Tuesday 9th October 2018
The London Palladium
Procol Harum are an English Rock band formed from the ashes of Southend’s Paramounts in 1967 by pianist Gary Brooker and lyricist Keith Reid. Gary Brooker originally founded the Paramounts along with guitarist, and future member of Procol Harum, Robin Trower in 1962. Mainly an R&B band playing the hits of the day, they had moderate success in 1964 with their version of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's ‘Poison Ivy’, before disbanding in 1966. Brooker and Reid went on to recruit organist Mathew Fisher, guitarist Ray Royer, session drummer Bill Eyden (Bobby Harrison joined on drums at the time of the recording, but unfortunately for him, his drums were not used on the released version!), and bassist David Knights for their spellbinding debut single, ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, which subsequently turned out to be their biggest hit reaching no. 1 on the UK Singles Chart in May 1967. With a structure reminiscent of Baroque music and a counter melody based on J. S. Bach's Orchestral Suite N° 3 in D Major played by Fisher's Hammond organ, Brooker's vocals and Reid's lyrics.
Procol Harum have released twelve studio albums and eight live albums over their fifty one year career, with twenty six different members having passed through the ranks at one time or another. Their musical style ranges from Progressive Rock, Classical, Baroque, Soul and Blues. Apparently the band name has been said to have come from Guy Stevens, their original manager, who named the band after producer Gus Dudgeon's Burmese cat! Their debut album ‘Procol Harum’ was released in 1967 on Regal Zonophone and saw the arrival of guitarist Robin Trower and drummer B.J. Wilson to the line-up, replacing Ray Royer and Bobby Harrison respectively. The line-up of Brooker (piano/vocals), Trower (guitar/vocals), Fisher (organ/vocals), Knights (bass), Wilson (drums), and Reid (lyricist) lasted for three albums including the excellent ‘Shine On Brightly’ in 1968, and arguable their best album, ‘A Salty Dog’ in 1969.
Fisher departed the band in 1969 to be replaced with former Paramount Chris Copping for the ‘Home’ album in 1970. After the release of the fifth album ‘Broken Barricades’ in 1971, Trower left to form his own power trio and was replaced by Dave Ball (Big Bertha and future Bedlam) for the album ‘In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’ in 1972. From late 1972 until 1977, the group's guitarist was Mick Grabham (Plastic Penny, Cochise), he featured on the next four eclectic and rather interesting albums, ‘Grand Hotel’ (1973), ‘Exotic Birds and Fruit’ (1974), ‘Procol's Ninth’ (1975) and ‘Something Magic’ (1977). The band broke up in 1977 due to dwindling album sales, and the musical shift towards Punk rendering Prog Rockers redundant!
Triumphantly the band reformed in 1991 with Brooker, Fisher, Trower and Reid (Wilson died of pneumonia in 1990), and released ‘The Prodigal Stranger’ album. The drum stool was occupied by Mark Brzezicki (Big Country) and bass guitar duties were provided by Dave Bronze (Dr. Feelgood, Eric Clapton). Trower bailed before the tour commenced to be replaced by Tim Renwick (Al Stewart, Pink Floyd) and then by Geoff Whitehorn (If, Crawler & Roger Chapman). Whitehorn continues to be Procol’s guitar player after twenty seven years of service!
In July 1997 a special concert was arranged by Procol fans to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the success of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’. Procol Harum reunited to play at the Harlequin Theatre, Redhill, Surrey. The role call that night included; Gary Brooker, Chris Copping, Peter Solley, Matthew Fisher, Mick Grabham, Alan Cartwright, Graham Broad, Matthew Pegg and Dave Bronze.
Since 2001 the band, comprising Brooker (piano/vocals), Fisher (keyboards), Geoff Whitehorn (guitar), Matt Pegg (bass) and Mark Brzezicki (drums), has toured consistently. In 2003 the band released the well-crafted studio album, ‘The Well's On Fire’. Their momentous concert at the Union Chapel in London on Friday 12th December 2003 was released on DVD in 2004 as ‘Live at the Union Chapel’. Fisher then left Procol Harum in 2004 to become a computer programmer of all things! Josh Phillips (Diamond Head) replaced Fisher in 2004, leaving Brooker as the only original performing member. Geoff Dunn (Manfred Mann's Earth Band, Van Morrison) replaced Brzezicki on drums in 2006. In July 2007 the band played two concerts at St John's, Smith Square in London to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the success of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’. In November 2014 Procol Harum appeared at the Dominion Theatre in London with the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Crouch End Festival Chorus in an event recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 2's Friday Night is Music Night.
