If at first you don’t succeed…
Fans of Keith Emerson and Greg Lake can be forgiven for being a little nervous this past Wednesday when an announced 7:30 showtime came and went with no sight of the famous prog rockers. Sure, it’s not unusual at all for rock concerts to start quite late, but those of us squirming restlessly in our seats had been through this once before. As previously documented, the Emerson/Lake tour had been set to debut in Cleveland on April 1, but the show was abruptly called off at the last second to the consternation of a stunned audience. The next two dates were canceled as well, and sheepish statements were issued from the boys that vaguely attributed the mishap to unresolved technical issues. When at last the tour started with a successful date in Annapolis, the next evening’s show in Alexandria was canceled due to laryngitis. Finally the ball got rolling, and our heroes managed to pull of a dozen consecutive performances without incident. Ticketholders from previously canceled shows were assuaged with rescheduled dates. Then, on what would have been the duo’s thirteenth concert in a row on April 28, Lake’s illness forced a cancellation at Colorado Springs. Before returning to Cleveland, the Emerson/Lake tour continued with a trio of Texas shows. So, given the tour’s 79% success rate, we weren’t about to get too excited until we saw the whites of their English eyes.
The minutes passed by, dry ice swirled under the lighting rig, a bottle of water was set in place for Mr. Lake — all of the things that had happened last time at the Lakewood Civic Auditorium. As I began to experience an uncomfortable feeling of deja vu and reassured myself that they surely would not cancel a second time, the noticeably thinner audience was getting restless. My front-row seat at center stage was flanked by three empty seats to my left and three empty seats to my right. Even some of the people in the VIP orchestra pit seating had apparently taken refunds rather than return. Someone called out from behind me, “We’ve waited a month!” Then, just a couple minutes shy of eight o’clock, Keith Emerson and Greg Lake took the stage, and all was forgiven.
“Better late than never,” quipped the rotund and bespectacled Lake as he settled onto his stool. “Let’s hope we play well for you tonight.”
Thus began a solid evening’s entertainment, albeit musically brief and marred by technical glitches. In their attempt to present themselves as a duo, Emerson and Lake hatched the rather clever idea of building Manticore Hall, a set resembling a recording studio complete with control booth. Appearing at a series of intimate venues, the show would allow audiences to feel as though they were in the studio with E and L, if not P. Ah, but there’s the rub – no P. What to do about the absence of Carl Palmer? There were only four options, really. One: hire a different live drummer. Two: play with no percussion. Three: Play along with prerecorded “live” drumming. Four: Play along to a programmed drum machine. I would have preferred any of the first three choices, but unfortunately Emerson and Lake opted for the fourth.
Using a drum machine is a wee bit embarrassing, evoking as it does the hilariously seedy image of Bill Murray’s Nick the Lounge Singer giving a solo spot to the small box that provided his electronic accompaniment (“The Univox SL-120, ladies and gentlemen!”). To the extent that the drums were thoughtfully programmed for this show with satisfying fills and cymbal crashes, the technique worked surprisingly well at times, adding a pulse-racing layer of excitement that otherwise would have been missing. Sometimes, however, the robo-percussion was unnecessary and intrusive, especially when it was merely keeping a mechanical beat with just a tinny hi-hat sample. There I was, enjoying an otherwise beautiful arrangement, yet I could not avoid being distracted by that damn tick, tick, tick, tick.
The show opened with From the Beginning, Emerson leading off with an intro of piano and string pads before triggering a tasteful mambo rhythm. Lake joined in on acoustic guitar and vocals, and it was immediately apparent that the great singer’s voice has only grown richer with age. Much has been made of Lake’s increasing girth in recent years, yet it may be that the added weight has actually provided him with unprecedented depth and resonance. I am reminded of the opposite effect in artists as diverse as Ian Anderson and Bill Champlin, both of whom sounded wonderfully soulful when they had a few extra pounds but lost that power when they trimmed down. So eat, drink, and be merry, Greg, because you’ve never sounded better.
Lake added a guitar solo in the middle section of From the Beginning, a welcome change from its usual concert arrangement. Interestingly, his arpeggiated strumming continued under the solo, and this along with some phantom bass licks later in the show made one wonder just how much of the performance had been prerecorded. Only their sound engineer knows for sure.
A blast from the pre-ELP past followed with what might be the highlight number of the tour, a lovely take on King Crimson’s I Talk to the Wind. Releasing a live recording of this to I-Tunes would be a great promotional device for the tour.
