…guaranteed to blow your head apart…rest assured you’ll get your money’s worth…
Last night’s Lakewood, Ohio concert by Keith Emerson and Greg Lake was the stuff of dreams. I should know, for as a longtime fan of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, the prog-rock trio has literally appeared in my somnambulistic scenarios no less than three times. In one ridiculous dream from years ago, they arrived at my house for the purpose of playing a game of Scrabble on my deluxe, $500, Franklin Mint Collector’s Edition board. In another, I sat on a gym floor and watched them perform to hardly anyone from mere feet away. More recently, I dreamt that I stumbled across ELP playing an outdoor set in a park, and I simply ambled up to the front of the stage. I suppose hours and hours of listening to Brain Salad Surgery and Tarkus will do that to the sleeping mind.
So when I heard that two-thirds of my favorite band were due to appear in a high school auditorium near Cleveland to kick off an unprecedented series of intimate, semi-unplugged shows, I was intrigued. It sounded like something I would dream. I checked the date and was surprised to find that it coincided with the very beginning of my Spring Break; I could conceivably head up north after school and catch the show. Then, when I got in on a fan club presale and purchased a single ticket, I was definitely excited. I would be sitting in the middle of the first row. Like my actual ELP dreams, this reality was strange, wonderful, and maybe too good to be true.
Yesterday’s weather was unseasonably warm, and I sped up I-71 under a vibrant, blue sky. It was a wonderful feeling knowing that I had a good break ahead of me, and what a way to start it. The sun was still bright as I pulled into the small parking lot of Lakewood High School. Doors would open soon at 6:30, with the show to follow an hour later. I was delighted by the unconventional venue, and once again the situation seemed too good to be true. But there I was, my journey complete, ticket in hand.
A few dozen people had gathered by 6:30, a mostly older crowd with a few ELP t-shirts stretched across the ample abdomens of aging boomers. The presence of security personnel seemed almost laughable considering the mellow group that waited out front. If it weren’t an Emerson and Lake show, it might have been Grandparent’s Night at the high school. It was not surprising, then, that everyone took it in stride when the opening of the doors was delayed by fifteen minutes due to an unfinished soundcheck, nor did anyone seem too perturbed when a second fifteen-minute delay was announced. After all, it was a beautiful evening outside. What’s more, the head security guy told us that we would be permitted to bring in cameras if we promised to not use a flash.
At last we were allowed to enter, and I stopped by the swag table on my way to the auditorium. Among the offerings were t-shirts and coffee mugs emblazoned with the curious phrase, Manticore Hall. I was contemplating the meaning of this as I passed through the doors and headed toward the stage, whereupon I was stunned to discover the very opposite of what the words acoustic and unplugged might suggest. I was expecting nothing more than a grand piano and a stool against a black backdrop. But there at stage right was Keith Emerson’s five-keyboard rig, anchored at the rear by the legendary modular Moog in all its patch-cord glory. Stage left was adorned with an electric bass guitar, and in the wings the necks of five more guitars peeked above their storage unit. I had not brought earplugs, expecting not to need them, but it looked like things might get loud, indeed.
I took my seat in the center of the front row, separated from the stage by three rows of portable chairs that formed the orchestra pit, populated by those who were willing to drop $90 for the privilege, and some who ponied up $250 for the added perk of attending an after-show meet-and-greet. As I relaxed in the smug comfort of my $45 seat, I marveled at the backdrop that dominated the stage. It resembled a stone wall, with a pair of red-curtained, Gothic doorway arches at either end. Perhaps this was Manticore Hall? Most remarkable was a bay window that protruded from the center to reveal what appeared to be either a broadcasting booth or a recording studio within. This interior space featured a pair of bubbling lava lamps atop – what? – a mixing console? A grand piano?
The unexpected set and gear coupled with the fact that this was the very first night of a tour unlike any previous ELP-related efforts had the audience in a giddy state of high anticipation. When you’ve been a fan of anyone for a good length of time, there are inevitably performance elements that become routinely predictable. But this was wonderfully perplexing. What would they play without Carl Palmer? What would the arrangements sound like? Why all the keyboards? What’s with the keyboard at center stage? What on earth is behind that window? I had no idea what was going to happen, and I loved it.
As it happened, we all had plenty of time to think about it. 7:30 came and went, not unusual for a rock concert, but the audience was primed for action. Occasional outbreaks of whistling, yelling and clapping underscored their enthusiasm. Roadies made last-minute adjustments, tuning Emerson’s modular Moog and setting out a bottle of water for Lake. A mist of dry ice wafted under the lighting rig. One impatient soul in the pit barked, “Emerson! Lake! Where are you guys?!”
Shortly after 8:00, with the house lights still up, a pair of women walked onto the stage and stood in front of Emerson’s rig. The younger one held a microphone, and the older one watched her gravely. “Due to circumstances beyond the control of Lakewood Civic Auditorium, the artists, and Live Nation, tonight’s performance has been canceled,” the young woman announced sheepishly. It being April 1st, her further words were interrupted by catcalls of “April Fool!” She advised the audience to retain their tickets and made a clarification for the confused before leaving the stage. “It’s no joke. It’s not going to happen.” Any further doubt was removed by the roadies who immediately began to strike the set.
Already dreamlike, the evening became surreal as stunned concertgoers stood up and aimlessly walked about. Many congregated at the front of the stage, snapping pictures as the equipment was getting torn down. One roadie shrugged his shoulders as fans asked for answers and obligingly took their cell phones to take souvenir close-ups of the modular Moog. I asked a friendly security guard if he had heard the sound check, and he nodded. “It didn’t sound like much of a sound check, more like they were getting things sorted out. It kinda seemed like they were still trying to put the show together.”
Ah, too good to be true. There was something nagging at me from the moment I bought my ticket that it just wouldn’t happen, or somehow I wouldn’t be able to be there. Even as we waited for the doors to open, I wondered if the “unfinished soundcheck” excuse was valid. Once we were in our seats for forty-five minutes and the dry ice started flowing, though, I thought the dream was finally at hand.
I hesitate to speculate, but as we were given no explanation, what else can a fan do? Some wondered if the infamous acrimony between the yin and yang of ELP had reared its ugly head again. Others thought that perhaps it was due to Emerson’s recurring carpal tunnel problems, which forced him to cancel a solo tour last summer. Would the concert be rescheduled? Would the rest of the tour go on as planned? Will the one-off ELP reunion in London really happen this July? Time will tell.
I try not to take for granted that anything I’m eagerly anticipating will actually happen. In this case, the habit served me well. Sure, I was very disappointed. But as I walked out into the warm April night, I thought about the collateral advantages. I would be home a few hours earlier than I’d thought. Oh, and my ears felt great.
Disappointed fans gather before the enticing – yet unused – stage.