It doesn’t seem that long ago that the idea of rock stars in their seventies seemed ridiculous; rock and roll was a young man’s (and occasional woman’s) game.  The boring old farts that punk had come to blow away in 1976 were barely in their thirties, and the punks themselves are now pensioners.  Over the last few years I’ve seen some tremendous gigs from septuagenarian rockers: Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth in Gong, Bryan Ferry, Roy Harper, Al Stewart – all turning in performances that belie their years.    

As Gary Brooker shuffles on stage, it seems at first as if he he is carrying his own years a little more heavily than any of those mentioned above.  I’d read that he had injured his head in a fall during the interval at an earlier gig at The Royal Festival Hall, reappearing for the second half with his head in bandages.  There are no bandages tonight, but he does seem a little frail.  Arranging some lyric sheets on his piano, Brooker explains that he needs these for the material from the new album, Novum, as tonight will be the first  time that he has played them since they were recorded.  This is not strictly true as a couple of the songs got an airing at that Royal Festival Hall gig but tonight will be the debut for most of them.

As Brooker is the only original Procol Harum member in the band’s line up these days, it would be tempting to dismiss the others as mere hired hands but guitarist Geoff Whitehorn and bassist Matt Pegg have been with the band since the early 1990s and keyboard player Josh Phillips has also served time since 1993, leaving then rejoining in 2004.  Even new boy drummer, Geoff Dunn has more than ten years service.  So, this “new” version of Procol Harem is actually more established than the original.

The set opens with the first song from the new album.  I Told On You is a driving rocker, led by crunchy guitar riff from Whitehorn.  Brooker’s voice is perhaps a little more fragile than in days gone by but it is still unmistakably his own.  Next up, we are taken back to 1967 and the band’s second single, Homburg with its distinctive Hammond organ lines.  The remainder of the first set focuses on the new album, on the whole a fine selection of songs, written by Brooker and former Cream lyricist, Pete Brown.  Brooker mentions that Josh Phillips has a wonderful new Yamaha keyboard which can make just about any sound you can imagine.  Puzzlingly, Phillips has chosen to make it sound like a particularly horrible 1980s’ digital piano which, in my opinion at least, detracts from many of the songs on the new album.  The songs themselves though are fine and the first half of the gig serves as a showcase for them.  Highlights include the weary tale of Last Chance Motel and Image Of The Beast.  Only the subpar Chas And Dave knees up of Neighbour lets the quality slide a little.  The first set ends with one of Procol Harem’s most enduring songs, A Salty Dog.  Brooker’s opening piano chords are slightly stilted but Geof Dunn captures original drummer BJ Wilson’s distinctively lop sided drum fills perfectly.

The second half of the show mines the band’s back catalogue for gems, Wall Street Blues featuring  Phillips’ Hammond organ.  “We used to play the big place down the road and arrive in limousines” says Brooker before launching into Grand Hotel.  This time he arrived on the shuttle bus from the airport; the hedonistic exploits told in Grand Hotel are a distant memory.  All to soon we arrive at the final trio of songs: Whisky Train, Conquistador and The Only One.  The encore is, of course, inevitable.  Perhaps no other band has been associated with a single song like Procul Harum have with A Whiter Shade Of Pale.  It’s an association that I’m sure Brooker is perfectly happy with – his wife walked up the aisle to it when they were married.  Classics are classics for a reason and the song retains all its magic, even after fifty years.  On the evidence of tonight’s performance it looks like Brooker and the band have a good few years left in them yet.

Set List

I Told on You

Homburg

Image of the Beast

Don’t Get Caught

Neighbour

Last Chance Motel

Sunday Morning

Can’t Say That

A Salty Dog

Wall Street Blues

Pandora’s Box

An Old English Dream

Grand Hotel

As Strong as Samson

Cerdes (Outside the Gates Of)

Whisky Train

Conquistador

The Only One

Encore

A Whiter Shade of Pale

John Scott

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