With two-thirds of progressive rock supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer having just completed its first tour in over a decadean intimate theatrical tour featuring keyboardist Keith Emerson and guitarist/bassist/vocalist Greg Lake, billed as an unplugged warm-up for July, 2010, when the full trio will reunite for what is, so far, a single date at London's High Voltage Festival---a box set that collects live performances from the group's quarter-century off-again/on-again career seems to make a lot of sense. And with Shout! Factory at the helmfollowing a reissue program, over the past couple years, that has seen ELP's original discography get the remaster/deluxe/expansion treatmentthe four-disc A Time and a Place
is as comprehensive a collection of the group's repertoire as has ever been released in a readily available set.
As with many legacy groups, ELP hasn't been shy about jumping on the "bootleg series" bandwagon, releasing no fewer than four box sets (not including a two-disc "best of) that have delivered a whopping thirty
CDs of live performances, with quality ranging from the superb to the abysmal. Other than pathological fans, who truly needs over 60 hours of live performances from a group that, in its 1970s heyday, only released seven studio albums and three live albums, with the underwhelming Black Moon
(Shout! Factory, 1992), delivered when the group reformed in the early 1990s, after imploding in 1979? Isn't nearly five hours enough? Based on A Time and A Place
, it sure is...and, for the most part, in the most positive way possible.
For those who haven't invested an arm and a leg for ELP's four Original Bootleg Series From the Manticore Vaults
box sets, A Time and a Place
is more than enough for any longtime fan...or, for that matter, newcomers to a group that, in its prime, was one of the most exciting live progressive rock groups of its timebut, in its fall from grace, represented everything wrong
with progressive rock. Emerging in the late 1960s and peaking in the mid-1970s, with individual albums by groups including Yes and ELP selling in the millions
, the punk/new wave movement ultimately delivered a fatal blow, with progressive rock falling completely out of popular/commercial favor for nearly two decades, until the internet's emergence began a groundswell of a global fan base, creating a kind of prog rock renaissance that has continued well into this millennium. Prog hasn't reached anywhere near the kind of sales that it did in its heyday, but for many it has become self-sustaining once again, engendering a whole new group of fans interested in legacy groups like ELP, making the release of A Time and a Place
Broken into four discsThe Early '70s
(the group at its best), The Late '70s
(the group in decline), The '90s
(a group trying to rebuild/rediscover itself) and a fourth disc, This Boot's For You: A Fan's View
, that collects some true bootleg quality recordings of ELP songs which stand out for a variety of reasonsA Time and a Place
accurately portrays all the strengths and weaknesses of a group that combined elements of classical, jazz, rock 'n' roll and more into a distinctive, majestic, powerfuland equally, bombastic, self-indulgent but still glorious
sound. When it worksas it does throughout much of this collection of concert material, ranging from the group's very first live performance at the Isle of Wight Festival in the summer of 1970 (the entire performance released by Eagle Rock in 2006 as Isle of Wight 1970: The Birth of a Band
) through to its last shows as a group in 1997it's very, very good; but when it doesn't, it's as cringe-worthy as it ever was (Greg Lake, in particular, whose ego has known few, if any, bounds and can be heard in all its, um, glory, here).
ELP was a group that began life with an almost crippling problem: a stylistic dichotomy, that only got worse as time went on, and its massive success (multiple millions sold, arenas packed to the nosebleeds) fed equally massive egos. Emersonnot the first to use the nascent Moog Synthesizer of the late 1960s, but certainly the one to popularize it, traveling with an unwieldy studio version sporting a large patch panel that looked like a then-telephone operator's nightmarewas the group's most talented, stylistically broad player. Whether stabbing knives into a Hammond organ while riding it around the stage; using a ribbon controller to act as a combined phallus/weapon during the peak of ELP's early epic, the 20-minute title track to Tarkus
(Atlantic, 1971); or playing a baby grand piano lifted into the air and spun high above the crowd, Emerson combined exhilarating showmanship with stunning virtuosity. There may be no visuals at play here, but it's difficult not to be impressed by his performances, especially on the Early '70s
discclearly this Jimi Hendrix of the keyboards' prime.
Emerson's combined organ, piano and synth work is simply mindboggling on a live version of the 35-minute "Karn Evil 9" suite on the Early '70s
disc, the crowning masterpiece of 1973's Brain Salad Surgery
(Manticore) and ELP's undeniable high water mark, one that set the bar so high for the group that it never managed to come close to it again. Keyboardists are known for independent left/right hand thinking, but Emerson takes it to another level, while playing with a ferocity that few, if any, progressive rock keyboardists have, before, then or since. To cap off this terrific performance, the recording quality is actually better than that on the group's officially released live album from back in the day, 1974's Welcome Back My Friends, To the Show That Never Ends
(Manticore)fuller, meatier, louder
The problem that faced ELP since inception, however, was that, as much as Emerson wanted to pursue complex compositions that fed the group's stunning virtuosityand with drummer Carl Palmer happy to go along for the ride, a percussionist whose time may have been less than ideal, but whose orchestral approach to his massive drum kit (complete with gongs and tympani) was a perfect foil for EmersonLake wanted to be something else entirely: a romantic singer/songwriter. True, his largely acoustic ballad, "Lucky Man," would become the group's first major radio hit, and it remains a fine song, but later albums seemed almost contractually bound to feature at least one of his insipid love songs. And plenty of them find a home on A Time and a Place
"From the Beginning," from Trilogy
(Atlantic, 1972), wasn't such a bad tune, and the 1997 version here sounds fine, although Lake's voice, by this time, had lost much of its range, and become rough-edged in ways that didn't always work, especially considering his voice was once so sweet. The '90s
' openera visceral look at "Knife-Edge," from Emerson, Lake & Palmer
(Atlantic, 1970)is marred, throughout, by Lake's inability to deliver the lines that made his original performance so powerful. Yes, everyone ages and voices' range drop, but at the time of this recording, the King Crimson co-founder was only 50 years old.
