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.
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.
With the recent passing of Lemmy, Keith Emerson, Glen Frey, David Bowie and other rock heroes, I’ve been thinking about how important rock concert films are to the preservation of their music and performances. I don’t know many fans who collect these films, but there are many worth having, good for cranking up on a Friday night while unwinding from the week passed… The notes below illuminate the history of rock music movies, with a particular focus on concert film, rather than the use of rock music within a film. Concert films capture our rock heroes in their best moments, on the lighted stage, entertaining and amazing us with their showmanship, virtuosity, and aplomb. With some of them leaving this mortal coil, it’s a good time to reflect on these celluloid documents….
The relationship between popular music and the movies has been challenging, and while there are plenty of examples of opportunistic, awkward marriages, there are many others where the power of the movies and rock music combined have been magic. At the dawn of the form, Bill Haley’s 1954 single “Rock Around the Clock,” his “novelty foxtrot” did not dent the charts until it was included in the soundtrack for the Richard Brooks film The Blackboard Jungle, which itself became a sell out, pushing the single to number one. Two years later Elvis Presley burst on the scene and built his career on combining popular music and film, reaching audiences worldwide with his charismatic performances. Some felt these performances were a tad embarrassing, but they accomplished the goal of both entertaining fans, and expanding audiences. Across the pond in Britain, a similar evolution was taking place, with Tommy Steele starring in his own movie The Tommy Steele Story (1957) after releasing just a few hit singles. Billy Fury, Adam Faith, Jeff Conrad, Cliff Richard and many others followed suit, either on early rock music television shows, or on the big screen. But it was The Beatles who became a global phenomenon in part due to the strength of their appearances on television specials and variety shows in Britain, America and beyond. They were also a key part of establishing the bond between storytelling and rock music, as seen in their 1965 classic Help!
As the 1960s came to a close, rock and roll stars were beginning to literally take center stage, making records without hired studio musicians, and selling their wares based on the strength of their musicianship and performances alone. Rock festivals became cultural phenomena, and several of these were captured on film at the close of the decade, setting the scene for the advent of concert films throughout the 1970s. Monterey Pop (1969) caught Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and a host of rockers in defining moments on stage. In the United Kingdom, The Isle of Wight festival in 1970 was filmed and led to a host of complete performances on film, including legendary videos of The Who and Jethro Tull. Arguably, the biggest, most important rock movie to start the decade was Woodstock (1970). Documenting the festival that took place on the 600-acre farm in upper New York State, the “celebration of love and peace” offered the screen up to The Who, Santana, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and a host of other 60s rock acts, many of whom went on to major stardom. The film captured the spirit of the 60s, placing emphasis on the best sentiments of the hippie culture, and the heroes who spoke for them through music and performance. In stark contrast, Gimmie Shelter (1970) graphically captured the dark side of the movement, as members of the Hell’s Angels, who were policing the Rolling Stones free concert at Altamount Speedway east of San Francisco, beat a young black concertgoer to death in front of the band, symbolically ending the youth movement of the decade passed. As if to drive the point home, The Beatles’ Let It Be (1970), released theatrically in May 1970, depicted the sweet and sour dissolution of their union, capturing the band recording what would became their last albums Abbey Road and Let It Be. It is an important and rare document of the band in the studio, and on rooftop of the Apple building where they performed a short set live together for the last time, before being interrupted by the police.
It was during this tumultuous time that concert films took center stage in theaters, illuminating the live concert experience for posterity, favoring bands playing live on stage over scripted storytelling. While rock music was heard in countless soundtracks of the era, only a handful of movies featuring rock stars fronting their own story, or a fictional tale were funded and released. The first truly notable example of this form was Phantom of the Paradise (1974). Directed by Brian De Palma, this cult classic is about a record producer who claims as his own the music of a brilliant composer. The composer exacts his revenge in the thrilling climax. Paul Williams received Academic Award and Gold Globe nominations for his musical score. This epic was followed the next year by the film, Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). This cult classic is an homage to science fiction and B horror films, boasting a soundtrack with almost two dozen unforgettable songs that have become classics in their own right such as “Sweet Transvestite,” “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” and “The Time Warp.”
