(originally appeared in Shindig! issue #77)
Ask a Canadian to describe the city of Edmonton, Alberta, and the two words you are likely to hear are “cold” and “boring”. Edmonton is the northernmost large city in North America, sitting on roughly the same latitude as Moscow – and, as your correspondent discovered while living there, Edmonton can indeed be cold. Very cold. Like “outdoor temperature of -35C and windchill” cold.
However, despite its nickname of “Deadmonton”, Edmonton is not boring. Its winters are long and dark, but many of its residents grew up in small Prairie towns where, if you were bored, you made your own fun. So when Edmontonians get an idea, instead of thinking of reasons why it won’t work, they figure out how to make it happen. That adventurous attitude of “hey, this could be fun” led to the ’72 album Procol Harum Live: In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra – a significant milestone in Procol Harum’s career, and a huge influence on the city where it was recorded.
By the late ‘60s, the potential for crossovers between classical music and rock music had already been demonstrated by albums like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, with its extensive use of orchestral instrumentation, and the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed, with “orchestral interludes” by the London Festival Orchestra linking the album’s songs together. Procol Harum had already shown its own classical leanings in the Bach-influenced melody of its single ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’. In July ‘69 Procol further explored a classical direction when it played two numbers during an all-Bach concert in Ontario by the Stratford Festival Orchestra.
Then, in November ’70, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra – at that time transitioning from being a community group into becoming a professional organization – collaborated on a concert with the Canadian band Lighthouse. The concert was successful beyond all expectations, to the point where some orchestra members put down their instruments during the last few numbers and danced on the stage, as the audience sang along and rocked out in the aisles. Part of that success was down to the attitude of the ESO musicians; Skip Prokop, Lighthouse’s lead singer, described the orchestra’s members as “so good, they were so easy to get along with, they were not stodgy, they really related to the music.” Prokop knew Procol’s lead singer Gary Brooker, and he told Brooker after the concert that if Procol ever wanted to do a show with a full-scale orchestra, Edmonton was the place to do it.
The person who brought Procol and the ESO together was the ESO’s assistant general manager Bob Hunka, a “hippie” in his first job after finishing university. Many sources claim that music writer Ritchie Yorke was the catalyst for the collaboration, as Yorke had seen Procol play in Stratford and written a glowing review of that show. However, Hunka told the Edmonton Journal in ‘92 that while Yorke initially proposed the idea to him, Edmonton broadcaster Holger Petersen “re-suggested” it, and also loaned Hunka his Procol albums so that Hunka could get a sense of the group’s repertoire. Hunka admitted that, after hearing the albums, his initial reaction was “no”. But when Procol played in Edmonton in August ‘71, he met with the band’s manager, and a deal was struck. Hunka recalled, “It was like one of those Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movies, ‘Let’s put on a show!’ They had a rock band, and I had an orchestra, let’s do it.”
Procol persuaded recording engineer Wally Heider to bring his 16-track mobile recording unit from California – its first trip outside the United States – and producer Chris Thomas was signed to oversee the project. Local chamber choir the Da Camera Singers were brought on board to augment the orchestra. The show was set for November 18 at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, and excitement grew in the city as the date approached; as one resident remembered, “There weren’t a lot of large bands that came through Edmonton, so when they did, it was an event.”
Procol’s members arrived in town several days prior to the show, during which time Brooker wrote the arrangements for the numbers the band would perform with the orchestra and choir. The band and crew were taken out to dinner by several locals, including one evening when everyone crammed into a one-bedroom apartment for a curry. However, not everything was copacetic. ESO conductor Lawrence Leonard got into an argument with Brooker and threatened to quit the show; Leonard was eventually persuaded to continue, but specified that his name was not to appear in any reviews or in the album credits. Then guitarist Dave Ball’s amp broke – twice – necessitating a mad dash around town to find replacements, and some of the band’s other gear was delayed in transit.
As a result of the equipment problems and scheduling snafus, the band and orchestra had only two shortened days of rehearsals, including the day of the show itself. The members of the Da Camera Singers all had day jobs and could only practice during their lunch breaks and after work, so the few rehearsals took place with whatever equipment and performers happened to be available at the time. The ESO musicians also had to adjust to having live mikes everywhere on stage; trumpeter Bill Dimmer recalled Heider “aware of his position, just shouting commands at people, and the fact that he was kind of in the boonies.” But the orchestra members were confident, despite the limited amount of rehearsal. “It would have been a problem if the arrangements weren’t good,” said bassoon player Eddy Bayens, “but these were good arrangements. Everything fit like a hand in a glove.”
