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DVD Review: Procol Harum Live at the Union Chapel

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This concert DVD will be a real treat for fans of Procol Harum and classic rock in general. It presents the band in all its glory, playing the final show of a world tour that ended in December 2003 at the beautiful and majestic Union Chapel in Islington, London. The band is in top form, the sound quality of the recording is excellent, and the filmmakers took full advantage of the grand setting to create gorgeous visuals. There are just a few special features – arty alternate camera angles on a few songs, an interview with Gary Brooker, and some fan quotes – but there’s so much music here that you won’t feel the need for more extras.

In two full sets plus a four-song encore, the band plays the songs everyone knows, along with quite a few others from its back catalog, plus a healthy chunk of its new CD, which (unlike with many “dinosaur” bands) does not consist of inferior material. In fact, the casual fan (one who knows only “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “Conquistador,” say) will probably not be able to identify which are the old songs and which the new.

Gary Brooker sounds a tiny bit hoarse compared to when I saw him several years ago with Ringo’s All-Stars, but he obviously knows how to husband his resources, as any singer who does a lengthy tour of two-hour-plus concerts must. Suavely avuncular, he leads the band without unnecessary flashiness or antics, while clearly having a good time, as are the other musicians. Guitarist Geoff Whitehorn, in particular, is one of the happiest-looking middle-aged rockers you’re likely to see.

Brooker’s piano and Matthew Fisher’s incisive Hammond playing comprise Procol’s trademark two-keyboard attack. Whitehorn’s bluesy but precise guitar playing rides their waves, while fashion plate Matt Pegg and hardworking Mark Brzezicki cover bass and drums respectively. Pegg makes it look easy (take it from a bass player, it’s not). Brzezicki especially impresses; even with the somewhat restricted palette of rock drumming, he paints spacious canvases of sound the way a jazz drummer might.

Not surprisingly, the band has gone through personnel changes since its 1967 debut, but its sound remains intact. Brooker’s been the constant, of course, and Fisher is an original member as well. Along with the signature organ, it’s Brooker’s soaring voice and unmistakable songwriting that make Procol Harum Procol Harum.

The first set includes “Homburg,” whose chromatic melodies and slippery minor chords couldn’t have been written by anyone except the man who came up with “Whiter Shade of Pale.” It’s followed by the bombastic verses and oh-so-European waltz-march choruses of “Grand Hotel,” always a fan favorite. But “Quite Rightly So” is, for me, the high point of the set, with the band building a symphonic resonance atop a simple, stately structure. Whitehorn does his best Martin Barre in the acid-rocker “Simple Sister,” and the spotlight’s on Fisher during the new instrumental “Weisselklenzenacht,” where the organ chords consciously suggest “Whiter Shade of Pale” (as if we needed to be reminded that it was on the menu for later).

The second set opens with the dramatic rocker “Shadowboxed,” followed by the bluesy jams “The Question” and “Wall Street Blues.” The band’s lyricist Keith Reid is at his most affecting in the emotional hymn “This World is Rich,” the set’s first emotional high point:

We don’t even own the ditch where we’re dying
This world is rich, but it is not mine.

Procol Harum displays its American soul influence, for which Brooker’s voice is nearly perfect, with “As Strong As Samson” and the good-natured if obvious “Every Dog Will Have Its Day.” The still-fascinating classic “A Salty Dog” is another emotional peak: Procol at its best. And they “end” the show with an appropriately grand version of “Conquistador.”

The encore set begins with “VIP Room,” a great ode to rock and roll success (doesn’t every band need one?). The southern-fried blues-rocker “Whiskey Train” includes an excellent drum solo from the indefatigable Brzezicki. And they finish up with (say it with me now) “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” which here includes an extra verse you don’t normally hear. I’m not going to give you the words to it, you’ll have to buy the DVD, and it’ll be worth every penny.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • http://draven99.blogspot.com Chris

    Nice! It is a good disk and a nice companion to the Jefferson Airplane retrospective I got it with. Your style works nice, I’m still working on my music writing, I’m better suited to film at the moment.

  • http://jonsobel.com Jon Sobel

    And I’ve done tons of music reviews but am just starting to branch into videos. I have the Airplane DVD too, it’s next on my list to write up.

  • Phil Gray

    A nice summary – I bought the DVD a few months back and waited for a rainy day to pump it up on my Bose DVD system. Awesome, the choral and then screaming organ is what I like I best – if they ever tour again, anywhere, I’ll be there.

    Sydney,
    Australia