Over-exuberant behaviour often causes havoc at 50th birthday parties. This evening, fans from all over the world have gathered at the Royal Festival Hall to celebrate the half-century career of Procol Harum, as the veteran band perform with the Senbla Symphony Orchestra and the English Chamber Choir – though the night comes perilously close to ending in disaster.
The additional players and singers sit out opener Shine On Brightly, but it only takes a moment or two of their participation on Homburg to reveal that tonight will be a bit special.
“That was roaring, wasn’t it?” pianist and lone original member Gary Brooker grins, before Procol allow the suits to take the strain during Grand Hotel. Having racked up 26 years of his own in the band, Geoff Whitehorn’s guitar playing is exemplary, from those swooping seagull sounds at the start of A Salty Dog to a robust outburst during Sympathy For The Hard Of Hearing.
Brooker explains that orchestral alliances offer unusual freedoms, so while it’s a little disappointing that In Held ’Twas In I (one of the epic pieces captured so memorably with the Edmonton Symphony back in 1971) is cut and pasted into medley form, this evening’s performance is unique.
All is going to plan until Brooker invites singer Sam Brown and a couple of fellow female ukulele players to participate in Neighbour, a hideous ditty from Novum, the band’s new studio album. Worse still, Brooker takes a very nasty tumble while leaving the stage at the first set’s conclusion.
Nobody is sure whether the 71-year-old will return, and doubts deepen when the interval is extended. So when he does come back with a bandaged head and a ‘broken’ right hand, Brooker gets a standing ovation, though the injury means organist Josh Phillips must cover selected piano parts.
Robbed of its usual intro, there’s some confusion as to how Whaling Stories must now commence, but the audience urge Brooker and Procol onwards. And when these two hours of drama, colour, pageantry and courage end with an especially poignant A Whiter Shade Of Pale, your correspondent is left feeling proud to be English – not a phrase he uses too often any more.