Next up was The Who’s Tommy (1975). Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest rock albums ever made, Tommy is a tale in music of a deaf, dumb and blind boy who inspires others to transcend their everyday circumstances. The film adaptation stars lead singer Roger Daltrey and features Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson and Elton John. The Who would be back at the end of the decade with Quadrophenia (1979). A battle between two rival gangs, the Mods and the Rockers, this movie uses the music of the Who to explore the dark side of growing up in London in the mid-1960s. Some of the Who’s greatest songs are featured, such as “The Real Me” and “Love Reign O’er Me.”
Other than these examples of storytelling, the decade would instead give favor to actual live concert films. One of the first filmed performances was also by The Who in December 1969 when the band began touring Tommy with a set list including nearly the entire rock opera. Tucked away as an extra on The Who film Live at Kilburn: 1977 (1977) is a film of that concert at the London Coliseum in December 1969. It’s not the best film, as the 16mm cameras could barely capture the show, which was not lit properly for film, an issue that plagues many movies from the decade. But it’s a key document of this legendary band delivering one of the first rock concept albums on stage. A much more watchable set was released as Live at the Isle of Wight (1970) which catches the band delivering an amazing concert at the Isle of Wight Festival. Taking the stage at 2 am in the morning, they played several songs, then most of the Tommy album to 600,000 people. These shows kicked off the decade, setting the stage for a wealth of films to come.
Many of these best concert films of the 1970s will be reviewed within the pages of my upcoming book. Some were released to theaters during the decade, such as ELP’s Pictures at an Exhibition (1970), Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii (1972), Yes’ Yessongs (1973), Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same (1976), Alice Cooper’s Welcome to my Nightmare (1976), Genesis’ in Concert (1977), The Band’s The Last Waltz (1978), but many more have been unearthed, restored and released on home video long after the end of the era. The decade closed with the release of one of the best-filmed concerts from that time, Paul McCartney and Wings Rock Show (1980). This concert, from the 1975-1976 “Wings Over the World” tour shows McCartney and Wings at their absolute best. The band play many of McCartney solo hits as well as some Beatles songs such as “Lady Madonna,” “The Long and Winding Road,” and “Blackbird.” It’s an exceptional film that will take any viewer right into the concert experience. It’s absolutely one of the best concert films of all time.
With the sad passing of David Bowie, Glen Frey, and Keith Emerson, here are a few titles worth consideration (apologies to Lemmy, I did not find any films of Motorhead from the 70s):
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – The Motion Picture
The best official film of David Bowie’s career in the 1970s is the 1973 movie Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – The Motion Picture. Directed by D.A. Pennebaker, this is a rare chance to see Bowie during his glam period, taking the stage wrapped in his most influential alter ego. Fifteen songs from the set list are presented, along with a few behind the scenes shots of Bowie back stage and yhr fans out front. It’s not a polished product; the sound is flawed, sometimes brash, and lots of shots are blurry. But the 1.33:1 framing and source material that exposes extra grain and grit seems somehow representative of the early years of the glam movement. The film played in movie theaters in the early 1970s for a brief time, and was later screened frequently as a cult classic.
David Bowie: Live at NHK Hall in Budokan Japan on December 12, 1978 The next official Bowie film would not be released until the Serious Moonlight tour of 1983. It means that there is no officially released video to document several key concert tours in the intervening years from 1974 to 1982. Possibly the best film that was made captured a jubilant, well-groomed Bowie performing at the NHK Hall in Budokan Japan on December 12, 1978 on the last night of the Low and “Heroes” tour. Bowie himself is a revelation, leading his all-star band while surrounded by pulsating fluorescent light tubes through a show that clearly influenced a host of new wave artists who followed. An hour of this fabulous concert was broadcast on Japanese television including a thirteen-minute rendition of the title track from Station to Station. The film is well preserved and available on YouTube or via an unofficial DVD release from heavymetalweb.net. Recordings from the same tour were assembled for the double live album Stage, released in 1978.
Eagles Live at the Capital Centre March 1977. Jigsaw Productions, DVD
This concert is on the third disc of the 2013 documentary History of the Eagles. It captures the band in Washington D.C. on the Hotel California tour playing many of their most popular songs. A critic once accused the Eagles with “loitering on stage” and it’s true the band exuded the laid back California vibes perfectly captured in their music.Yet their laconic style does not seem a disadvantage all these years later, and it’s a pleasure to watch this concert film. The dual guitar jam during the title track alone is worth the price of the set.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Pictures at an Exhibition (1970) Eagle Rock, 144 min., DVD
This DVD shows ELP playing their version of Mussorgsky’s masterpiece and other songs at the Lyceum in London. An excess of psychedelic effects mar the footage, but ELP’s musicianship is magnificent.