Still, Lake wasand is, in 2010nothing if not a consummate professional, and he does
work with the ravishing limitations that time and lifestyle have imposed on what was once one of the better voices in British progressive rock. Palmer's playing on The '90s
set is also evidence of a drummer less over-eager and, consequently, demonstrating better time and some admirable restraint that works well on later tunes like the backbeat-driven "Touch and Go," and even performances of older tunes like the swinging "Bitches Crystal" and thundering "A Time and a Place," both originally found on Tarkus
. Emerson's later physical issues are no secret, and while he's simply not capable of the stunning virtuosity of his younger daystowards the end of his solo on the power chord-driven "Paper Blood," his hands seem to run away with themselveshe's still an example of how massive fame can, in many ways, become inherently self-limiting. Had he not been "The" Keith Emerson of ELP, who knows what he might have been able to do, unhindered by the expectations of a huge, but ultimately largely fickle, fan base? Certainly, more than his trio mates, he demonstrates true and unerring credibility, whether he's delivering a classical tour de force on his loose interpretation of Argentinean classical composer Ginestera on "Creole Dance," playing some charming honky tonk on "Maple Leaf Rag," or creating layers of synth on an early version of "Abbadon's Bolero" from Trilogy
, introduced here as "Bolona's Bolero."
The 1990s set is the best-recorded, but the 1970s recordings are also well above the merely acceptable. Still, "Ballad of Blue" and "High Level Fugue"both excerpts from Emerson, Lake & Palmer
's standout piano track, "Take a Pebble" that show how ELP was, in its early days, an exciting, improvising
group that could, and often did, go to unexpected places in performancesound as though they might have been taken from the audience but cleaned up exceptionally well. The fourth disc is, as the title suggests, true bootleg quality, but is also absolutely listenable. Two tracks from the Trilogy
tour that were performed only briefly before being dropped from the set list"Abbadon's Bolero" and, more importantly, the episodic "Endless Enigma," the album's high point and a track that's not been heard on any commercial ELP live recording, outside the From the Vault
seriesmake the inclusion of another less-impressive rarity, a medley of the novelty tracks "Jeremy Bender" and "The Sheriff," at the very least forgivable.
Another Ginestera piece, "Toccata," from the "Someone Get Me a Ladder" tour of 1973-74, is lower-fi still, but includes Palmer's lengthy drum solo that's omitted from the abbreviated version on Welcome Back My Friends
. It's also now possible to hear Emerson's "Piano Concerto #1 3rd Movement" with
orchestra, as opposed to the trimmed-down version on In Concert
(Atlantic, 1979)ELP's contractual swan song that also emphasized material from the group's over-ambitious and over-inflated Works
tour of 1976-77, where plans to carry a full symphony orchestra were scuttled, mid-tour, when the group realized that, even with sold-out houses, it simply couldn't sustain the expense.
There's plenty of bombast and excess to be foundspecifically Palmer's lengthy drum solo on The late '70s
disc, where a thundering mid-point bass drum is a clear visual, for anyone who was there, of Palmer taking the opportunity to go topless before bashing two gongs behind him in a moment that was clear inspirations for Rob Reiner's 1984 mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap
. And while it would become nearly iconic, the "rockin' classic" version of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" might have been massively famous, but it still points to a group on a creative downward slope. It possesses none of the remarkable compositional and arrangement strengths of "Tarkus" and "Karn Evil 9"or, for that matter, ELP first classical adaptation, Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," heard here on The Late '70s
as a reduced 15-minute medley that may be a far cry from the full 35-minute version of Pictures at an Exhibition
(Atlantic, 1971), but remains far stronger than "Fanfare" ever was.
Thankfully it's easy to program out huge missteps like Lake's saccharine acoustic music from Works Vol. 1
and Vol. 2
(both Manticore, 1977) and embarrassing moments like the old bar-closer, "Show Me the Way to Go Home." But in a set of nearly five hours, 30 minutes of avoidable music is still a pretty good signal-to-noise ratio. Coupled with Welcome Back
, the incredible highs and, occasionally, embarrassing lows of A Time and a Place
make a strong case for this group that has ultimately been both revered and
reviled...and with good reasons on both counts. Unless ELP heads back into the studio to record a new albumand make it a damn good oneA Time and a Place
is the final word for Emerson, Lake & Palmer as a live act. And, overall, a fine one it is.
Keith Emerson: keyboards; Greg Lake: bass, guitars, vocals; Carl Palmer: percussion.