Monday, March 12, 2018

Review: Procol Harum's 'Still There'll Be More: An Anthology 1967-2017'

When it was released in 1992, the Jefferson Airplane Loves You box set included a little card with the write-in question to the effect of “What other band deserves a box set?” I wrote in “Procol Harum” and mailed it off to RCA/BMG Records even though Procol Harum was on A&M. But that’s just how hungry I was for a box set of Britain’s greatest soul/goth/prog combo. A few years later, A&M did, indeed, deliver a Procol Harum set, but it was essentially a repackaging of their first four albums with an extra disc of singles, a couple of outtakes and a few alternate takes. That ultimate Procol Harum-box set itch wasn’t quite scratched yet.

In recent years, the popularity of deluxe editions of individual albums has largely displaced the career-spanning box set, and Procol Harum has certainly gotten its due in that realm with Esoteric Recording’s expanded versions of the group’s first four albums, which seemingly have swept up every unreleased track and alternate mix from the group’s most fruitful years. So I’m not sure if I believe an old-fashioned career-spanning box set is as necessary as I did in 1992, but it’s still nice that one is finally arriving.

Even nicer is that it is probably very different from the kind of set that would have been released 26 years ago when they tended to consist of three or four audio discs. Still There'll Be More: An Anthology 1967-2017 is much more massive than that, and it sets its sites beyond mere audio. The first three discs are fairly typical, picking a few singles and a few songs from each of the band’s thirteen albums right up to last year’s Novum. I’m sure that diehards who’d buy an eight-disc box will likely already have these thirteen albums, so Discs One through Three are mostly valuable for sparking the kind of debate that compilations spark, so prepare to exclaim things like, “Where’s ‘In the Wee Small Hours of Sixpence’? Is ‘Barnyard Story’ really one of the four best cuts on Home? Why only three tracks from Shine on Brightly but four from the inferior Procol’s Ninth? Are all those bland post-Procol’s Ninth tracks really necessary (though the two cuts from Novum are pretty good)?” Etcetera, etcetera.
 More important are the superb live sets on Discs Four and Five, which capture the band’s two sides beautifully. Disc Four portrays Procol at their grandest. It is essentially an expansion of their great 1972 live album, once again capturing the band with an orchestra, though this time it’s the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and Roger Wagner Chorale instead of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. It’s a great recording with such recent songs such as “Grand Hotel” and “Fires (Which Burnt Brightly)” as well as older numbers like “A Christmas Camel” and “Simple Sister” that weren’t part of the Edmonton set. The band’s more stripped down, soulful side is caught on a set at Bournemouth’s Winter Gardens in 1976.

Discs Five through Seven provide the coolest segment of Still There'll Be More as they collect television performances ranging from a BBC TV lip sync of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” in late 1967 (starring a shockingly youthful, pre-mustache Gary Brooker and Matthew Fisher resplendent in Goth monk cloak) to a Sight & Sound in Concert appearance from 1977. In between is a wealth of other performances mostly recorded for German TV. Though eleven tracks from Germany’s Beat Club Workshop were already released on DVD as Procol Harum Live in 2005, the footage did not look as clear as it does here, perhaps because this new version eliminates the distracting and ugly chroma key nonsense, leaving a neutral blue backdrop. The performance also starts earlier than the 2005 DVD, allowing a glimpse of the bands warm up on The Beatles Something, and ends later with half of In Held Twas in I”. 

The old DVD also included two bonus cuts (Drunk Again” and Grand Hotel”) from Procol’s 1973 appearance on Musikladen, and Disc Seven of the new box set builds on them with seven additional choice performances of songs mostly culled from  Grand Hotel, as well as the box’s only video performances of the essential epic Whaling Stories”, the stormy Kaleidoscope, and the underrated Too Much Between Us(though the decision to add lumbering drums to this most ethereal song was a rare lapse in taste from the usually irreproachable B.J. Wilson).  Considering that Procol Harum was a group that let their highly visual music take center stage while they basically stood stock still to play their instruments, all of this footage is surprisingly great fun and very valuable indeed. An interlude in the Musikladen performance in which Gary Brooker accuses one of his band mates of farting is unquestionably worth the cost of the entire box set.  

Disc Eight’s Sight & Sound in Concert spotlight on the dodgy Something Magic is less valuable. This disc does provide the box’s only completely live video performances of Nothing but the Truth and A Whiter Shade of Pale”, though we sadly get less than two minutes of the latter as it plays out over the closing credits. It’s also too bad there wasn’t any available live footage from the classic Fisher/Robin Trower era, but only the saltiest dog would waste an excess of time complaining about the footage that is included on this long, long awaited box set...after all, DVDs didn’t even exist back in 1992!
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