowl two years hence. Every band I heard at the Shell sounded outstanding and never failed to excite the audience to a frenzy. This concert would send us all out to the record stores to buy the Edmonton Live album.

And do you remember those two chums of mine? David, who had come to see the Eagles, was blown away. He just did not know that Procol was this good. And Neil, the Stones fan, was forced to volunteer his opinion that this concert was better than the Nashville Stones / Stevie Wonder concert. And as for me? When the City of Memphis finally has its way and takes a wrecking ball to this hallowed landmark, I will be watching this concert buckle into the rubble and telling whoever will listen about the night that Procol Harum blew the roof off this joint.

The next morning I picked up the newspaper and turned to the entertainment section to read the local music critic's review of the show. I was treated to a short, two column piece on The Inkspots' performance at the International Restaurant. Alas, the story always ends the same. You can't turn back the page.

Procol Harum's next tour was in support of Grand Hotel. Completely in love with what I considered to be their best album to date, and having heard the final musical realizations of the songs that I had heard at the Shell concert a year earlier, I was wholly satisfied with the audacious and grandiose scope of the music. I wholeheartedly approved of the addition of Mick Grabham, who came closest to evoking the Trower guitar style that was sorely missing. But more on him later. My vivid memory of the Shell concert prompted me to compel my friends who had missed that show to buy tickets for what I was touting as – and I quote – 'The concert of the decade'.

The fact that promoters had chosen Ellis Auditorium as the venue made the prospects even sweeter. It was large enough to accommodate a larger audience than the Shell and still not appear half empty if attendance was lackluster. The ambience was consistent with the Grand Hotel image, with its long velvet drapes in the balcony sections and old-style interior decor. This hall was the home of Memphis Symphony Orchestra, Memphis Opera and The Ballet Memphis. The rear of the stage was a formidable soundproof curtain which separated the adjacent smaller concert hall that lay behind it. Occasionally there where simultaneous concerts being staged, quite literally, back to back. I always assumed that the rock music tended to bleed through that curtain into the chamber music recitals and smaller orchestral presentations, which had to be annoying to the unfortunate patrons back there.

On this night, I am glad to be in the company of my closest friends; Mark and his wife, Jan. Amidst the usual pre-show clamor the sound system is playing music. I am delighted when they play Roy Buchanan's Sweet Dreams replete with soulfully-executed melody. I look around to see if anyone else is noticing the sheer genius of this 'guitarists' guitar-player'. Nope. Well, I hope they are paying attention when Procol cranks up.

The opening act on that night was a new group, The Electric Light Orchestra. Jeff Lynne, late of The Move, had finally put together a group to synthesize all of the musical influences alluded to in some of The Move's music. Granted, they did go on to eclipse the popularity of Procol Harum with a string of hits, but tonight they were riding in on a nag of a song that employed classical music in a manner which was the antithesis of Procol's classy style. I speak of their Beethoven / Berry abomination, Roll over Beethoven. If they intended this song to be tongue-in-cheek, then I failed to catch them winking on this one. They had my sympathy when it was announced that their own equipment was tossed and crossed and screwed in transit and that they were playing on equipment borrowed from a local music store. They gave a valiant performance in spite of it all, deriving comic mileage from the deadpan antics of one whom I can only characterize as 'the little guy with the 'cello wearing that funny medieval headpiece'.

As Procol took to the stage I suppose they were now at the height of their commercial fame. Still virtually absent from local radio, they relied on their core following and word of mouth to fill the halls. While never a rock and roll band for the masses, they nevertheless garnered good reviews and in concert delivered a unique brand of music, under-appreciated to this very day. And with this last line-up of musicians they have truly hit their stride. With a sizeable catalog of tunes, culminating in the tour de force Grand Hotel songs, I came expecting a concert of prolific variety, and that is what I got. The sound was good, the audience enthusiastic, and the performances by all were solid. But something was missing here, which I could not put my finger on. My friend Mark, who first introduced me to PH with the Shine On Brightly album admitted after the show that it lacked something. In a way, it was rather like a buffet of gourmet fat-free fare. The taste, the aroma, the presentation, all impeccable, yet still leaving the gourmand feeling mysteriously unsatisfied.

The arrangements were true to the original recordings. Cartwright and Wilson were monolithic. Mick Grabham executed his richly-melodic solos with tasteful precision. His tendency to explore the lower registers of his fretboard set him apart from other more conventional 'hot lick' artists and imparted a certain dramatic refinement that was gratifying. Brooker was relaxed and in excellent voice. Chris Copping provided all of the requisite organ parts, but his choices of synthesizer voicing were a little annoying. With better electronic technology available, Moog figured more as a gimmick than as an integral element of the music. During the course of the evening Brooker occasionally fiddled with a tiny box sitting upon his baby grand. It turned out to be a phase-shifter which was wired into the piano mikes. It was used to great effect in adding that mysterious 'watery' sound that Chris Thomas conceived and created for the recording of For Liquorice John. The band still had all the talent and power necessary to make a listener forget all about the orchestral accompaniments from the albums. Every element was there to knock my socks off. So why did I feel that I had overhyped this concert? Perhaps it was that all of the music was so familiar and that no new unreleased material was premièred to surprise me. Or maybe the performances were too faithful to the recordings. In the final analysis, I can only offer the theory that this indoor venue was too conventional for me, given the previous outdoor concerts I had attended, where the event wrapped the music up into a significant fait accompli.

Fortunately the audience had no such reservations. Still voracious after an encore featuring AWSoP, their persistent mayhem was sufficient to coax the band back on stage for a second encore. Returning to their Paramounts roots, as they frequently do, Procol bribed us with a sweaty version of Roll Over Beethoven. Incredibly, it was not until this writing that I realized the hypothetical implications of reprising ELO's entrée song that night. Was it a rebuttal; intended as an object-lesson in the folly of mongrelizing our music genres? I hope so. At the time I was just glad that they did not succumb to an all-too-common form of pandering; spooning up a dollop of that other Chuck Berry potluck classic, Memphis, Tennessee.

From the repertoire that evening, it was evident that Brooker enjoyed the freedom to compose using broad strokes, employing a wide spectrum of musical invention. The complexities of the arrangements were dispatched with consummate skill, but even the most capricious rhythmic requirements only inspired BJ Wilson to greater heights. Even Zeus himself would not venture to knock him from his mountaintop.

If Admiral Brooker endures as the rudder of this group, the good ship Procol could not stay the course without its keel, BJ Wilson. His ability to weave his drums into the fabric of the music make him almost inconspicuous; understating his stature as a titan in the annals of percussion. Blessed with an internal metronome as precise as an atomic clock, he pushes the envelope of rhythm to the razor's edge of chaos, but always sounds as perfectly-balanced as the Music of the Spheres. Brooker's compositions would prove too fragile in the hands of any other drummer, and he may never again compose music the likes of which were heard this night, without stumbling over the void that BJ Wilson filled. God rest his almighty soul. Amen.

Dedicated to the memory of Barrie James Wilson (1947-1990)
Once I stood upon Olympus: then the heavens opened wide (Keith Reid)

Huge thanks from BtP to Richard Beck, who describes himself as 'an erstwhile rock musician and long-time PH enthusiast from Memphis, Tennessee'! See also his Procol Harum in Atlanta and his tribute to the late Dave Ball

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