Gary Brooker was never young. So 40-some years after he first composed for Procol Harum, the music suits his white hair -- you don’t get the same weird vibe as when Brian Wilson chirps “Little Honda.” Part of the timelessness stems from Keith Reid’s lyrics, which reek of class even when they’re chronicling dick disease. And part of it arrives via the tunes, which stab into rarely explored corners of rhythmic fragmentation, melodic challenge and classical pomp, even when they’re rocking like a bitch.
Much of the Procol catalog lends itself to orchestral presentation, a road taken quite a few times over the years, most famously when the group connived with the Edmonton Symphony to make a hit out of “Conquistador” in 1972. The most recent example is this here DVD (and shorter CD), recorded in 2006 upon the grounds of some vast Danish estate. Considering that only singer-pianist Brooker remains from Procol Harum’s unmatchable 1967-69 lineup, it’s bloody impressive.
One could observe that Brooker and band impress with the aid of 67 classical musicians, but that don’t always help ya -- compare Metallica’s “S&M.” Everyone involved deserves credit for pairing appropriate material with careful preparation and attention to detail, such as providing the orchestra with a limitless stock of expensive microphones that, according to Roland Clare’s unusually informative booklet notes, had the Procol sound man creaming his jeans.
Best served: an utterly decadent “Grand Hotel,” a heart-wringing “A Salty Dog” (both first waxed with strings attached) and a fabulously grandiose “Whaling Stories” (anvil percussion provided on request!). Worst: a schlockified orchestration of the stately boo-hooer “Homburg,” and a brontosaurian Wagnerization of “Simple Sister” -- a complex stumble-rocker that’s virtually unplayable without the loose-shouldered percussion of the great BJ Wilson (died 1990) or the slippery guitar lines of Robin Trower.
Extra credit: adventure in programming. The gorgeous “Fires (Which Burnt Brightly),” from the “Grand Hotel” album, ignites a pale blue flame when stoked with a full choir and given plenty of outdoor air. Not everyone knows that Procol Harum released a strong album called “The Well’s on Fire” in 2003, from which this DVD draws a boogieing rip on “The VIP Room” and a sentimental toast to “An Old English Dream.” From his 1982 solo album “Lead Me to the Water,” Brooker rescues the ambitious “Symphathy for the Hard of Hearing” -- moody intro, brisk accelerando, nifty backswitching riff, punster title. And the rousing “Into the Flood,” previously found only on a 1991 German single, was definitely worth the rescue. As I hark back over the concert’s words, I notice a certain water/fire motif; spend some time with Keith Reid and you can learn a thing or two about lyrics.
The star sideman of this competent but restrained edition of Procol Harum -- now just Brooker’s backup band, face it -- is guitarist Geoff Whitehorn, a slick Strat technician who’s played with Maggie Bell, Crawler, Roger Daltrey and Paul Rogers. The curly-mopped old bear picks fast without sacrificing taste, executes acute Van Halen-style fretboard tapping, and does an uncanny seagull impression with string bends and volume knob on “A Salty Dog.” Speaking of which, Brooker’s soulful yet totally unblack voice rings out as strong as ever, with added depth and an attractive grain; the bastard can still hit every note of the demanding “Dog” in the original key. Funny he chooses to hammer a Roland electric grand (which sounds fine) instead of an acoustic Steinway, but maybe the demands of outdoor performance ruled.
DVD bonus: Six songs from a Danish television taping on Veterans Day 1974, including Procol’s fiercest rockers, “Bringing Home the Bacon” and “Toujours L’Amour.” Mostly you can hear/see the mustachioed Brooker and hairy Les Paul burner Mick Grabham; everybody else is undermiked, including BJ Wilson, though he does get a fair amount of camera attention, so you can soak up the martyrlike glow of his handsome face and examine his unusual condor-wing drum technique. Valuable.
The TV footage finds Procol plunked in a brightly lit, draperied and ornately wallpapered fake nightclub where hippie Danes in their Sunday best swill mugs of Carlsberg at little tables and clap politely. Weird, but no weirder than the sun-bathed palace lawns of 2006, where most of the lounging oldsters seem to have little clue about the identity of the five gentlemen onstage in godawful striped singles-bar shirts. (Wardrobe!) “Oh, ‘A Brighter Shade of Quail’? We know that one.”
What’s the ideal setting for Procol Harum? A palace, yes, but inside. With draperies, yes, but by candlelight. And in nice velvet suits, please.
But we should be grateful we get any Procol at all. Most of the band’s albums have long lapsed from print in the USA, only now beginning to get reissued, with reports that the new versions often don’t match the originals’ speed and pitch. Grr. “Maybe I’ll rent a villa in Spain/Buy a revolver and blow out my brains,” Reid once wrote and Brooker sang. Now they have an excuse.
Read my 2003 LA Weekly review of Procol Harum at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater here.