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Live With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Procol Harum

A&M 4335
Released: May 1972
Chart Peak: #5
Weeks Charted: 28
Certified Gold: 8/28/72

B.J. WilsonDavid BallChris CoppingAlan CartwrightKeith ReidGary BrookerIf you're put off by pretensions of grandiosity in music, if all you want to do is get funky and boogie around, you've probably never been all that fond of Procol Harum, and this album isn't likely to change things. If, on the other hand, you're a confirmed addict and would rather skip the light fandango than just get it on, this fulfillment of all their leanings is as close as you'll get to a dream come true.

While their music has never pretended to be anything other than dramatic and pictorial, Gary Brooker's arrangements employ the chorus and orchestra to make more obvious than ever the place of those qualities in Procol Harum's music. Take the second break in "Conquistador," which sounds like nothing but the score from an early Sixties wide-screen epic on the Spanish conquest of the New World, replete with swooping strings and bullfight horns. Or the stately chorus of "In Held 'Twas In I," which is enough to make one wish Mr. Capra had Procol around to do the soundtrack for Lost Horizon.

Procol Harum - Live With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Original album advertising art.
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Rather than let the idea of a full symphony orchestra at his command go to his head, Brooker has kept things very elementary, capitalizing on the opportunities for extreme dynamic variations (which works especially well on the majestic climaxes of "Whaling Stories," "A Salty Dog" and "In Held") and for delightfully melodramatic coloration -- the trilling reeds that herald daybreak in "Whaling Stories," the sombre strings that tone the first part of that song with a deeper-than-melancholy caste, and the ominous, swelling opening of "In Held" being the best examples.

Now someone might easily turn up his nose at this approach and dismiss it as precious, transparent, even comical. But an understanding of and a sympathy with Procol Harum's attitude leads one to accept this album as the group's most forthright admission so far that their music is indeed excessively grandiose, unsubtle, and often marked by a fine sense of comedy (usually self-directed). It also happens to be among the most viscerally powerful and emotionally devastating music available.

Of the five selections, "Whaling Stories," "A Salty Dog" and "In Held" are the most effective (especially the latter, which makes the old studio version sound like a sketchy blueprint), though "Conquistador" doesn't lag far behind. I can think of about 20 P.H. songs I'd rather hear in the slot occupied by "All This and More."

Chris Thomas' production hasn't sacrificed a bit of the band's power to the jaws of the orchestra, and the performance he captures so well is uniformly excellent. But Brooker's singing must be singled out. If his work on the "Look to Your Soul" segment of "In Held" and on the last verse of "A Salty Dog," where his voice slides gloriously from word to word and pours from the speakers like dark blue honey, doesn't convince the world that he's matured into one of rock's premiere vocalists, nothing will. And to hear him grapple with the line that finally resolves itself as "And though the cloud crapped desperately..." while the De Carmera Singers boisterously whoop it up behind him is a treat and a half.

In the "Glimpses of Nirvana" portion of "In Held," Brooker recites some words by Keith Reid that come closest to revealing what they're all about: "If I can communicate/ And in the telling and the baring of my soul/Anything is gained/Even though the words I use are pretentious and make you cringe with embarrassment..."

After all, life is like a bean stalk. Isn't it?

- Richard Cromelin, Rolling Stone, 6/8/72.

Bonus Reviews!

Procol Harum (and friends) have created a magnificent album disproving the theory that the melding of rock groups with symphony orchestras has to result in a lot of pretentious hogwash. If Keith Reid is Procol's spirit then Gary Booker is its guts and backbone. Especially praiseworthy are the heights of feeling and emotion attained here.

- Billboard, 1972.

Several of the more intrepid and/or foolhardy rock groups have attempted to fuse elements of pop and classical music; but few possessed the credentials and know-how of Procol Harum. Two years ago, Gary Brooker, when asked to name his most profound musical influences, replied the Germanic composers. But as long ago as their very first hit, "A Whiter Shade Of Pale," Brooker and his fellow madmen have been reworking the basic threads of the classics and coloring them with the variegated hues of Twentieth Century experience.

Ever since the fall of 1969 when Procol first worked with the orchestra at Stratford, Ontario, rumors of such a recording as this have been running around. Well, here it is, a few years late and not a moment too soon. The LP was recorded last November before an audience of 3,000 at the Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton, Alberta. From the opening note it is apparent that Procol Harum, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and the da Camera Singers are sincerely intentioned. What's more, Brooker -- as pianist and lead vocalist -- is not the sightest bit interested in the sort of masturbatory histrionics practiced with regularity by Keith Emerson.

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The compositions of Brooker and Keith Reid demand more than mere attentiveness from all musicians concerned -- they demand devotion. The pieces are familiar Procol Harum fare -- most are from the first three albums -- but they are enhanced beyond even their original boundaries. "A Salty Dog," the title cut of the band's third record, is a case in point. Always breathtaking to hear, it now emerges as an even deeper and more crashing tour de force. Ditto the complex "In Held 'Twas In I," which is explored over the course of an entire side with results that are spectacular yet never lessen the total mystification of the oeuvre.

What it all really comes down to is that on November 18th of last year some sort of history was made, and this is the recorded transcript of that event. Whatever we were doing that cold evening couldn't possibly have been more important. Or, thanks to this album, more enduring.

- Ed Kelleher, Circus, 7/72.

Gigging with a local band this way would be a terrible idea for more accomplished rock and rollers, but as it is, the enthusiastic provincials kick Procol's ass on "Conquistador," great meaningless fun in the tradition of "Quick Joey Small." And you have to admit that the string and horn arrangements are different. B-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

With the help of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (Canada), Procol Harum does an impressive job re-creating their more stately numbers, complete with sound effects and a full choir. "Conquistador" became a number 16 hit. * * *

- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

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