Procol Harum perform at the Royal Festival Hall on March 3rd 2017.
It’s only the middle of the set, and Gary Brooker- leader, frontman, pianist, principal songwriter and (what with unseen lyricist Keith Reid having recently withdrawn his services) sole remaining founder of Procol Harum- has just done a very foolish thing indeed.
Having concluded a robust first half with a spanking new ditty entitled “Neighbour”, the 71-year-old vocalist- no doubt somewhat entranced by the three nubile, attractive, ukulele-toting female guest musicians employed to accentuate its jaunty, Rockney, Ronnie Lane-style vibe- has promptly tripped and fallen arse over ‘ed onto the RFH backstage steps. And though this accident’s occurrence was admittedly only due to sheer folly (as opposed to any illness or infirmity) one still can’t fail, especially given the amount of sexagenarian/septuagenarian legends we’ve lost in the last five years, to be slightly worried. “Fuck me, not another Mick Farren situation” I muse as bandmembers, management, venue staff and medics surround the inert, prostrate vocalist, and I’m sure I can’t be the only one whose mind is wandering down that particular path right now. “All hands on deck”, indeed…
Thankfully for everyone’s sake, the extended 45-minute interval is followed by the band’s eventual return (to a standing ovation no less) and a fiery, determined second hour. Laughing off the seriousness of the situation with sarcastic abandon, Mr B now sports Claude Rains-style bandages across his forehead and nose, topped off with a rather fetching (and more to the point, swelling-covering) beret: he also has a broken right hand that means half his piano parts have to be doubled by organist Josh Phillips, but has nonetheless insisted that the show continue, even to the point of changing into the most lurid psychedelic shirt imaginable for the occasion. What a fucking trooper.
Even more incredibly, his vocals now sound twice as powerful as they did in the first half- and, much to my delight, the sound man seems to have sorted out the mix too, at last relieving guitarist Geoff Whitehorn’s masterful soloing from the crushing weight of a 35-piece symphonia and a squintillion choristers. As a result of this intervention, “Whaling Stories” sounds like the ominous slab of proto-doom proggery it should: likewise, obscure early ’90s b-side “Into The Flood” is charged with an extra chug and bite it certainly didn’t possess at 2015’s still fine, but slightly subdued Dominion show. As residents of the band’s native Sarfend might say, not ‘arf, geezah.
Then again, random and unpredictable occurrences have always been part and parcel of the PH live experience: having been a Procol Person since my callow adolescence (and to think I still wonder why I had to wait until I turned 17 to receive even slight acknowledgement from the fairer sex..) I should really know better by now than to not expect the unexpected. After all, this is a band who have spent the last fifty years deliberating on such portentous subjects as death, the supernatural and the malign hand of fate: once fully conversant with such a back catalogue, a sensible man would possibly think it prudent to not annoy those forces further, but after five decades of walking on the dark side, it’s probably too late anyway. In which case, maybe it’s best to just sit back and enjoy what the bony claw throws at you: the one guarantee being that whether one chooses to call it prog, psych, blue-eyed soul or RnB, it will always surprise and startle in equal measures.
This is why, though GB openly fluffs the lyrics to the first stanza of “Grand Hotel”, it neither ruins anything nor makes the slightest difference in the long run: with that intro, that ominously waltzing middle section and that guitar break, the song could never really fail, and though Geoff Dunn is undeniably no match drummer-wise for the late BJ Wilson, he nonetheless manages to add his own unique ingredients to its regulation flavours of Dover sole and peach flambé. Following it, album-style, with the thrudding, uptempo strains of “Tojours L’Amour” is another masterstroke: its looping, riff-based structure gives Whitehorn, Phillips, Dunn and Matt “Son of Dave but not that Son Of Dave” Pegg plenty of opportunity to intuitively feed off one another, and though the very raison d’etre of this concert (as opposed to the forthcoming Shepherds Bush show, which will feature just the basic five-piece) is the extra “layer” provided by the 30 or so extra musicians present, the parts which feature them less prominently help provide a most pleasing contrast.
For after all, what is progressive rock without contrast, without variation? “Sympathy For The Hard Of Hearing” is reliant upon it, the sneering brass and operatic chants of its first half jarring beautifully with the galloping, near-Metal riffage and frantic pace of the second: the end result is a breathtaking six minutes of nobility, courage and tragedy that in the grasp of others may have turned out pompous, but in Procol’s hands convinces perfectly. The revving, Elgarian violas and violins of “Conquistador” (based more on the 1971 Edmonton Symphony recording than the ’67 original) rub nicely against the blues holler of its verse and chorus, creating a living, breathing juxtaposition of light and shade, black and white and North/South in near-perfect concordance: “A Salty Dog”, on the other hand, is simply so sublime it requires no further description, so I won’t give it one. You’ll just have to trust me…
On the flipside, however, I have always believed that “medleys” or “edits”, especially in a live setting, are a dreadful mistake- and just as the old Tull stalwart “Too Old To Rock N Roll” ceased to make any sense the minute Ian Anderson started playing it without the middle verse, “In Held Twas In I”- Procol’s prog-pioneering, 20-minute mantelpiece- simply should not be performed in any abridged or truncated format. In short, play it either in full, or not at all: as Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse might have said back in the mid-90s,“Oi!! Brooker!! NO!!!!” You may well be a living legend OBE, but that doesn’t give you the right to raise our hopes with that foreboding, spoken-word intro, jump straight into the plinky-plonky toytown pop-psych bit, thwart us yet again by eschewing all three of the song’s best parts in succession (including the riff that practically invented the entire doom genre 18 months before Sabbath even set foot near a studio) and then cut straight to the “Grand Finale” without so much as a by-your-leave!! This is not the Eurovision Prog Contest, nor Procol Harum’s Phoenix Nights: it’s the Festival Hall, goddammit, so kindly respect your fans (one of whom rather wittily referred to said tune afterwards as “In Twas”) by desisting from such cabaret-inflected shenanigans forthwith…
That said, one moderate blunder shouldn’t- and in this case certainly doesn’t- spoil an otherwise flawless performance, and in spite of frightening us to death 50 minutes in and keeping us on tenterhooks for a further 40 (during which period I somehow suspect more actual attention was paid to the signing of disclaimers than the administration of medical care) Procol still emerge triumphant, further highlights including the thumping “Man With A Mission” and the melancholic swoop of new track “Somewhen”. True, the absence of any material from key albums such as Broken Barricades, Exotic Birds And Fruit and Procol’s Ninth is somewhat perplexing, and they missed a couple of major tricks by not attempting “Something Magic” or “Fires Which Burnt Brightly” (to which both the orchestra and the “choir from Tharg”, as Brooker described them, would have been ideally suited) but in a two-hour show- rounded off by the inevitable arrival of “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” in all its ubiquitous, overplayed glory- you can’t have everything.
What you can have, though, is an affecting, life-affirming evening in the company of the single most powerful voice in British rock, undimmed or withered by the passing of the years- and tonight, this is what we get. Moreover, it’s a voice which seems (much like the band itself) to still have a future, and provided its owner concentrates more on putting one foot directly in front of the other in linear fashion and less on, ahem, “fringe distractions”, it’s one that could, to paraphrase tonight’s opener, “Shine On Brightly” for a while yet. In keeping with the ancient Latin tradition of the group’s singular name, Procol’s forthcoming studio album (their thirteenth in five decades) is entitled Novum (“new idea”): it would, therefore, be extremely sad to have to see it released in memoriam.