Monday, 8 May 2017

Procol Harum

6th May 2017

Edinburgh Queen's Hall

I suppose any band which has endured long enough to be able to embark upon a 50th Anniversary tour, really demands both one’s respect and, indeed, attendance.  Although strictly speaking, I suppose, what we are were actually celebrating here was a half-century since the original Procol Harum were formed, as opposed to 50 years of Procol Harum, if you see what I mean.  

For not only did the band enjoy a hiatus for the whole of the 1980s, but only singer/pianist Gary Brooker has remained an ever-present in the band’s shifting-sands line up.  Even long-term lyricist Keith Reid has now moved on.  

Not that the current incarnation are a bunch of fly-by-nights.  Far from it.  Guitarist Geoff Whitehorn and bassist Matt Pegg have both been around since the early 1990s, with even the baby of the band - drummer Geoff Dunn – presently in his eleventh year as a PH member.  

I have never really been much of fan, I have to say.  I knew The Biggie, of course.  And, before my pre-gig archaeology, could probably have recognised the singles Homburg, Conquistador and Pandora's Box, if I encountered them in a darkened room, but little more than that.

Although, I did (albeit briefly) own a PH album for a spell in the mid 1970s.  My teen-aged heart belonged to Yes, Genesis and Pink Floyd back then, and in an attempt to add to my Prog Pantheon, I had purchased Jethro Tull’s War Child album.  But had hated it, so (as was the way of things back then) had attempted to swop-it-on at school.  My sole offer was Harum’s Grand Hotel album.

This LP, I recall was wonderfully packaged with an arresting washed-out overexposed photo on the sleeve, featuring the band (incongruously, given their long hair) photographed wearing top hats and tails.  

Inside the gate-fold, lyricist Keith Reid was pictured as a waiter bringing a tray – a clever nod in the direction of the line in A Whiter Shade of Pale.  There was also a lyrics (or words, as Reid prefers) booklet boasting some evocative illustrations relating to the songs.

But the actual music underwhelmed me more than a touch.  The title track I enjoyed, even if I felt it plodded in places, and there were a brace of rather pleasingly bouncy ones opening  the second side (vinyl remember).  But that was sort of it – and Grand Hotel left my collection, I think, as promptly as War Child had.

So I thought, as prep for this gig, I really should go back and revisit the album with my older (although, not necessarily more mature) ears.

And it really did not take me long to finally appreciate just how much of a masterpiece the title track Grand Hotel is.  Reid's lyrics and Brooker's music combine effortlessly and seamlessly to create a beautiful work of art, simultaneously redolent of both hedonistic decadence and faded elegance.   That my youthful Prog-hungry self could have overlooked this, I could understand, but not how the rest of the country could.  The album failed to chart in the UK.

Of the next track Toujours l'Amour, I had no recollection of at all – this one opening with a rolling piano intro before developing into a rocking little record which, Mick Grabham's fine distorted guitar work aside, reminds me of Greenslade.  

Now I am sure most PH fans would blanch at the thought of a comparison with Greenslade being a compliment, but I don't care.  I liked Greenslade and I like this one.  The last line of the lyric “And buy a revolver and blow out my brains” I found a touch unsettling though, given the song later in the collection which dealt with the suicide of a friend of the band.

A Rum Tale mines the same Just-been-Dumped/Woe-is-Me vein as the previous song, but here the singer finds solace in the bottle rather than the bullet.  But this is a palpably inferior tune.

TV Ceasar is also a bit of a duffer, with Reid's admittedly prescient lyrics bemoaning the all-pervading influence of TV.  But musically the tune does not go anywhere of interest, despite Chris Copping's best attempts with an organ solo of which a Nice-era Keith Emerson would not have been ashamed.

Flipping the album over vinylly-speaking we reach the two up-beat tracks I remembered.  Although Souvenir of London is so at odds musically with the rest of the album, it feels totally out of place.  A jaunty foot-stomper about VD, it is all bass-drum, spoons and banjos.  One could imagine it being performed by a street busker in Covent Garden, or by a one-man band at the end of Brighton Pier.  (Anyone remember Don Partridge?).

Bringing Home the Bacon really is a percussive-driven delight,  featuring an odd lyric crammed with all manner of frankly not terribly appetising foody images e.g. “Milk Fed Baby dumpling”.  I am not totally sure what it all means, but the presence of the likes of “breast”, “gobbling” and “cream” in there, I am reasonably sure our old friend sex is not too far beneath the surface.

Drummer BJ Wilson's work is excellent here, as it is upon reflection, throughout the whole of the album.  Wilson, was, if rumours are to be believed, first choice for Led Zeppelin  when Page was putting his band together – although I note Robert Plant has moved to dispel that particular story recently.  Wilson died in 1990, having spent the three previous years in a drug-overdose induced vegetative state.

And on that somber note we come to For Liquorice John – this being a paean to one  Dave Mundy, a long-time friend of the band, who after struggling with mental health problems threw himself from a building to his death around the time the album was being recorded in 1973.  Reid's poignant words are a touch ambiguous at times, informing us the poor unfortunate both “hit the ground” and “fell into the sea and drowned”.  But I am sure he is borrowing Stevie Smith's metaphorical mental drowning here.

Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) is another gem which my younger self rather bafflingly somehow missed.   Which I find most bizarre as this is undoubtedly the most “Proggy” composition on the album.  A world-weary tale of the futility and beauty of lost causes, the song is enlivened and embellished  by some soaring vocal acrobatics by one Christiane Legrand – she of the popular in the 1960s vocal group The Swingles.  Whilst her contribution lends the song both a certain charm and an unforgettable flourish, I would suggest the producer would have done well to perhaps reign her in a touch.  But this is naught but a minor quibble.

