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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
Bloomsbury Theatre, London - Sunday March 6th 2005 - by Nick Morgan
I can’t now remember if it was my brother or sister who came home one summer Saturday afternoon clutching a copy of Procol Harum’s Salty Dog, but whichever it was, I was hugely jealous. The LP cover, wittily based on one of Britain’s most famous and iconic tobacco trademarks (Serge, ok to mention smoking products here?) was stunning, and was also a fond reminder of my Great Aunt Win, who wilfully smoked a few Player’s untipped every day ‘till she died in her nineties.   PROCOL HARUM
The music was surprisingly bluesy for a group that had produced THAT single (which was already wearing thin by 1969, and is now simply painful), the songs were great (and have stood the test of time far better than THAT song) and the eponymous ‘A salty dog’ (a poetic warning to sailors all) quite outstanding. Anyway somehow that piece of beautifully packaged vinyl (and I don’t care what anybody says, packaging is important) found its way into my collection, and now the CD is a regular part of my extended playlist. Which is odd really as I couldn’t give a fig for the band, whose earlier and subsequent ‘progressive’ meanderings (Grand Hotel – give me a break!) were to me symptomatic of the pompous and witless rubbish that finally pushed the door open for punk rock in the late 1970s. But for all that when I saw they were playing in London (“blimey, I thought they were dead”) I just couldn’t resist getting hold of some tickets.
PROCOL HARUM   Just a few points on the band before I move to the heart of the matter. Did you know that the core of the classic line-up (Brooker, Trower etc.) were originally Southend rhythm and blues rockers The Paramounts (hit single – ‘Poison Ivy’)? That Brooker is still working with co-writer Keith Reid (who never performed with the band)? Did you know that at one point Brooker gave it all up to go fly-fishing? Did you know that Brooker performs mightily with Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings? Or that the band always thought of themselves as a blues-band (“welcome” says Brooker, “to an evening of Procul Harum Blues – more than three chords, but that’s the only difference”)....
Or that they loathed being compared to the Moody Blues (well, come on, who wouldn’t …). Or that Brooker is the only one of the original band to still perform? Or that this is the first concert I have attended where Liquorice Allsorts were for sale in the foyer? “Who cares?” Well the answer is that someone does – a lot.
I knew there was something odd going on from the moment we walked into the theatre. It wasn’t just all the old fat grey haired men and their surprisingly elegant wives. Or the earnest young ones with beards intently studying the equipment on stage, noting down arcane technical specifications. Just how big was the air intake on Josh Phillip’s Hammond organ? There was something eerily familiar about the look on some of their faces, and the expectant and almost reverential atmosphere. Finally of course it clicked. This wasn’t a concert at all. In effect it was a fan-club (of the most extreme ‘Play Misty for me’ stalker sort) convention. The majority of the audience were on first name terms, and many (again I think a majority) had travelled from the continent (and some from the United States) to be there.
As it turned out a good number of them had been at a party for much of the afternoon, celebrating some anniversary or other connected with THAT song. And during the performance many clapped their hands and waved their arms in the air like proselytites at a revivalist meeting, whilst others muttered darkly that “Garry vas not playink so properly, didn’t he miss a note out there?” And of course they all wore their secret society Salty Dog T-shirts. Crikey Serge, anything sound familiar here?   PROCOL HARUM
And what of the concert I hear you ask. Hmmm. High points: Gary Brooker’s singing on the newer bluesey (lower key vocals) songs; Brooker’s “Light and bitter corr that’s a bit of a larrf” patter; Hammond Organ heaven; an almost faultless version of ‘A Salty Dog’. Low points; Brooker’s voice on most of the older material (he simply couldn’t make the notes, and in fact apologised in a sort of a way when he explained that he had sung his voice out in rehearsals). Other lowpoints: School of Rock lead guitarist; the plodding nature of many of the songs – they really dragged; THAT song; and the bizarre ‘multi song suite’ (ugh!) from the 1968 album Shine on Brightly, ‘In held twas in I’.
PROCOL HARUM   Badly played and poorly rehearsed (but I wondered, was it specially played for this most special of audiences as the result of a request, or even maybe a threat?) this piece (I listened to at home later over a much needed Brora) allegedly influenced all those later creators of what came to be known as rock opera.
As far as I could see all it could have inspired was that particularly daft bit in Spinal Tap when the mini-stonehenge arches were lowered to the floor on wires. But the audience loved it, sang along, did crowd noises on cue during ‘Twas tea time at the circus’ (a lot of ‘twas’ then) and almost wept at its conclusion.
I was in shock, but by this time had decided that discretion was the better part of valour as I couldn’t help sensing someone looking over my shoulder at the invective I was scribbling in my little black notebook. My photographer said “they’re a group of well meaning blokes in danger of becoming their own tribute band”. And maybe it was that which caused her camera to malfunction. I said, “Lets get out of here, fast”. So we did. - Nick Morgan (last photo by Kate)

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