Rick’s Retroarchy — Procol Harum, Still There’ll Be More: An Anthology, 1967-2017

Take a Dylanesque verbal collage by lyricist Keith Reid; marry it to instantly appealing melody and harmony — passionately sung and played by R&B pianist Gary Brooker, drawing equally on Baroque grandeur (Bach’s “Air on the G String”) and dramatic soul (Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman”).  Then garnish with Matthew Fisher’s Hammond organ counterpoint.  The result: “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Procol Harum’s first single, a defining hit of 1967, and one of progressive rock’s most influential precursors.

You can argue Procol Harum (Brooker, Reid, drummer B.J. Wilson and a shifting supporting cast — notably Fisher and guitarist Robin Trower) never topped their debut, either artistically or commercially.  But they made excellent music for a decade, with reunions every 12-15 years after that — thirteen fine albums that consistently engaged the mind, gut and heart. The latest installment in Procol’s current reissue campaign, Esoteric Recordings’  Still There’ll Be More: An Anthology, 1967-2017 , is the long-overdue box set this band richly deserves.

The first three CDs showcase that consistent excellence with 49 “best of” tracks.  Four tracks from Procol’s debut album lay down the basic template: breathtaking vocals from Brooker that equally channel Ray Charles and grand opera, letting Reid’s evocative lyrics soar over gutbucket, ever-modulating piano, organ & bass, Trower’s bluesy stings, and Wilson’s controlled frenzy (think Keith Moon’s abandon and Bill Bruford’s elegance in a single drummer).  Procol tackled long-form suites on Shine on Brightly; stirred in orchestral and acoustic soundscapes for A Salty Dog; stripped down to R&B basics with Home and Broken Barricades, then pulled out all the symphonic stops for Live In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (including the hit single “Conquistador”). Back in the public eye, the band courted glittery, elegaic decadence with Grand Hotelrefreshed their core sound on Exotic Birds and Fruit, then collaborated with rock pioneers Jerry Lieber & Mike Stoller on Procol’s Ninth and Miami’s Criteria Studios crew for Something Magic before calling it a day.

Highlights of the reunion albums (1991’s The Prodigal Stranger, 2003’s The Well’s On Fire 2017’s 50th-anniversary Novum) complete the survey.  Understand this: there isn’t a single dud track here — Procol Harum is always musically and lyrically engaging and challenging, never pedestrian even at their most mainstream.  (Esoteric has also released a 2-CD version of Still There’ll Be More with 29 of the 49 tracks included in the full set — though not the title track.  What gives?)

What elevates this set even higher: five discs (2 CDs, 3 DVDs) of great live material.  Let the record show that Procol Harum was awesome in concert, digging into marvelously varied setlists with abandon, ambition and passion.  They gave it their all, whether bluesing away at low-lit German TV studios in 1971 & 1973, blowing out the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra and the Roger Wagner Chorale in 1973, or barnstorming through British theatres in 1976 & 1977 .  Watching the music unfold in Bremen and London is an extra special treat: Brooker shines at the mike and the piano, Dave Ball & Mick Grabham add just the right amount of rock guitar crunch, Chris Copping & Pete Solley lay down thick, tasty organ work, and Wilson propels the whole thing forward with gravity and grace.  They really were something magic.

So is this box set (which is a limited edition).  If you don’t know Procol Harum’s music, you’re missing out on a key component of progressive rock’s roots.  Still There’ll Be More is an essential opportunity to dig in and discover a very special band.

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