Regretfully the album ends with a bit of a donkey:  Robert's Box.  Written, I am assuming, for the same chap as the Beatles' Revolver track, Doctor Robert.  Reputedly one Dr. Robert Freymann - a New York physician more than happy to provide all manner of chemical aids to the rich and well-appointed.  

There is a bit of a calypso thing going on with the tune, but little else to maintain the listener's interest, and the “Doctor, Doctor, Doctor, Doctor”  repeating chorus just irks.  Even the late intervention of the orchestra and Grabham's guitar into the business fails to save it.  Almost unbelievably, someone at Chrysalis felt this to be the best choice for the lead single from the album in the UK.  Not surprisingly, the 45 stiffed.

Gary Brooker - Edinburgh 2017

Geoff Whitehorn and Geoff Dunn.
None of my pics of Matt Pegg were any good.

And so to this evening's gig – the first in a short seven-date UK tour billed as “a very special UK tour in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the band”, and promising the band would “dip into their vast catalogue and cannon of worldwide hits”.   Hmmm.

Proceedings began with a couple of pleasant bluesy ones (both from the new album Novum, which was fine – we all have mortgages to pay), either side of the band's 1968 hit Homburg – the latter chosen, as Brooker informed us, “To remind you all who we are”.  

But then the new un's just kept on coming and coming.  Don't Get Caught was the first to show the limitations of Brooker's 71-year old voice, and was a bit a of a trial to sit through.  It was saved, just, by some fine guitar work by Geoff Whitehorn.

Neighbours was a enjoyably jaunty Kinks-type piece.  Sunday Morning dawned next.  “You'll enjoy this one”, Brooker opined.  He was wrong, I did not.  It was a real dirge, with the singer really straining to reach the high notes.  Can't Say That, however, was a geetar driven tour-de-force, and would not have sounded out of place on In Rock or Fireball, I felt, Whitehorn and organist Josh Phillips performing their best Blackmore/Lord impressions.

Just before the interval Brooker finally sailed us back into familiar waters, with A Salty Dog; his voice handling the extreme requirements of this one just fine.

Brooker had rambled a touch during most of his between songs banter, I noted.  Midway through that Novum glut he had opined:  “I'll be glad when we get to the second half” – perhaps he finding all the new stuff as much of a chore as I did.  There was a surreal quip about the Duke of Edinburgh's erectile abilities, and an oblique reference to Rick Parfitt – this latter observation met with a puzzled silence.

His plea, prior to An Old English Dream (a tune I have learned to love, just recently) that we all not “fall in with the Lumpy Fish”, I took to be a reference to Nicola Sturgeon.  But who knows?  And I thought Keith Reid was the enigmatic one. 

The second set, although pretty much shorn of Novum songs (there was one) could, I suppose, just about be said to represent a 50 Years Best-of selection.  The band's other three UK hit singles were trotted out, with, for me anyway, Pandora's Box, a real delight.  Grand Hotel, also shone,  but I struggled at times with much of the rest.

Things really dipped with Strong as Samson and Cerdes , and you could see folks doing that shifting in their seats thing, willing these plodders to be over so we could move onto something better.  Brooker's voice really struggled with the subtleties of the former song I felt.  Is there anyone out there who views these two entries as important ones within the PH canon, worthy of a place on a 50th Anniversary show?

Whisky Train clattered along in fine style though – a slightly odd choice perhaps, given it is a Robin Trower composition.  But it did serve to underline the fact PH are very much a blues band at heart, I suppose. 

Eight tunes from a new album whilst on a 50th Anniversary jaunt, did seem to me (and I am sure I was not alone) a bit of a cheek.  But I suppose, one upside was there was no room for that dog's-dinner epic In Held 'Twas In I, which I knew the band to have been performing of late.

Given free reign with the band's catalogue, I should have had them retain I Told on You as an opener, but then work backwards through each preceeding studio album performing just the opening track on each, until we closed the set with Conquistador.  And with a sprinkling of perhaps three other new 'uns throughout.  

How much more fun that would have been.   

Gary having fun

.....not dropping off.

Drummer Geoff Dunn enjoyed a fair old bash to himself at one point.

Organist Josh Phillips

And so to A Whiter Shade of Pale.

It is a little known fact there are actually four verses to the song.  The latter two, rarely performed, although swathed in Reid's nautical allusions, do sort of confirm the consensus suspicion that the song relates the progress of a drunken, but ultimately successful, seduction.  The last line of the fourth verse: “And we attacked the Ocean Bed”, can mean little else.

Brooker this evening sang the third verse between one and two, and I did feel inordinately honoured to witness a rare airing.  And hearing the song played live, one could not help but feel in the presence of greatness – even allowing for the fact the iconic organ line was filched from, or at least heavily influenced by, JS Bach.

Whilst we are on Whiter, I have a theory (which is Mine, and belongs to Me) regarding the cryptic “As the miller told his tale” line.  I am convinced this was initially written as “As the mirror told it's tale”, which does make a bit more sense (perhaps not much).  

But that Reid, the little scamp,  mischievously decided dragging Chaucer into the narrative would trowel on an additional layer of obfuscation.

Edinburgh Queen's Hall.

Edinburgh Queen's Hall.

Set list

I Told on You
The Image of the Beast
Don't Get Caught
Last Chance Motel
Sunday Morning
Can't Say That
A Salty Dog
Wall Street Blues
Pandora's Box
An Old English Dream
Grand Hotel
As Strong as Samson
Cerdes (Outside the Gates Of)
Whisky Train
The Only One

A Whiter Shade of Pale

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