The band's twelfth studio album, ‘Novum’, was released in April 2017 on Eagle Rock Entertainment. It was the first album to not feature the lyrics of Keith Reid, instead Pete Brown had that honour. During the bands concert at The Royal Festival Hall in London in March 2017, Gary Brooker fell of the stage at the end of the first half and was seriously hurt, but reappeared for the second half with his head bandaged and nursing a broken hand. In July 2009, Matthew Fisher won a British court judgment awarding him 40% of the music royalties from 2005 onwards for 1967's ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, which had previously gone 50% to Brooker for the music and 50% to Reid for the lyrics.
This special Procol Harum concert at the prestigious Palladium Theatre London on 9th October 2018 featured the English Chamber Choir and The Senbla Orchestra, conducted by David Firman. The Procol line-up included Gary Brooker on piano and vocals, long-time member Geoff Whitehorn on guitar, Matt Pegg on bass, Geoff Dunn on drums and Josh Phillips on keyboards. The concert was billed as ‘Procol Harum: Still There’ll Be More’, named after the new compilation box set ‘Still There’ll Be More’ An Anthology 1967 – 2017', released in March 2018 on Esoteric Recordings.
It seems the trend these days is for veteran Rock bands to hook up with orchestras and go out and play their best selling album in its entirety! Procol Harum are no exception, but what sets them apart from most veteran Rock bands is that they are old hands at this, having worked with orchestras on and off for almost fifty years. They even had chart success with the release of ‘Procol Harum Live: In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’ in 1972, of which the entire album was played at this concert. Procol’s leader and only original member, Gary Brooker MBE is now at the ripe old age of 73! And still doing it! This year he had the prestigious honour of being awarded with the ‘Outstanding Contribution’ at Prog Rock Magazine’s Progressive Music Awards.
Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Procol Harum! Their mammoth two and half hour, seventeen song set was a game of two halves, bookended by the exquisite and beguiling ‘Conquistador’, from their 1967 debut album ‘Procol Harum’, also featured on their 1972 live album ‘Procol Harum Live: In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’, from which the song was lifted and released as a single that went on to be their third biggest hit!
Brooker clearly had some kind off throat infection going on, which was quite evident in the delivery of the first few lines of the song, but once he got going and hit his stride his voice evened out and the notes began to ring true. ‘All This and More’ from the classic 1969 album ‘A Salty Dog’, also featured on the Edmonton live album, flowed nicely over us like a warm breeze, with everyone in the band, orchestra and choir settling in and finding their groove. ‘Luskus Delph’ from the 1971 album ‘Broken Barricades’ gently enveloped the auditorium with its lush strings and gentle piano tinkling. Brooker keeping it together and leading the show with his charismatic and commanding presence, occasionally stopping to medicate his throat with Ricola throat lozenges!
The opulent and grand ‘Shine on Brightly’, the title track from the eclectic 1968 album ’Shine On Brightly’, also featured on the Edmonton album, stormed in like a tidal wave and was performed with panache and celestial grace, pure divine! Next to greet us was the enchanting and epic ‘A Salty Dog’, the title track from the classic 1969 album ‘A Salty Dog’, also featured on the Edmonton album. This is one of Procol's best loved songs and the performance transcended the realms of the imagination! Just phenomenal! Despite suffering a throat infection Brooker seemed full of beans and in great spirits! His voice was still very powerful and the cracks were few and far between.
The first set concluded with the monumental Psychedelic Prog Rock masterpiece that is ‘In Held 'Twas in I’, their magnum opus from the 1968 album ’Shine On Brightly’, also featured on the Edmonton album. This piece is constructed of five separate parts, ‘Glimpses of Nirvana’, ‘'Twas Teatime at the Circus’, ‘In the Autumn of My Madness’, ‘Look to Your Soul’ and ‘Grand Finale’. In a nutshell the nineteen minute piece is basically about the meaning of life and the journey through it. “And the Dalai Lama smiled and said, Well my son, life is like a beanstalk, isn't it?” So there you are! Well it was written in 1968! The atmosphere in the Palladium was electric and there was much love in the room. The standing ovation was much deserved.
