Judge Neal Solon was feeling kinda seasick, but the crowd called out for more.
"The best of Procol Harum, live in concert."—from the DVD cover
Procol Harum broke into the world's consciousness with their first single in 1967: A Whiter Shade of Pale It was the biggest hit of the band's career. After some ups and downs, countless personnel changes, and the death of drummer BJ Wilson, Procol Harum still manages to make relevant and engrossing music almost forty years later. This concert is proof. It's just too bad that technical shortcomings distract from what could be a stellar presentation.
Facts of the Case
On December 12, 2003, the band Procol Harum, in what must be at least its twentieth incarnation, ended a tour promoting their 2003 album The Well's On Fire. The performance's set list was a nice mix of Procol Harum standards, old gems, and music from the new album, which was generously represented by eight tracks. The show, being at the end of the tour, was essentially a homecoming for the band; that and a unique venue all combine to make this performance a special one. Accordingly, it was preserved here on DVD for fans old and new.
Procol Harum—Live at the Union Chapel is a straight-ahead concert video. There are no frills in the film, no interviews during the film itself, and no backstage footage—just Procol Harum doing what we presume they do best: playing music. For those unfamiliar with the band, Procol Harum is probably best known for their song "Whiter Shade of Pale." You know…the one where they "skipped the light fandango" and something about "sixteen vestal virgins."
Unfortunately, that's where most people's knowledge of Procol Harum starts and ends. Some people who were around in the band's heyday may also remember their second-most-famous song, "Conquistador." Beyond that, Procol Harum has been largely ignored by everyone outside their faithful following.
At the time of this performance only two of the band's original members remained: singer/pianist Gary Brooker and organist Matthew Fisher. Despite the changes from the original line up, the band's sound is much the same. Guitarist Geoff Whitehorn and drummer Mark Brzezicki have both been with the band since the early '90s and are worthy replacements for players whose shoes are impossible to fill. The bass player, Matt Pegg, is the son of Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull bassist Dave Pegg, and has been with the band since 1993.
The show captured on film here took place in Union Chapel, a small Gothic chapel in the borough of Islington in Greater London. Union Chapel is a functioning church that is also used as a performance venue in order to earn revenue to help with both the upkeep of the building and with homelessness projects. The set list is as follows:
More than a third of the tracks presented on the DVD are from the band's newest album, and it's easy to see why those critics who did pay attention to it hailed it as a return to form. The new songs blend seamlessly with the old. With the exception of the hits, the casual listener will likely have no idea which songs are which.
The presentation itself is a mixed bag. The anamorphically enhanced widescreen video is serviceable. There is nothing remarkable about it, which is a good thing. Concert films are generally at the mercy of their environment, but this show does not suffer for its location in the slightest. Images of the band are clear and colorful, and there are no noticeable defects in the picture.
The audio, however, is a slightly different story. The sound is great. Both the DTS and the Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes provide an engrossing representation of what it must have sounded like to sit in Union Chapel and listen to the band play live. The problem arises when one listens to either of these mixes while watching the accompanying video. Both tracks are out of sync with the picture. The Dolby Digital track is noticeably a fraction of a second behind the images on the screen. The DTS track is more bearable, but is still a split second behind. The stereo track seems to be spot-on in terms of timing, but lacks the richness of the other two tracks.
Rounding out the flawed presentation, Eagle Rock Entertainment includes a few supplements that have their own problems. First up is an "interactive" interview with Gary Brooker. It's considered "interactive" because the view must select each individual question with his or her remote, after which Brooker responds. In practice, it's a mild annoyance, though it amplifies the fact that Brooker's responses, with few exceptions, do not seem to coincide directly with the questions that the viewer selects. Though one can't imagine a reason for doing so, it feels as though someone tried to write questions to display on the DVD based on what Brooker said on film, rather than on the original questions, and ended up with some questions that just don't fit.
Next up in the extra features are alternate angles for two of the film's 21 songs—or so the DVD claims. There are supposed to be alternate camera angles for both "An Old English Dream" and "V.I.P. Room," and while pressing the "angle" button on the remote does, in fact, bring up alternate video while both of these chapters are playing, it's the alternate angle for "V.I.P. Room" both times. As such, the video looks out of place and off-tempo when you first watch it with "An Old English Dream," and redundant when you see it with "V.I.P. Room." Outside of the technical snafu, the alternate video for "V.I.P. Room" is a mildly interesting collection of grainy shots of the band and the audience from the back of the chapel.
The "earlier in the day" montage provided is little more than a seven-minute fast-motion video montage of set up for the show. It's visually interesting and set to music from the film. It gives one some interesting looks at the venue, but it's nothing revelatory.
Last up on the slate of extras is a collection of vignettes, featuring fans of Procol Harum at the bar in Union Chapel discussing their impressions of the concert, the new album, and how they originally got into Procol Harum. The fans' comments and reviews are quite predictably positive, but there are interesting characters and comments interspersed throughout. One of the highlights of this brief extra is a young man in an OzzFest tee shirt who breaks the monotony by readily admitting that he's here to see Geoff Whitehorn, and that he only got into Procol Harum recently through the "replacement" guitarist.
In all, the extras provide a little bit of interesting context, but they are overshadowed by the technical goofs. More context and interesting information are provided by Roland Clare, of Beyond the Pale, a Procol Harum-supported fan website, in the thorough and well-written liner notes. Unmentioned by the packaging, these notes prove to be the most useful supplement, and perhaps the one most worthy of inclusion on the disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are two questions worth addressing here:
(1) Are the audio problems significant enough that they should deter one from searching out this DVD?
The short answer is "no." The more honest answer is this: The performance outshines the audio problems if you listen to the stereo track or the DTS track. The stereo track is okay if you have less of a tolerance for sync problems than I do, or if you do not have DTS capabilities, but it is certainly inferior in quality to the surround tracks, which really seem to put you right there in the chapel.
(2) Will this be interesting to me as a casual fan or someone who just likes classic rock in general?
This answer is less straightforward. Procol Harum are consummate musicians, and they chose to let their music speak for them. As such, their performance does not contain much in the way of "performing." They don't play up to the crowd; there's no witty banter. They just get up there and play.
If you are a fan of '60s and '70s blues-tinged rock, you're likely to find a lot to like here. Unfortunately, there's no group to which Procol Harum can be compared to provide a safe estimate of whether you'll like their music. They're like a less folky, more classically influenced Jethro Tull, without the flute, but with an extra piano and an obfuscating lyricist, whose words are given a bluesy inflection by a singer who often sounds like an elder John Hiatt.
In other words, there's no way to know if you'll like them until you hear their music. If you like the music, you'll like the show.
On December 12, 2003, Procol Harum gave a great show, most of which is preserved here on DVD for their fans. If you happen to be among their number and have the ability to decode DTS audio, pick this up. The show itself is worth it. It's just a shame that the DVD couldn't live up to the performance that the band gave.
Worthy of note is that this DVD is also of some slight historical interest in that Union Chapel was forced to close its doors to performances in January of 2005. Also, singer Gary Brooker is wearing a medal on his chest throughout this performance. It was a medal given to him that day by the Queen, naming him a "Member of the Order of the British Empire" in honor of his years of charitable work.
Procol Harum is free to go and acquitted of all charges. Eagle Rock Entertainment, however, will be detained for further questioning.
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