Procol Harum will always be best known for their first single, 1967’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” which melds Bach-inspired Hammond organ with Percy Sledge-like vocals and evocative, cryptic lyrics to give an enduring classic. For many people, this song is where their familiarity with Procol Harum begins and ends.
But those people are missing out on a lot of great songs both old and new, as evidenced by Procol Harum’s wonderful concert at Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theatre on Saturday night.
Many gems from their early years were presented, including concert-opener “Shine On Brightly,” their second single “Homburg,” the trippy “Cerdes (Outside the Gates Of),” the hard-rocking and first set closing “Simple Sister,” the epic “Whaling Stories,” the grand “A Salty Dog” and the super-catchy “Conquistador.”
These songs might cover such strange topics (in the world of rock-and-roll, at least) as sinking ships, Spanish conquerors and whooping cough, but they do so without seeming pretentious. Plus, these songs really rock out in that vintage only-in-the-late-1960s-and-early-‘70s sort of way.
Also on the program were enjoyable newer numbers such as the prescient “Wall Street Blues,” which was written when times were better economically, with lyrics such as “They said the market / Could never go down / They took your savings / And then left town.” But rather than placing all the blame on Wall Street, the song points out that such an outcome wouldn’t have happened had you not been trying to make “an easy buck.” Other new songs included “The Blink of an Eye,” dedicated to the emergency responders to the 9/11 terrorist acts, and “An Old English Dream,” which laments what modern society has lost.
Singer, pianist and songwriter Gary Brooker is the lone remaining band member from Procol Harum’s classic years. (Keith Reid doesn’t play in the band but continues to write the song lyrics, as he has done since the band’s inception.) Guitar hero Robin Trower left in 1972 to explore a more Jimi Hendrix-inspired direction (he’ll be playing at the Majestic Ventura Theater in February), and organist Matthew Fisher left in 1969, came back in the 1990s, but eventually quit again and sued (ultimately successfully) for a co-writing credit on “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”
But the current band — guitarist Geoff Whitehorn, organist Josh Phillips, bassist Matt Pegg and drummer Geoff Dunn — are certainly effective at capturing the Procol Harum sound, with swirling Hammond organ, distorted guitar and piano combining to give a full but surprisingly uncluttered and great-sounding mix. Whitehorn’s playing was particularly impressive, with precisely bent strings and wide vibrato that was clearly inspired by Trower but also had its own voice.
Brooker was engaging between songs, telling the audience that the band had been in North America for only 10 days for the current tour, “but it seems like a month.” He lauded Santa Barbara for having buildings that aren’t too tall, and a main street that one could walk down between midnight and 3 a.m. (Despite a seeming overabundance of homeless people on State Street and issues with gangs, we still have it pretty good here, don’t we?) When he introduced “A Salty Dog,” he noted that being by the seaside, “there might be some seagulls around,” whose calls were promptly provided by Whitehorn’s guitar.
The encore started with the straight-ahead rock-and-roll of “Whisky Train,” complete with a 1970s-style drum solo by Dunn. Then the band delivered the timeless “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” which continues to fascinate and delight more than four decades after its original release.
After all these years, Procol Harum continues to shine on — brightly.
Shine On Brightly
Wall Street Blues
A Dream In Ev’ry Home
Cerdes (Outside the Gates Of)
Blink of an Eye
An Old English Dream
A Salty Dog
A Whiter Shade of Pale
— Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.