Storytelling had been billed as part of the performance, and Emerson took a few moments to discuss those early days before he and Lake began working together. Recalling an American tour with The Nice, he noted having come through northeast Ohio with Lee Jackson and Brian Davison. “Cleveland is a very important place for us,” he noted to predictable applause. “If you made it in Cleveland, it would just stretch out.”
Stretching out is precisely what Emerson and Lake did next with an engaging rendition of Bitches Crystal. Of all the numbers one might think demanded percussion, this one was performed sans drums, yet it did not suffer. Frenetic strobe lighting enhanced the ostinato figure, and Lake’s fat bass lines were a joy to hear. The Emerson/Lake rendition was so good, they might consider asking Carl Palmer to sit this one out at the next reunion.
Speaking of C.P., Emerson prefaced the next song by noting their drummer’s passion for Bartok and the inspiration this provided to take on the composer’s Allegro Barbero. “It’s a catchy little tune which you might find yourself whistling on the way home,” he joked, “or not.” The audience laughed appreciatively. “If it grew on me, I’d chop it off.” The Barbarian was performed to a heavily programmed drum track, complete with all the attacks and fills that one would want. On this number, the drum machine really works.
It wasn’t long into Lake’s next introduction that the crowd recognized what was coming next. He told a tale of looking for songwriting inspiration, remembering how he had taken his dog for an early morning walk as mist was coming off the water. “Such a beautiful sight,” he recalled, “I looked for ages.” Yet, the songwriting muse remained elusive, at least until Lake tossed a stone into the water and watched the ripples radiate endlessly across the surface. “The things you do reverberate through life,” he observed, and so it was that Take a Pebble was born. Emerson and Lake performed it beautifully without accompaniment.
Near the end of the song, Emerson played a transition that became the beginning of the epic Tarkus. “Eruption” was played as a piano solo, Lake resting his hands on his bass and smiling with his eyes closed liked a contented Buddha. He was reanimated for “Stones of Years”, during which Emerson contributed an almost whimsical, slow stride-piano solo. It was back to solo piano for the restatement of the “Eruption” motif in “Iconoclast”, and then onward to “Mass”, which featured the first Hammond tones of the evening. The beginning of “Battlefield” drew applause, as it was clear that we were going to hear Tarkus to the end. The best came last, with the evening’s most effective use of programmed percussion as martial drums and a cracking snare breathed life into a stunning version of “Aquatarkus”. Emo fans were in for a treat, with gloriously bubbling and gurgling synth lines on the Korg followed by a turn on the massive modular Moog. Even the famous ribbon controller saw a little action, though there were no pyrotechnics shooting out its end this time.
Having brought their fans to these heights in just fifty minutes of showtime, an intermission was announced. “We’ll take a 15-minute break and see you in about 25 minutes,” remarked the witty Emerson. True to his word, it was just over half an hour before the duo reappeared for the second half.
Veteran fans knew what was coming next, as a beret-wearing roadie approached stage right with an accordion. “Oh, Pierre,” Emerson greeted his keyboard tech before stretching out his arms to accept the instrument. “He loves to strap me in.”
Although an introduction was hardly necessary, Lake mentioned his love of Paris and recounted his desire to write a French song. He expressed his delight upon learning that the fruit of his labor, C’est La Vie, was covered for a number-one hit in France by Johnny Hallyday, whom Lake called “the French Elvis Presley.” The Emerson/Lake rendition was as agreeable as ever, though the poorly amplified accordion made Emerson’s Parisian solo difficult to hear. “I did try busking the accordion on the London Underground,” remarked Emerson at the conclusion of the song. “They threw me up.”
Emerson then took a rare turn at center stage for a pair of piano solos from his recent solo album. Prelude to Hope was well received, as was his take on Alberto Ginastera’s “Estancia Suite” called Malambo, which included winking quotations of Canario from Love Beach and We’re Off to See the Wizard from The Wizard of Oz. Curiously, Lake remained on stage during these numbers, maintaining his attitude of silent bliss just outside of the spotlight.
The most striking theatrics of the night were saved for Pirates, which began with blinding white flashes to the accompaniment of thundering cannon fire. As Emerson held a dissonant chord on the Hammond, Lake spoke the first verse in sonorous tones that rivaled the dramatic oratory of Orson Welles. It was a deliciously tense introduction that would have been so satisfyingly resolved by the first synthesizer notes that begin the song proper…if only Emerson’s main keyboard had not failed to respond. He plunked at it a few times before the carefully crafted melodrama evaporated from the auditorium. “Dead one here,” he called out to his stranded vocalist.
“Wake him up quick,” responded Lake, “before I die.” The audience took it all in good humor, even when a frustrated Lake noted that it wasn’t worth playing if it couldn’t be done right and politely announced a break until the problem could be resolved. Emerson remained onstage, consulting with technicians as wags in the audience called out suggestions. Would this be the end of the evening? “Alright,” Emerson soon told the audience, “they’re rebooting the system.” Thankfully, the delay was short, and Lake returned to his stool while it was still warm.
“Let’s roll back,” called the engineer from behind the “control room” glass. “This is take 2.” The cannons fired again, Emerson held his dissonant Hammond chord, and Lake indicated that he had no intention of repeating his Orson Welles imitation by suggesting to Emerson that he pick up from where they had left off. Take 2 began impressively, a projected skull and crossbones transforming the black backdrop beyond the set into a jolly roger. Those blinding white flashes went off with every percussive simulation of cannon fire. Emerson and Lake went for it with gusto, and a great arrangement it was. Halfway through the song, however, the programmed drums petered out, leaving the hapless duo no recourse but to soldier on valiantly. This they did, and though it was a shame that things didn’t work out as they had planned, it was soon obvious that they have the chops to pull it off without drums. The audience responded enthusiastically.
“Thank you,” acknowledged Lake. “That was a hard ride.”
Half a dozen audience members were given the opportunity to ask questions during a brief Q & A session (a transcript of which follows the conclusion of this review) before the regular set was closed out with a medley of America and Rondo. Carl Palmer was sorely missed on these numbers, which really benefit from the spontaneity of a live drummer. Emerson’s parlor trick of playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor backwards, quite a treat when accomplished from underneath a battered Hammond or whilst standing upon the lid of baby grand, has been tamed by the great keyboardist merely standing on the other side of his rig with all the enthusiasm of a bloke buttering some bread for tomorrow’s lunch. The throwing knives were wisely left at home.
Two minutes of hooting and whistling love from Cleveland brought E & L back for their encore. “When I was twelve, my mother, God bless her, bought me a guitar,” said Lake. “And I’d heard this song by Duane Eddy.” He played the opening bars of Peter Gunn to a cheering reception. Alas, we were not in for an unexpected treat, as Lake was merely noting the song’s simplicity as a way to introduce Lucky Man. The story of the genesis of that song is as familiar to ELP fans as any well-worn anecdote that your grandfather has forgotten he’s already told you a few dozen times. Still, it was amusing to hear Lake describe Emerson’s initial reaction to a number that would become their biggest hit. “I played it, and I could watch his face, and he really wanted to like it.”
As many times as fans have heard Lucky Man, there was something new this time around. Emerson began with a solo that took everyone to modular Moog heaven, beginning with the world’s most dangerous synth’s famous bottom end, a skull-vibrating note that surely must test the structural integrity of every venue. He used the portamento to swoop upward and play a few notes of his original solo, which was then repeated as a sequence, to which he added more and more layers. A wave of sweet Emersonian Moog sounds washed over the spellbound audience. Then, after a pretty piano and string pad intro, Lake joined him for a standard concert arrangement of the song, ending with, of course, that immortal Moog solo.
By 10:20, it was all over. Figuring in the late start, intermission, storytelling and Q & A, that amounted to perhaps 90 minutes of music. Not lengthy, by any means, and not without its technical problems, but overall a rewarding evening that should satisfy many ELP fans. Kudos to Keith Emerson and Greg Lake for taking such a risk at a time when they could just as easily retire from it all. And…welcome back, my friends.
For all the die-hards out there who care about this sort of thing (and that would probably included everyone who bothered to return for the make-up show), here is a transcript of the Q&A session:
FAN #1: Keith, I’m a friend of Karen McCarthy [daughter of stage effects expert Bob McCarthy, who designed the flying piano for ELP].
EMERSON: Oh yeah, great, yes.
FAN #1: Great kid.
FAN #1: Speaking of Karen, are you gonna be building a new spinning piano for [the upcoming] High Voltage [ELP reunion on July 25]?
EMERSON: (laughs) Everybody’s asking that one. Uh, I don’t know…but the last time I did it, I had such a mournful number of accidents. They decided to make it a nine-foot Steinway with fireworks on it, and spun me very fast – greater knots. And, of course, when you’re spinning around very, very, very fast, it sounds a bit like the doppler system on the Leslie [rotating speakers], you know, and I thought I was saying, “Stop!” and it was coming out “Sto-o-o-o-p!” [flutters hand in front of mouth for effect]. And eventually, I think the people operating the spinning device got the idea and said, “I think we should stop.” And, of course, there was smoke from the fireworks in my face, and when you’re leaning back against centrifugal force and it suddenly comes to a stop, it was like [bangs hand on microphone] “Ouch.” And then I broke my nose. So, that was it, really. I don’t know, I think Karen is going to get the specs…but we’ll just have to look at that, really. But thanks a lot for the question.
FAN #2: Greg, did you write The Great Gates of Kiev for the two witnesses of Revelations Chapter 11? [This was greeted with surprised laughter from the audience, and though Greg looked amused, he was polite and courteous in his response.]
LAKE: I have to say that I didn’t, no. [More audience laughter]
FAN #2: Because I thought you did, and I’m all out.
LAKE: Well, there you go. Um, it was…I wrote the piece, really, because I was inspired by the music of Mussorgsky. It was so panoramic, and sort of all-encompassing, that I really was just looking for a lyric that felt like that, you know, all-wordly. Um…whether I succeeded or not, I don’t know. But thank you for the question.
FAN #3: Greg, I was wondering what you thought of the King Crimson anniversary reissues.
LAKE: It’s very nice. I always like to hear new things from the King Crimson. They sent me – um, what is interesting, on 5.1, because you have quadraphonic in each corner, and you have the vocal split separately in the front, and I could hear my vocal without any accompaniment whatsoever. It’s terrifying, [big audience laugh] you know? But luckily, I sang in tune for this one. But it was great…it was lovely to hear. Thank you very much for the question.
FAN #4: Hello, my name is John. I’m from Minneapolis.
LAKE: Hi, John.
FAN #4: My question for you is, are there any concepts that you and Keith and Carl wanted to do for an album for an extended piece but never got to do?
EMERSON: Hmm…um… [looks at Lake] were there? [audience laughter]
LAKE: It’s a hard question to answer, because of course, we’ve been together for so many years. There must have been things that we sort of toyed with doing and then thought, “Maybe not.” Generally speaking, when we decide to do something, we get on with it and do it. If it works, of course. We’ve done things that we just didn’t feel worked out, and we’ve moved on, but I don’t think anything – I can’t think of anything we’ve sort of got, but we’ve never created–
EMERSON: No, you’ve come up with some very interesting ideas. I think, “The Rubicon,” or something, wasn’t it?
LAKE: Oh, yeah, I forget.
EMERSON: [with the subtlest hint of dry humor] Do you like…you like Rome and the Romans.
LAKE: Yeah, I mean, there’s, uh…you know, various ideas for the concept, but unless they come to fruition, they’re not really what you would…I don’t think that’s the question you really had in mind, but thank you anyway. It was interesting.
FAN #5: I was just wondering if you guys are going to film this tour.
LAKE: I hope we will at some point, uh…when we get it working properly. [audience laughter] But yes, I would like to. It is a strange thing. It’s something that appeals to both Keith and myself, because, of course, this is how we experienced the material originally. And so, it’s kind of a novel thing for us to go back like that, peeling off all those layers of production and finishing. So, there’s a sort of charm there. But also, I mean, dare I say this now, but it’s all a bit experimental, you know? And so, that’s another thing that tickled us, is trying to see if it’s possible to recreate some of these things just with two people, and sort of work within – to a sort of finished thing, in a way, like that. So there was a sort of challenge in that as well – as you can see! [audience laughter]
EMERSON: I think the concert [at]the Nokia in New York was filmed, wasn’t it?
LAKE: I believe a couple of them were filmed, actually.
EMERSON: Yeah, we’ve not had a chance to sort of review it, but… [An audience member shouts, “We want it!”]
FAN #6: Hi, Keith and Greg. I wanted to know how you guys look back on the Emerson, Lake and Powell album and era. [audience applauds]
EMERSON: Well, that was really — it was terrific. I think Cozy Powell added a new dimension to the back catalog of ELP, and also was very inspirational in the making of that one album that we did get to make. It was rather funny when Cozy first arrived to– well, actually, let me explain, because actually Greg and I, when we first — the intention was to do a duo album, at that point, but the record company, Polygram, said, “Well, no, you’ve got to go out and tour with it.” We both knew Cozy Powell, it was my idea, and it wasn’t until we got situated playing that we suddenly realized that he had the same initials, C.P., as Carl Palmer.
LAKE: Nobody ever believes it. Nobody ever believes that we chose Cozy, you know, without that consideration, but in fact it never occurred to us that it was going to end in a ‘P’, until eventually, you know, we decided that he was the right guy just because he played right. And then it all fit together, and it was really a funny thing, but of course, in retrospect, nobody would ever believe us, and it was strange.