Once in awhile you see a concert that truly surprises and delights your senses to the core –- one that’s ear and eye candy for the hungry musician inside you. Recently, on March 22, 2018, Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy played in a small club in Redwood City, California, and this was one of those very amazing occasions.
As most readers will know, Emerson Lake & Palmer was the preeminent “progressive rock super group” that emerged at the beginning of the 1970’s, reigning supreme until a few misfortunes befell the band and they essentially “lost the plot.” Keith Emerson started his career as the keyboard wunderkind of The Nice, growing into a keys juggernaut, favoring multi-tracked equipment of every kind, blended into an aggressively beautiful noise that was frequently overwhelming to anyone remotely familiar with what it takes to play the piano. Greg Lake had already proven his skills as melodious baritone and bassist of King Crimson on their first two massively influential and stunning albums In the Court of the Crimson King(1969), and In the Wake of Poseidon(1970). Carl Palmer, drums and percussion, the only remaining living member of the trio, got his start with none other than Arthur Brown and then Atomic Rooster. The guys banded together in 1970, Greg added guitar to his skill set, and the game was, as they say, on.
The group released a series of increasingly complex, multi-layered progressive rock albums, beginning with the self-titled debut in 1970, and continuing with the brilliant follow up Tarkus(1971), then Pictures at an Exhibition(1971), Trilogy(1972), and their undisputed masterpiece, Brain Salad Surgery(1973). Following extensive touring for this 1973 release, which included a stop that was recorded in Long Beach California (Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends – Ladies and Gentlemen 1974), followed within days by a headlining spot at California Jam (also featuring Deep Purple headlining an adjacent evening), the band took a long break to rest and recoup.
The last really exceptional work by this amazing trio was then undertaken – Works Volume 1and Works Volume 2(1977) — oddly sold separately and one of four total LP sides devoted to each band member — allowing them to “stretch their wings” (or “ego-up” depending on how one saw the band’s work). As is well publicized, the band then “lost their shirts” mounting a tour to support Works, which featured a symphony orchestra. The massively expensive tour was a ballsy move that cost them a fortune and set the band back on their heels. When they returned in 1978 with an ill conceived follow up, the attempt-to-be-commercial Love Beach, it was time to disband, just as “punk” music had already seen it’s sad and stupid one-year-long stint as the music of the times!
Though the band reunited, recorded, and toured with new material, there was no way to match the 1970’s era brilliance of what one could argue was the biggest prog rock band of the decade – challenging as they did Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd (uh huh, among others) for the top spot. It should be noted that Black Moon(1992) was an exception to the lesser rule, and that album plus tour, which followed, was really the last chance to see the band in good form. In addition, while Palmer managed to stay fit and fluid working with Asia, ELP and others in the years to follow, Emerson and Lake suffered declining heath and physical abilities. Sadly, both passed away in 2016.
Carl Palmer has been out now several times with his own band, the ELP Legacy, to give honor to his fallen brethren, to stay fit, in top musical shape, and rightfully remind all of us that he is most certainly one of the world’s top drummers, and now absolutely the greatest drummer remaining from the progressive rock era. Always possessing a muscular ability, coupled with occasional deft gentle touch, always with military snare at the ready, Palmer played a mean kit, backed by dual gongs and well tuned toms. For Brain Salad Surgery, he innovated a synthesized drum kit that, once triggered used sequencer technology to create an electronic orchestra for the drums, as evidenced on the track “Toccata.” It was and is simply an unmatched, violently brilliant work of sonic wonder. (Apologies to Phil Collins, Bill Bruford, Neil Peart, and a few others that vied for the top spot, Carl had or at least has it now!)
Palmer plays a great set list of selections from the 70s, and does so instrumentally, with ace guitarist Paul Bielatowicz, and bass/stick player Simon Fitzpatrick. No keyboards you say, blasphemy? No, Paul and Simon cover all of Keith Emerson’s keys, at least the ones that mattered, unbelievably. These two younger musicians have no idea how good they are – it’s uncanny to watch them just nail this material with aplomb, supported and driven of course by master of ceremonies, the ever talented Palmer. As an example, when they do “Lucky Man” Simon plays bass on the stick with his left hand, while soloing the moog lead with his right at the bottom synthesized end of said stick. Awe-inspiring. Truly. By the time Palmer launches into “Fanfare for the Common Man” within which he slips a 10-minute drum solo, you will be absolutely convinced of your good fortune in catching the man and the living legend, Carl Palmer. I promise, welcome back.
A bit of film, ending with said drum solo!!!
Carl Palmer (drums, percussion, gongs, amazingly great humor and attitude)
Paul Bielatowicz (guitars)
Simon Fitzpatrick (bass/stick)
p.s. Only thing that bugged me? Even though many of us in the crowd are getting “up there’ in years, when did we Americans become so lazy? No one, and I mean no one, stood up between songs to do a standing ovation – it was like they were sitting on their arses, expecting to be entertained. Three of the best musicians I’ve ever seen play live (and believe me, I’ve seen ‘em all) gave a master class on bass, drums, and guitars, and no one can stand up? Damn. Just sayin’ Over and out.