Procol Harum

the Pale

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Procol Harum, Palace of Fine Arts, SF

Derk Richardson in the San Francisco Bay Guardian newspaper, 10/9/91

Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, Thursday, October 3
A reunited Procol Harum proves that sometimes nostalgia is enough

It was a band that always sounded more significant than it was, and 25 years after assembling perhaps the first self-conscious art-rock band, little has changed for Procol Harum. The recently revived group's musical hybrid of Bach-inspired organ, heavily chorded acoustic piano, thick British bloozy electric guitar, gritty R&B based vocals, and indecipherable surrealistic lyrics is just as stately and recondite as it was when A Whiter Shade of Pale broke into the Top 10 during the Summer of Love – and just as anomalous in the pop scheme of things.

Even given the irrepressible penchant for rock dinosaur reunions, Procol Harum had to be one of the least likely candidates for a comeback in the 1990's. I mean, did anyone really follow the band's career after 1973's Grand Hotel? But here they are – pianist-singer Gary Brooker, organist Matthew Fisher, lyricist Keith Reid, and guitarist Robin Trower – with a new album The Prodigal Stranger (Zoo Entertainment), that updates but doesn't stray far from the peculiar original vision. And there they were, onstage in the Palace of Fine Arts, mixing new and old songs with striking confidence and pleasing a sold-out crowd of 1,000 baby boomers no end.

At least, there were Brooker and Fisher, poring over their respective keyboards at either end of the stage, baronial bookends to a trio of journeyman rockers (guitarist Tim Renwick, bassist Dave Bronze, and drummer Mark Brzezicki), who filled their understudy roles admirably. (Trower, who has little distinctive impact on the new album, opted out of the tour to work on another studio project, and original drummer BJ Wilson died last year). But Brooker and an organist (either Fisher or his 70s replacement Chris Copping) were always the key architects of the Procol Harum sound, around Reid's abstruse song-poems and social commentaries.

So the notion of a 'real' Procol Harum was slightly bogus to begin with, and yet the nostalgic fans who showed up last Thursday night could hardly have asked for more. At this stage in the rock reanimation game, it's a relief when a bunch of graying fortysomethings don't embarrass themselves in the attempt to recover the glory, the audience, and the meaning of their youth. Brooker and company managed to come off as likeable, competent professionals who actually enjoy playing the repertoire and who don't have unreal expectations about restoring themselves to relevance.

After a short, enjoyable, but musically mismatched set by fellow Zoo artists the Odds, Procol Harum opened with a new song that could be a comment on the band's golden-oldie status, All Our Dreams Are Sold: 'Wave the mighty dollar, make us live again'. Indeed, several of the new song titles – (You Can't) Turn Back the Page, One More Time, Holding On – seem to refer to the irony of a 'new' Procol Harum. Fortunately, while Brooker made a few engaging comments about being away from San Francisco for nearly 20 years and about the fun they are having now, there was none of the bloated self-congratulation and 'we love you' pandering that usually accompanies these ghoulish rebirths.

There was a great deal of nostalgia, however, and that was exactly how it should have been. The return of Procol Harum hasn't attracted a fresh young audience (and I'd give big odds that it won't), and the faithful had assembled not to hear any misguided efforts to challenge Guns'N'Roses [Where are THEY now?! – jm ] on the charts but to be seduced once again by the soaring sound of Fisher's organ and the mannered soulfulness of Brooker's reedy vocals.

Everything was gloriously in place: The rhythm section rocked but didn't swing; the songs built unusual artful structures that have little to do with pop; the Hammond organ swelled through fugue-like lines into huge luscious chords; Renwick's twisting guitar lines hewed closely to the models of Trower and Pink Floyd's David Gilmour; and the carefully dramatic Brooker, although looking like Richard Harris with a ponytail, showed he is still the king of white soul art- rock.

Those of us who were once unabashed Procol Harum fanatics would have liked to hear more of the oddities, like Still There'll Be More and Luskus Delph, or such overwrought Trower-Hendrix-and-Cream chops as Juicy John Pink and Whisky Train. And Fisher should have been allowed to sing his poignant Going for a Song ('Please don't make me sing that song again'). But a buffet that included Shine on Brightly, Bringing Home the Bacon, Homburg, Conquistador, A Salty Dog, Simple Sister, Whiter Shade of Pale, and a grand finale encore of the instrumental Repent Walpurgis was quite satisfying, especially as everything was so well played with so few histrionics.

Of the new tunes in the 17-song show, only King of Hearts recaptured any of the old mystery. Brooker may have already gotten as much mileage as he's ever going to get out of a formula forged in 1967. And the skills of Keith Reid, one of rock's quirkiest lyricists but never one of the most profound, haven't sharpened with age. When his new lyrics don't recycle the imagery of dancers, gamblers, soldiers, ships, and sheets – how many times have you heard a line like 'wandered through my playing cards' twice in one show, in two different songs? – they tap such regulation rock themes as being a man on a mission, remembering now good 'it' used to feel, and learning how to fly with the eagles.

But, to their credit, Procol Harum wasted little energy onstage trying to prove that the are a 'now' band. Sometimes nostalgia is enough. I don't feel the need to explain it, but my heart jumped into my throat when I heard those inflated choruses to A Whiter Shade of Pale and A Salty Dog and, from the thunderous ovations, a thousand others felt the same. None of it proved that Procol Harum, a band that has always been preposterous almost by definition, means anything. But then the pleasures of pop don't always have to be as deep as they sound.

Thanks to Joan May for sending this

Full set-list and album-by-album analysis

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