The word novum means “new thing” in Latin. It’s also the name of Procol Harum’s most recent effort, which was released in 2017, which also happened to be the band’s 50th anniversary. With vocalist/pianist Gary Brooker at the helm, he is the only founding member still plying his trade within the confines of this storied British prog-rock band. Novum was not only the group’s twelfth studio effort, but the first since 2003’s The Well’s On Fire and the only one that hasn’t featured the contributions of lyricist Keith Reid.
Cream songwriter Pete Brown wound up stepping in for Reid. Brooker chalked up Reid’s departure to the natural evolution of collaborators, even longtime ones, growing apart.
“I haven’t seen Keith Reid for quite a few years. This is our first studio album since 2003, which is of course quite a long time. With 50 years having come up [in 2017], we thought we better put something out. So it was a bit of an inspiration—to actually get into the studio and write some new songs,” Brooker explained. “A few years ago now, I think, [Keith] came to a crossroads and he turned left and Procol Harum carried straight on. I’ve known Pete Brown for some years and he said to me a couple of years prior to this that if he could be of any help, he’d love to write some lyrics for a Procol album. So I contacted Pete when I thought we were going to get something going and so he came along and did the lyrics, which was great.”
With so much time elapsed between projects and the transitioning between lyricists, it would be easy to expect Brooker and company to have some trouble getting their bearings. Instead, Procol Harum rebounded nicely with this collection of 11 songs that were recorded live in the studio over the span of three weeks. Instead of chasing trends, Procol Harum have clung to their commercially tinged prog-rock roots, While nothing approaches the band’s seminal 1967 smash debut single “Whiter Shade of Pale,” the crossroads of classical music and pop is represented here by “Sunday Morning,” a wistful ballad that starts with a snatch of Pachelbel’s Canon and is adorned by light string arrangements. Brooker’s soulful vocal style, which was honed singing for British Invasion R&B outfit The Paramounts, continue to resonate forcefully, whether it’s on the aforementioned cut or the ’80s-inspired pop of “Last Chance Motel.” Elsewhere, the band cuts loose on the call-and-response nugget “Neighbour” while on “The Only One,” Brooker delivers a performance framed in vulnerability and desolation. With creative rebirth at the heart of Novum, fans can expect a nice blend of the old and new when they come out to see Brooker and company, which is something the septuagenarian is looking forward to when he hits the stage.
“It seems like a long time since we were there [on the concert trail]. But it’s not that long. If might be 2014, so that’s four years at least. And of course, we’ve had this new album out in-between all that,” he said. “So we’d like to play some of that for people. We’re promoting it and it’s nice to play new songs for people. We’ll include our standards and we always include a few rarities from the past as well.”
Named for either engineer Gus Dudgeon’s Burmese cat or loose Latin interpretation of the phrase “of these far off things,” Procol Harum’s five-plus decades found them evolving out of the Paramounts and into the band responsible for the aforementioned “Whiter Shade of Pale,” a Summer of Love anthem that fused Baroque organ runs with a wistful melancholy that not only found it topping the charts around the world (months before the band had even recorded its self-titled debut), but found it identified with Baby Boomer flicks ranging from The Big Chill and Stonewall to the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary The Vietnam War. In those five-plus decades, Brooker has hit plenty of milestones within the parameters of Procol Harum,
“I think our first single that we put out, which was our first recording, was a milestone. Certainly, it was number one all around the world and that was a good start,” he said. ”We went to America in 1967 and continued to go there for the next few years and played a lot of the colleges and universities. I remember that as being a very nice experience. Now, you look, and somebody is the president of this, CEO of that or head of that law firm or something and they always say they saw us at Utica College in 1968. The young Kennedys came to see us when we were up in the Boston area. I think the next important thing was when we went up to Edmonton in Canada and decided to record an album with the symphony orchestra there. We decided that we would record it when we were doing it for just one night and it came out great. It was a big hit as well [Ed. note: Procol Harum Live: In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra]. It led on to many more collaborations with orchestras around the world.”
Likewise, Brooker’s relationships dating back to his time in the Paramounts, who opened for the Beatles in the UK in 1965 during the Fab Four’s last tour, paved the way for his becoming an in-demand session player for Eric Clapton, Alan Parsons and a number of solo Beatle projects. It’s all made for a number of fond memories.
“When George [Harrison] made his first solo album, he gave me a call and asked if I would like to play on it and I said I’d love to. I’ve also played on some of Ringo’s records and also with him in the All Starrs on tours,” he said. “I also made a contribution on Back to the Egg, which we actually did live in a concert once as well. Those people are very good with names and remembering. If you bump into them, even after two or three years, someone like Paul McCartney will tell me to come over and would rather sit and talk with me over anything else that’s going on.”
With Brooker and Procol Harum set to play a number of European festivals over the summer, a return to the studio by the end of 2019 just might be in the cards. As far as the Middlesex native is concerned, it’s a matter of him heeding his muse, a recommendation he makes to anyone contemplating a career in music.
“I wouldn’t advise anyone to go into music until it demands that they do. If you’re a young rocket scientist, carry on with your rocket science and do your music on the side and then one day, you’ll find that you’re doing so much music and playing so many gigs, that you can’t really go into work to do rocket science anymore,” he said. “It make more sense than rather just coming out and playing music thinking that you’re going to be a star.”
Procol Harum will be appearing on Feb. 26 & 27 at City Winery, 155 Varick St., Manhattan. For more information, visit www.citywinery.com or call 212-608-0555. The band will also be appearing on Feb. 28 at NYCB Theatre at Westbury, 960 Brush Hollow Rd., Westbury. For more information, visit www.livenation.com or call 877-598-8497.