Beyond the Beginning [2 DVD set] Sanctuary Records, 250 min., DVD
A variety of clips of varying quality from the band’s early career are presented here. Although some of the video is out of synch with the audio, this is a worthwhile and essential collection of concert appearances by a talented and thrilling band. The highlight is their set at California Jam on the legendary Brain Salad Surgery tour.
Top: Photo of the Corbin Theater above, after it was converted to a X-rated theater, late 70s….
And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
…croons Greg Lake, in powerful melodious voice, to begin the first track of Emerson Lake & Palmer’s most progressive, conceptual album, 1973’s Brain Salad Surgery. The opening track, a beloved and patriotic English anthem, sets the stage for what is to come; a series of intricate compositions and virtuosic performances from Lake (vocals, bass, guitars), Keith Emerson (keyboards, computer voice), and Carl Palmer (drums & percussion synthesizers). The album represented a high water mark for the band, both in the studio and for their stunning live performances, which culminated in America when the group played to over 200,000 fans at “California Jam Festival” in 1974. Nearly forty-five minutes of this show was captured on film, later released on DVD as part of the Beyond the Beginning collection. In addition, fans were treated to a triple album capturing the band at their peak.
I never was able to catch ELP in concert, and have always been more of a Rick Wakeman fanatic rather than a Keith Emerson fan. Keith’s keyboard attack always seemed a bit too violent and prolonged for my ears, whereas I felt that Rick focused more on melody and song craft. Nonetheless, I never thought the critics were fair to this band. After hailing them as the “next super group” they were savaged by accusations of being pretentious and bombastic. Instead I felt that the hints of these qualities made sense as part of the package, and that it was more talent, confidence and showmanship that the critics unfairly assailed. I did get the chance to see Carl astound us all when playing with Asia, and always loved Greg’s rich baritone on anything graced with his tones. And, as the years passed, I’ve warmed to the ELP sound, finally catching them live on their Black Moon tour. It’s clear no matter one’s musical palette, that these are three of the most talented musicians of our time. Brain Salad Surgery is to this listener their undeniable masterpiece.
CONCEPT & MUSIC
The centerpiece of Brain Salad Surgery is “Karn Evil 9”, a suite presented over 30 minutes in three parts, or “impressions.” The themes in the “Karn Evil 9” suite, a “carnival of words and music” came in parts, moving from a disaffected generation witnessing the evils of the world, culminating in mankind facing a war-ravaged world taken over by computers. King Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield and Lake collaborated on the lyrics during intense writing sessions, weaving together the disparate movements. In the early sixties Sinfield had worked on a mainframe computer that he claimed could actually play the song “Daisy, Daisy” a tune which listeners may also recall from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, itself a study of the man-machine battle. On a recent CD reissue, Lake explains, “Some of the lyrics would be surreal, then the next day we would feel that something needed to be said, for instance like the way the media make money from photographing people suffering. The whole concept of computers dominating peoples lives, and the one line Load your program, I am yourself – they were rather prophetic words… I really do question sometimes how much good it’s doing us, all this bloody technology! That’s what Brain Salad Surgery was to some extent about.” Taken as a suite, the themes of the composition leave the listener to interpret the whole, a hallmark of the best conceptual rock in the 1970’s.
To round out the album, four initial tracks display the band’s prowess in every possible manner. Already known for interpreting classical and contemporary works by other composers, the band began the record with “Jerusalem,” by Sir Hubert Parry, with words from the poem by William Blake, and follow-up “Toccata,” a complex instrumental piece based on the 4th movement of Alberto Ginastera’s “1st Piano Concerto.” This cut includes a credit to Carl Palmer for his synthesized percussion movement; a startling aggressive workout on his new electronic kit. Lake’s ballad “Still… You Turn Me On” is the primary “radio-friendly” track on the album, a serene and catchy love song. The comedic music hall number “Benny The Bouncer” gives Lake a chance to work out raspy vocals in a Cockney accent, with boogie-woogie piano by Emerson and Palmer keeping pace on small kit. The centerpiece, “Karn Evil 9,” began on side one of the original LP and continued by filling all of side 2.
