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Greg Lake & Keith Emerson: Their Best Work Together

John Kelman By

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While it should come as no surprise that musical heroes from across all genres are beginning to die off, some of the highest profile losses are, in particular, in the rock/pop world, where many of its biggest stars are now in their mid-to-late sixties...or older. Few would disagree that one of the years biggest losses happened just ten days into 2016, when David Bowie passed away at 69 just two days after the release of Black Star (Sony)—an album that presaged his pending (but, to the public, unknown) passing in a most artful fashion. Only one of the year's other major musical losses, Leonard Cohen—who passed away on November 7 at the age of 82—matched Bowie's death with a similar chain of events. Passing just 17 days after the release of his similarly career-defining You Want It Darker (Sony), like Blackstar it met, amongst other things, the subject of Cohen's also-pending (and, like Bowie, publicly unknown) passing, but with the singer/songwriter's characteristic combination of dark humor and emotional profundity.

There were simply too many more losses this year, including soul/R&B megastar Prince, who passed away April 21 at the too-young age of just 57, and masterful archivist Leon Russell, lost to us on November 13 at age 74—a musician better known for his collaborations with bigger names including Joe Cocker (who passed on 2014 at age 70) and Elton John (thankfully, still with us)...but who remained a musician's musician until the very end.

For fans of progressive rock it's also been a particularly rough year, most notably with the loss of two-thirds of one of the its earliest seminal, genre-defining (and defying) groups, Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

The first blow came on March 11, when the trio's virtuosic keyboardist, Keith Emerson, died at his own hand. Ever a perfectionist who refused to give his fans anything less than his absolute best, a combination of alcohol-induced depression and nerve damage that, beginning in the early '90s and ultimately hampering his ability to play at his usual level of extreme virtuosity, rendered the keyboardist—who'd also survived what was described as a "dangerous polyp" in his lower intestine that was discovered and surgically removed in the fall of 2010—"depressed, nervous and anxious," according to his girlfriend...and, so sadly, worried that he would disappoint his fans at a series of upcoming performances.

Now, just shy of nine months later and as the year draws to a close, ELP's singer/bassist/guitarist/producer Greg Lake has succumbed to cancer, age 69, on December 7. That ELP's most artistically creative and commercially successful years were between 1970 and 1974, with the release of its first four studio albums and two live sets, didn't seem to matter to fans old enough to have seen the group in its heyday, as well as to those who came to the group after that banner five-year run. Every member of the group continued to be well-loved by progressive fans, even if they rarely performed as a trio after the end of the '70s, barring a single 2010 performance at the High Voltage Festival that followed a series of occasional tours between 1992 and 1998 on the heels of Black Moon (Victory Music, 1992), the band's first studio album in 14 years, and In the Hot Seat (Victory, 1994).

A 2010 duo tour by Emerson and Lake was met with open arms. The duo claimed to be performing a collection largely culled from ELP's more introspective side, but the single live document from the tour, Live from Manticore Hall (Manticore, 2014), was a healthy mix of Lake's more accessible songs ("Lucky Man," "From the Beginning," "C'est la Vie") and ELP's more complex, epic music (much of it written by Emerson), including the 20-minute title track from its second studio album, Tarkus (Island, 1971), and "Pirates," from Works Volume 1 (Manticore, 1977). The shows were already intimate and personal, but became all the more so with the duo's Q&A session with its fans, halfway through each show. How many artists of Emerson and Lake's stature have been prepared to meet questions from their fans head-on and in public?

With Lake and Emerson now gone, drummer Carl Palmer continues to tour the music of ELP and more with his own band, albeit in reworked versions for a trio that, rather than featuring another keyboardist, employs guitarist Paul Bielatowicz, who manages to transfer Emerson's music from keys to six strings with remarkable verisimilitude.


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