Thomas, however, was less confident. The chaotic nature of the rehearsals meant that he was unable to record any usable material prior to the actual show. He told Rolling Stone, “We came to the day of the performance and we hadn’t even done a rehearsal with the choir, orchestra and group. The whole idea really was to record the thing about three times before, so when it actually came to the concert we really had the whole thing recorded and then it would just be a nice concert and nobody had to worry about ‘oh, God, we’ve gotta be good’. But we hadn’t managed to record anything at all.”
When the concert finally began, the sellout crowd was first treated to a set of ragas played by a trio of Edmonton musicians, led by sitarist Larry Reese. Reese, the son of a local university professor, had been introduced to the sitar by Ravi Shankar while accompanying his father on a research trip to Calcutta. The trio’s performance went over well with the enthusiastic audience. But much to Reese’s embarrassment, his cross-legged position during the set made his leg fall asleep – and when he stood up to acknowledge the audience’s applause, he fell over and had to be helped off the stage. Procol keyboardist Chris Copping then played Albinoni’s ‘Adagio’ with the ESO, after which the entire band took their places on stage with the orchestra and choir.
The set list was drawn from Procol’s first three albums, including the five-song suite ‘In Held ‘Twas In I’ from Shine On Brightly. In addition to the numbers that appeared on the album, ‘Shine On Brightly’, ‘Simple Sister’, ‘Repent Walpurgis’, and ‘Luskus Delph’ were also performed. At the end of the show, Brooker told Goldmine magazine in 2010, “it reached such a climax that the audience went crazy … well, I’m sure I was floating off the piano stool I was sitting on, because it was very uplifting. So that was a great experience. That’s what you play music for, to get through to people.”
However, there was much, much more to come. After the assembled musicians took their bows, Thomas recalled in ‘82, “I went running out there and said, you’ve got to do ‘Whaling Stories’ and ‘Conquistador’ again, I think it was, because there were certain songs that would be important to the album. I got them to do that, they came off, and I said, you’ve got to do ‘In Held ‘Twas In I’ again – the whole of side two. They thought I was joking, and all this was happening in the wings with the audience still there. [Drummer] BJ Wilson said, I’m not fucking doing that again, and went off to the bar and got himself a large drink, but we managed to find him, threw him back on stage and went all the way through ‘In Held ‘Twas In I’ again.” One ESO member observed that “it seemed as though we did the concert three times.”
Thomas commented that “when it came to actually putting the record together, there were lots and lots of edits, so by the time the tape was actually being mixed, it looked like a zebra crossing.” Nevertheless, the outcome was hugely successful. Procol Harum Live: In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra was released in April ’72, and reached #5 in the US and #46 in the UK. It sold more than a million copies worldwide, and reportedly became the first album featuring a symphony orchestra to achieve both gold- and platinum-level sales. The dynamic single ‘Conquistador’, charted in the US, the UK, and Canada. (Subsequent re-releases of the album, most recently on vinyl in 2015, have added some or all of the tracks ‘Luskus Delph’, ‘Shine On Brightly’, and ‘Simple Sister’.)
Ironically the ESO did not benefit financially from its groundbreaking venture. Instead of opting to receive royalties from album sales, the ESO agreed to be paid a flat fee for its participation – reportedly only $5000 CDN. But despite missing out on a potential windfall, the ESO was happy with the visibility it gained as a result of the album. Petersen recalled that “for a time, the Edmonton Symphony was the best known orchestra in pop circles around the world, a quite progressive one. There was a lot of pride involved.”
Brooker told Songfacts magazine in 2010 that he considers his vocals on the ESO album his best performances. “It always gives one a great deal of pleasure if you know that when you sing live, that you sing as well or better than you did in the studio. It was a very inspiring evening and there was a lot of good music going on from everybody, and the vocals had to get over it all.”
Procol returned to Edmonton in ’92 for a “reunion” concert with the ESO, which was also broadcast as a live pay-per-view event on Canadian television. Brooker was the only Procol member from ’72 to return, but the ESO’s ranks included 10 musicians who had played on the original album. A further “one last time” concert happened in 2010. The ESO has siince recorded other cross-genre collaborations with k.d. lang, Tom Cochrane & Red Rider, and music-comedy trio The Arrogant Worms. Hunka became a film and television music executive in Los Angeles; Petersen founded the roots-music label Stony Plain Records; and Reese became an educator, artist and actor (he’s the minister who marries Michelle Williams and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain).
Procol Harum Live: In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra was a stunning achievement for the band, and remains one of its best-known recordings. But the lasting legacy of the album is also in how it brought spirit and boldness to the city where it all happened – a city that was “a self-conscious teenager of a town”. Gary Koliger, who was in the audience in ’72, summed it up this way to the Journal: “Here was a collaboration virtually no one on earth had seen, and it was happening in Edmonton. [It gave] us the confidence that this wasn’t a huge backwater, that things could happen here.”