The second half opened with ‘Businessman’ from the 2017 album ‘Novum’, a tasty little rocker for the band to warm up with before the orchestra joined them for the gentle and melodic ‘Holding On’, from the 1991 album ‘The Prodigal Stranger’. The horn section got to blast and rasp a bit more on the up tempo ‘Into the Flood’, a 1991 single and extra track on ‘The Prodigal Stranger’ album. A couple of left of central choices there considering the vast catalogue of material that Procol have to offer. Sadly there were no songs played from the highly under-rated 1970s albums ‘Grand Hotel’ and ‘Exotic Birds and Fruit’. Brooker's between song patter and streams of consciousness were quite amusing, witty and very entertaining. He could have had a successful career as a stand-up comic if the music thing hadn't taken off!
Next in line was ‘Within Our House’ from Gary Brooker’s 1996 solo live album ‘Within Our House: Recorded Live at St. Mary and All Saints Church’. This was the first performance of this song by Procol Harum and featured soprano Rosalind Scott-Douglas, alto Karen Bloomfield, tenor Mark Roper and bass Ken Wharfe. A delightful ballad with delectable piano accompaniment and heavenly voices from the choir.
As Brooker says, “you'll like this one!”, ‘Pandora's Box’ from the 1975 album ‘Procol’s Ninth’, came pounding in with much cheer from the attentive and excitable audience! A definite crowd pleaser and classic Procol fan favourite. Another odd one next, given the endless choice of repertoire that could be picked, ‘Symphathy for the Hard of Hearing’ from Gary Brooker’s 1982 solo album ‘Lead Me To The Water'. The orchestra and choir augmented and embellished the performance to great effect as the song build up to an almighty conclusion!
Two tracks from the 2017 album ‘Novum’ greeted us next, 'Neighbour’ a humorous little ditty with some sweet acoustic guitar strumming from Whitehorn, who also gets to do a bit of singing on the chorus. Delectably followed by the exquisite and charming ‘Sunday Morning’, a beautifully elegant ballad performed with much charm and sincerity. Brooker does us proud! He then comments that, “we forgot to play this one in the first half”, enter the dramatic and chilling ‘Whaling Stories’ from the brilliant 1970 album ‘Home’, also featured on the ‘Edmonton’ album. With its repeated ascending eight note phrase building up the tension and suspense, added to the overall dramatic effect! A captivating performance that mesmerised us all and sent shivers down our spines!
The time had come for the one, the piece de resistance, the hit! 'A Whiter Shade of Pale', what it means, we just don't know!? Before the song started Brooker paid a very touching tribute to Allen 'One-Eye' Edelist, a long time Procol fan who sadly passed away, and whose ninety-ninth concert this would have been. The famous Hammond intro was substituted for a lush string arrangement before Brooker came in with “we skipped the light fandango...etc.”, the rich Hammond accompaniment eventually rolled in for the chorus. Unfortunately original member and composer of the Hammond parts in the song, Mathew Fisher, is no longer in the band, but current keyboardist Josh Phillips does a fair imitation. A most seraphic and exquisite performance that had the entire audience enraptured!
Finally, to conclude the evening’s performance we are back where we started with a reprise of 'Conquistador'. A highly spirited and sprightly performance from the band, choir and orchestra. With Brooker's energy never waning, he rose to his feet to throw some moves, air trumpeting and air guitaring when band solos were taken, fervently encouraging the audience to join in with the clapping and the freak outs! Brooker looks slightly unsteady on his feet these days, and with a reputation as one of the most accident prone Rock stars in the business (having fallen off stage on several occasions at various gigs and severely injuring himself!), you can't help wonder “is he going to fall over or trip up tonight?” Thankfully he remained vertical and all's well that ends well! We skipped the light fandango and turned cartwheels across the floor, well maybe not quite cartwheels, but the crowd did call out for more!
Steven C. Gilbert