Report: Procol Harum Live in San Jose

 

Original Procol Harum singer Gary Brooker
brings “the summer of love” back to San Jose’s Civic Auditorium on August 14 – a
rousing opening set prior to headliners Yes.

 

By
Jud Cost

 

For
the dwindling ranks of those who remember the year, nothing quite says
“1967” like the J.S. Bach-influenced opening organ chords of Procol
Harum’s “A Whiter Shade Of Pale.” Gary Brooker’s uniquely soulful
vocal sound, coupled with the mysterious lyrics of Keith Reid (“I would
not let her be/One of sixteen vestal virgins/Who were leaving for the
coast”), launched the British combo’s career with an era-defining smash
hit.

 

The
band’s haunting orchestral sound consisted mainly of Matthew Fisher’s organ
folded into Brooker’s classical piano, a keyboard double-play that would later
be successfully employed by Mott The Hoople and Bob Dylan cohorts, the Band.
After its debut longplayer, titled for its first big hit, Procol Harum went on
to cut a series of fine albums, the best of which were Shine On Brightly and A Salty
Dog
.

 

The
ensuing 45 years have washed away the rest of the early band members, including
dramatic percussionist B.J. Wilson and guitarist Robin Trower, but the only
essential member needed to recreate the original sound is Brooker. And the
voice of the platinum-thatched singer hasn’t changed at all as it cuts a clean
swath through the muddy PA and the thick summer heat of San Jose’s Civic Auditorium.

 

The
new proprietors of this ancient venue claim they’ve overhauled the building.
But the original wooden chairs have been replaced by bulky padded seats that
leave absolutely zero leg-room for the patron. Air conditioning was supposed to
be part of the new equation, but a large truck parked behind the building was
apparently pumping cold air into the hall through an enormous hose-to no
obvious effect inside.

 

The
inferior house sound-mix left most of Brooker’s stage comments blowing in the
warm zephyrs of the jury-rigged AC. But he was overheard to say, “I do
remember being here before and going to the Gilroy Garlic Festival,” which
elicits guffaws from the locals.

 

The
first recognizable tune of the night, a post-“Pale” single called
“Homburg,” was introduced by Brooker as “a song we recorded
before most of you here tonight were born.” (“Your trouser cuffs are
dirty/And your shoes are laced up wrong/You’d better take off your homburg/Cuz
your overcoat is too long”). It’s an obvious spin-off of its more famous
predecessor and hits all the right buttons.

 

Any
Procol-head worth their salt (and there are plenty here tonight in the
two-thirds full house) recognizes the opening tidal pool of sound-seagulls
squawking, foghorns blowing, the creaking masts of large sailing ships-that
leads to one of the best nautical-rock epics ever: “A Salty Dog.”
(“Across the straits, around the horn, how far can sailors fly?/A twisted
path, our tortured course, and no one left alive”).

 

“Simple
Sister,” from Procol’s 1971 studio album, Broken Barricades, accurately recreates the more guitar-oriented
band sound of Trower, who went on to a successful solo career.

 

Brooker
and his fine back-up quartet end the set, of course, with a rousing version of
“A Whiter Shade Of Pale,” a song that was a perfect fit with West
Coast chart numbers from fellow Fillmore Auditorium “summer of love”
regulars: Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” Country Joe & the
Fish’s “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine” and the Byrds’ “My Back
Pages.”

 

A
stirring rendition of “Conquistador” served nicely for an encore. The
melody of its refrain (“I see your armor-plated breast/Has long since lost
its sheen/And in your death-mask face/There are no signs which can be
seen”) has been retooled (unknowingly, I’m pretty sure) by Jason Lytle for
the outro to Grandaddy’s lovely recent indie-rock gem “Lost On Yer Merry Way.”

 

I
should admit here that I split before the headliner came on. I was never a huge
fan of Yes, but would have stayed for a few numbers if the current personnel
had included ethereal original vocalist Jon Anderson. Since he was otherwise
engaged, the time seemed ripe to go home and bask in my own functional
air-conditioning.

 

[Live photo courtesy the band’s Facebook
page
]

 

 

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