Thursday, April 26, 2012

40 Year Itch: A Majestic Live Album

 The idea of a rock band playing with a symphony wasn't new. The Beatles had done it and so had the Moody Blues. Both The Nice ( Five Bridges) and Deep Purple (Concerto For Group And Orchestra) had recently recorded live albums with orchestras. Procol Harum's Gary Brooker attended the latter recording.

'I went to see the Deep Purple thing at the Albert Hall, we'd done our bit at Stratford, I wanted to see how other bands approached working with an orchestra, but their thing was so unimaginative. Like maybe for five minutes of the time they were playing together, what they lacked was material.'

So when the general manager of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra invited Procol Harum to play with an orchestra and chorus, Gary Booker and the band decided they'd make a record out of it. It was hardly as easy as that. There's an entire website devoted to witnesses, musicians and the multitude of problems that came up. Arrangements written on the plane. Instruments detained by customs. A new guitarist who had replaced the legendary Robin Trower. A musicians union chief glaring at the clock. Just a day and a half of rehearsals. A conductor who demanded that his name be taken off the album. A quadraphonic recording so costly Procol Harum would have to sell 120,000 copies just to break even. Even so, Brooker had no plans to play the band's only hit, "A Whiter Shade of Pale",

If you're expecting to hear mushy, melodramatic string-laden excess, you're in for a surprise. The album is absolutely majestic, setting the gold standard for symphonic rock. In fact In Concert, released in April of 1972,  went gold in the US where the lead off track, an unrehearsed "Conquistador" went Top 20 as a single. Side 2's epic "In Held 'Twas In I" received a standing ovation. 

The track I suggest you hear is the nearly eight minute "Whaling Stories" (originally released on 1970's Home).This is the band and orchestra's third take on the tune that night. Early on, Brooker and the boys were nervous . They even stopped halfway through the first attempt at "Whaling Stories" when the band and orchestra lost track of each other. But here, they nail it. The Da Camera singers come in at the end and its sheer transcendence.

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