Monday, October 9, 2017

Review of Procol Harum's "Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music site a little earlier this morning:

Review Summary: "Pailing well after sixteen days, a mammoth task was set/Sack the town, and rob the tower, and steal the alphabet" -- Keith Reid, from "Whaling Stories"

This is a classic live album from the early seventies. It features one of the earlier, and more famous, collaborations between a rock band and a classical music orchestra. Recorded live on November 18, 1971 at the Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, the album finds the progressive rock band Procol Harum performing with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the Da Camera Singers. 

The album features five songs in all, four of them being among the band's more epic and theatrical compositions. The recording was quite successful, reaching #5 on the U.S. Billboard charts (although it only got as high as #48 in the UK). It also featured a hit single - the album's re-imagining of the band's song "Conquistador" breathed new life into a heretofore largely-ignored track from their first album. This new live version charted at #7 in Canada, #16 in the U.S. and #22 in the UK.

Within Procol Harum's discography, the album falls between their 1971 release Broken Barricadesand 1973's Grand Hotel. It was the first album released after guitarist Robin Trower left the band -- the lineup here is Gary Brooker on vocals and piano, Dave Ball on guitar, Chris Copping on organ and harpsichord, Alan Cartwright on bass and B.J. Wilson on drums. This particular performance also offered a special of treat -- Procol's resident poet/lyricist Keith Reid, the man responsible for the dramatic stories and imagery of their songs, is captured live here reciting the "Held Close" poem from "In Held 'Twas in I".

The original vinyl release of Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra sported four songs on Side One. Opening with the dramatic "Conquistador", which finds Brooker respectfully contemplating the virtues of a vanquished Spanish soldier from a bygone era, the album moves on to "Whaling Stories", a somewhat nonsensical action tale from the band's 1970 Home album. This is followed by the performance of a pair of songs from their 1969 A Salty Dog album: the nautical title track, and "All This and More", a comparatively quiet, piano-driven, number, which serves as a brief respite before the grandiosity of Side Two.

Side Two is composed in its entirety of Procol's most epic track, the nearly twenty-minute long "In Held 'Twas in I". Described by some as a "rock cantata", this song is the band's equivalent of Lord of the Rings. It's also the one song in their catalog that most cries out for the assistance of a symphony orchestra and a vocal choir. There's danger ("Glimpses of Nirvana"), comedy ("'Twas Teatime at the Circus", crisis ("In the Autumn of My Madness"), climax ("Look to Your Soul"), and a majestic instrumental denouement ("Grand Finale"). What does it all mean? I have no idea, but by the track's (and the album's) end, you feel as though you've just concluded a monumental heroic adventure. You're both satisfied and exhausted.

Unlike the majority of live albums, which are at best a small bonus for a band's devoted fanbase, Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra is actually an essential part of Procol Harum's discography. If you're in any way an admirer of this band, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of this album. In many ways, it's the group's most definitive musical statement.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars