How does a crucial member of one of the most renowned progressive rock bands in history remember his friend and band member, and honour the memory of the glory days of their band? Carl Palmer has chosen his own inimitable path which has re-imagined the heydays of Emerson, Lake & Palmer in truly entertaining style, imbued with his titanic percussive skills. Palmer skilfully avoids the trap of becoming his own ‘ELP Tribute Band’ as he plays a range of classic ELP songs in ways that largely sound quite different to the original versions but somehow remain faithful to their spirit, without slavishly trying to copy what that stellar trio produced at the height of their powers.
The June 2016 show in Miami had originally been intended by Carl Palmer as a celebration of his own 50 year career and he had already invited Keith Emerson to play with him in his show. However, tragically on March 11th Emerson took his own life, in despair at the decline in his musical abilities. Palmer then decided that the show had to be a spectacular tribute to his friend and band mate, and included special guests Steve Hackett and Mark Stein (Vanilla Fudge) along with a choir and interpretive dancers.
Palmer formed Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy in 2001 with the incredible guitar skills of Paul Bielatowicz and the equally impressive bass guitar and Chapman Stick work of Simon Fitzpatrick. They have toured successfully over the last few years so they are a finely honed performing trio who are very capable of blasting out the grandeur and power of the ELP canon. The first part of this tastefully packaged release is a live CD of the highlights of a show in 2014 at the Tralf Music Hall in Buffalo, New York. Largely consisting of tracks not available on the live DVD from the Emerson tribute show, the CD feels like the ‘Hors D’oeuvres’ for the main menu. Three of the tracks chosen are interpretations of classical pieces, including the clearly Apocalypse Now inspired take on Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, complete with dialogue and helicopter sounds from the movie. Fans of the band Sky will already be familiar with Toccata but Palmer and his band give a much more muscular take. Gustav Holst’s Mars, The Bringer of War segues surprisingly into King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man, not a track usually associated with ELP, however Palmer has revealed that when Emerson, Lake and Palmer met for the first time to play as a band Greg Lake persuaded them to play this track in rehearsals, and his band does the track justice with a powerful version of this classic.
Perhaps most ambitiously they take on the behemoth that is Tarkus in full, with Bielatowicz particularly shining in his guitar interpretations of many of the keyboard parts, but one wonders whether this was a track which really needs Emerson’s keyboards. Some tracks work better than others in these interpretations and the real highlight of the live CD is the blistering version of Knife-Edge from the first ELP album. After such power, some peacefulness is expressed with a delicate take on Trilogy, opening with delightful interplay between guitar and Fitzpatrick’s bass. Somewhat curiously this final track is faded half way through a brush solo by Carl Palmer which is a little unsatisfactory as a listening experience but may leave some wanting more – fortunately the Live DVD provides plenty more!
The Pictures at an Exhibition – A Tribute to Keith Emerson show opens with a pile driving version of Peter Gunn, before they launch into Karn Evil 9 (Welcome Back my Friends). The trio are joined on this track by Mark Stein of Vanilla Fudge on keyboards and vocals. In all honesty I am not sure that his contribution really adds much to this piece, and his ‘Rock’ style vocals serve only to remind one of the contrast with the wonderful and much missed voice of Greg Lake. Carl Palmer has hit on an interesting and personalised style of presenting his former band’s output instrumentally so it’s strange to divert from that formula with a vocalist who is not really suited to the material in my view. Stein’s vocal contribution is limited and the trio soon power into barnstorming versions of Barbarian and Bitches Crystal. Alongside these performances Palmer invited interpretative dancers from The Center for Contemporary Dance Ensemble to accompany some of the songs through modern dance and ballet style movements. These work successfully on some numbers, most notably on a beautifully balletic interpretation of Take a Pebble, but on other songs it feels rather ‘ad hoc’ and distracting. When there is a drummer with the power, skill and sheer excitement of Carl Palmer centre stage supported by two brilliant musicians there is enough happening visually without the need for such terpsichorean frills. However, this performance reaches its nadir with a version of Jerusalem which will have many English fans in particular diving for the ‘mute’ or ‘fast forward’ buttons. This beloved English hymn is sung by the Ida Choir Ensemble, whom I am sure are fine singers… however, the very American accented singing of this song just sounds so out of place… maybe it’s just an English thing and other nationalities will appreciate it more, but to my ears this was a ‘finger nails down a blackboard’ moment and sadly a real misjudgement by Palmer.
Thankfully, the trio return to their instrumental interpretations with a delicate take on Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and a particularly visceral 21st Century Schizoid Man. After such darkness and power it is almost a relief to hear Paul Bielatowicz’s finely played acoustic guitar solo on Clair de Lune. Stein returns on organ and vocals for Knife-Edge, and maybe I was getting used to his voice or perhaps it was better suited to the song, but this worked better for me… but I could not help wondering why vocals were needed after recalling how brilliantly this song had already been played on the live CD.
What is remarkable about Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy is that whilst they can pull off the loud and powerful numbers with aplomb they also somehow manage to portray the more subtle material which one would expect would normally need a keyboard accompaniment. This is exemplified most beautifully on Take a Pebble, which is conveyed sensitively largely through the skill of Fitzpatrick on the Chapman Stick, and without the need of vocals. The truly epic piece in this show is ELP’s classic take on Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and Palmer and his band surge and flow through it with flair and feeling to the delight of the audience.
The finale just had to be Fanfare for the Common Man which sees Steve Hackett join the band on guitar and harmonica. Hackett and Bielatowicz almost seem to compete with each other initially as the younger man’s ‘flying fingers’ duel with Hackett’s ability to conjure a variety of weird noises from his instrument. Hackett also playfully interacts with his harmonica in conjunction with Palmer’s drumming. It really is a spectacular finale and needless to say the real star of this number, and indeed the whole show, is Palmer on drums – to watch this man in action is truly breathtaking at times, and his drum solo never bores as he displays such touch and invention. There is an overheard camera fixed above Palmer and it is fascinating to see him in such close-up displaying his great dexterity, precision, athleticism and skill. Nutrocker is the encore number and features an additional drummer in David Frangioni who shares in the infectious fun of the whole band with Hackett and Stein on stage to play out a clearly memorable show for a delighted crowd.
I have been fortunate enough to witness Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy in concert, and it really is a remarkable show. Apart from the stellar musicianship it is also interesting to hear Palmer’s short but entertaining anecdotes and introductions between songs… so why can you hardly hear them on this DVD!? The volume has to be turned up high to hear his voice and then quickly turned down for the songs – this is disappointing and frankly it lets down the package. The camera work is fairly standard for a live show without any unnecessary frills or gimmicks. The lighting is basic but this only goes to emphasise that the real star and spectacle of this show is Carl Palmer, who provides all the action and drama a show needs without fancy pyrotechnics. Aside from the poor amplification for Palmer’s vocal introductions it also has to be said that the sound production is not of the highest quality – there is the option for ‘Surround Sound’ but it does not come across very well in that format on the system I used (which deals with other live DVDs very well). To be fair, the sound is ‘OK’, but having experienced the energy and excitement of one of these shows I have to conclude that this is not fully conveyed by the sound production on this release.
Capturing live performances on CD/DVD is not easy, but it can – and has – been done notably over the years with finely produced and presented live packages from many artists… even if we know it’s not the ‘real thing’. This is not one of them. On the whole putting aside some reservations about some of the additional performers, this is a very acceptable package full of entertaining music and excellent performances from the central trio, particularly from Palmer himself. However, it has to be said that there are some aspects of this release which do not fully do justice to Palmer’s live shows and one would hope that any future live releases more fully capture the vibrant sound, power and atmosphere of those shows which are so impressive in the flesh.
[Please Note: The videos featured in this article are not taken from the Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy – Live set.]
CD: Tralf Music Hall, Buffalo, New York, U.S.A. – November 25th 2014
01. Rondeau des Indes Galantes / Ride Of The Valkyries (4:12)
02. Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (5:27)
03. Mars, The God of War / 21st Century Schizoid Man (7:09)
04. Tarkus (Full Version) (14:25)
05. America (3:41)
06. Knife-Edge (5:39)
07. Trilogy (Short Version with added Brush Solo) (6:41)
Time – 47:08
DVD: Pictures at an Exhibition – A Tribute to Keith Emerson
Olympia Theater, Miami, Florida, U.S.A. – June 24th, 2016
02. Peter Gunn
03. Karn Evil 9 (Welcome Back My Friends)
04. The Barbarian
05. Bitches Crystal
07. Romeo & Juliet
08. 21st Century Schizoid Man
09. Clair De Lune
12. Take a Pebble
13. Carmina Burana
14. Pictures at an Exhibition
15. Fanfare for the Common Man / Drum Solo
Bonus DVD Footage: Behind the scenes at the Tribute for Keith Emerson
Time – 124:00
Total Time – 172:00
Carl Palmer – Drums, Percussion
Paul Bielatowicz – Lead Guitar
Simon Fitzpatrick – Bass Guitar, Chapman Stick
Steve Hackett – Guitar, Harmonica (DVD tracks 15 & 16)
Mark Stein – Hammond Organ, Keyboards, Vocals (DVD tracks 3,10 & 16)
David Frangioni – Drums (DVD track 16)
Ida Choir Ensemble – Choral Vocals (DVD track 6)
Record Label: BMGCAT228CBK
Catalogue#: FGBG 4994
Date of Release: 29th June 2018