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Bluesfest Review: Procol Harum

By Terry Steeves on July 14, 2014

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British progressive/symphonic rock band, Procol Harum, was formed in 1967 by multi-instrumentalist/singer/songwriter, Gary Brooker, and his friend and lyricist, Keith Reid, who has remained as Brooker’s collaborator to this day. Their first release of “Whiter Shade Of Pale” in the same year, was a number one hit on a global scale. The combination of Brooker’s melancholy vocals, baroque style organ, and mystical lyrics would set the tone for the band’s unique sound.

Their music was often backed by symphony orchestras to create a full symphonic sound. Over the years, the band has seen many changes in the line-up, leaving Brooker the last remaining original member (along with Reid, though not an instrumentalist on stage, is considered to be an actual band member due to his contributions as a lyricist). The band had parted ways in 1977, and reformed in 1991.

Today the band line-up consists of Brooker himself (vocals/keys), Geoff Whitehorn (guitars, 1991-present), Matt Pegg (bass, 1993-present), Josh Phillips (organ, 1993, 2004-present), and Geoff Dunn (drums, 2006-present). Currently, they are on a world tour, with a stop right here at Ottawa’s Bluesfest, and featuring the addition of our own NAC Orchestra, led by conductor David Firman, as well as Lee Hayes and her 24-voice choir.

The show began with a sweeping intro by the orchestra and choir into “Homburg”, which gave me the sensation of being in a theatre fully equipped with Dolby sound…it was majestic to say the least. One called the “Grand Hotel”, which speaks of the band’s headier days of playing said establishment, where they indulged in fine wine, red meat, and slept on silken sheets.

Onward to the haunting and ethereal intro of “A Salty Dog”, into a riveting crescendo of full sound, with Brooker’s soaring voice leading the way. I also enjoyed the more upbeat, “Into The Flood”, with Brooker rockin’ it behind the keys. At 69 years of age, he showed no signs of ever slowing down, even marvelling at the fact himself, before breaking into “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”. I could sense the wave of nostalgia that swept over the crowd, with those iconic baroque chords of the organ, and Brooker’s stirring vocals.

The show ended with the well-known, “Conquistador”, a dramatic, Spanish flavoured song peppered with thunderous drum punches. On a unique point of note, this was the only song that Reid wrote the lyrics to after the music was written. Usually the lyrics were always laid down first, with the music written around them. The music of Procol Harum was brought to its finest by the incredible efforts of the orchestra and choir…an amazing and memorable performance of the highest degree.

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