For the album cover, the band went with an evocative painting by artist H.R. Giger, whose work later in the decade would be used in the Alien movies. Emerson had been introduced to Giger while on tour in Switzerland. The band went to his studio to peruse his work, and he produced the cover henceforth. The painting, featuring industrial machinery housing an embedded human skull, presents a portal through which an image based on a portrait of Giger’s wife’s is partly visible. Opening the album’s gatefold cover revealed the complete picture. This inventive design perfectly suited the album and it’s themes. Famously, the record company forced the band to tone down the painting’s sexual content, replacing an image of a penis with a slightly vague shaft of light.
Reflecting on the album, band members look back fondly. “I think what people really found appealing about the band was more it’s fantasy side,” says Lake, “and that side of ELP was more predominant on the earlier albums.” “We were doing things to push the boundaries of experimentation and recording forward,” adds Palmer.
Brain Salad Surgery came during the time when there were major innovations in technology and recording process. The band deployed these on their prior album Tarkus, but found the songs difficult to recreate in their live shows. For the new album, they ensured all tracks could be played live by the band before going into the studio. The resulting concerts benefited tremendously from this foresight, as the band was able to deliver precise yet energetic renditions of each track with flights of improvisation as well.
The tour started in America in late 1973, and represented the most complex stage, sound and lighting system of that time, including quadraphonic sound, and for some of the dates, a “flying piano” setup that allowed Emerson to appear to be playing a grand piano while spinning head over heels in 360 degree loops. Not to be outdone, Palmer’s massive drum riser weighed almost 1.5 tons, including a revolving platform, church bell and gongs. The 1974 three LP set, Welcome Back My Friends, To The Show That Never Ends – Ladies and Gentlemen was produced from the band’s February 1974 shows in Anaheim, California, and is one of the best selling triple-album sets of all time.
The DVD Beyond The Beginning (2005) contains a documentary of ELP, but more importantly includes the best available concert film of the band at this pivotal time. The 44-minute picture was taken at their last stop on the American tour, headlining at California Jam, playing for over 200,000 people. The professional color film is a top quality production for its time, featuring lengthy close-ups of fingers, sticks and picks, capturing the virtuosity of each band member.
The set list begins with Palmer and his synthesized drums playing the solo in “Toccata” after which we are treated to two of Lake’s ballads, “Still… You Turn Me On” and “Lucky Man.” Emerson’s astounding “Piano Improvisations” follow and they are caught in detail, along with the first segment of “Take A Pebble”. The real treat follows, an almost note-perfect live rendition of the 1st and 3rd impressions of the “Karn Evil 9” suite which includes a lengthy Palmer drum solo, highlighting his rotating drum riser, followed by Lake’s powerful vocals, Emerson’s polyphonic Moog leads, and the simulated destruction of the villainous computer. The film concludes with “Great Gates of Kiev” during which Emerson deploys the spinning piano stagecraft, before the coda and fireworks.
Though on the balance this film is priceless, there remain a few quibbles. Most importantly, this DVD hosts an incomplete edit of the concert, as originally edited before being broadcast on ABC television. Opening songs “Hoedown” and “Jerusalem” are cut as is “Tarkus” which followed “Toccata” in the set list, and “Karn Evil 9″ 1st impression part 1, and all of the 2nd impression. Additionally there are a few instances where songs are truncated, such as “Toccata” and “Take A Pebble.” As to the camerawork, the only inadequate scenes are distant shots meant to capture the full band across the large stage, as these are grainy and unfocused. Otherwise, the edits are well timed and camera angles are expertly planned, yielding brilliant shots of each musician in action. As to the performance, Emerson and Lake visibly and rather annoyingly chew gum throughout the evening, but otherwise these artists play with precision, enthusiasm, and aplomb. Lake for one claimed in a recent interview that those shows were never be surpassed for their emotional intensity and capacity to impact the audience, and this reviewer agrees. For those who missed it, this film remains the best way to capture this most impressive moment in in ELP’s history.
Tempest are releasing a new studio album, The Tracks We Leave, on February 24th, 2015 – another in a legacy of more than fifteen quality albums over the last 26 years. For the uninitiated, Tempest’s music can best be described as a form of folk rock, incorporating a blend of Celtic, Scottish, Norwegian, and other world music influences within a rock format that often leans towards the progressive. Standout tracks on their new release include the eclectic title track, the Norwegian language “Alle Mann Hadde Fota” (All Men Have Feet), the soft then edgy folk of “Fog On The Bay” (a San Francisco favorite) and closer “Surfing to Mecca” a fun and boisterous remake of their 1994 original sporting tandem fiddle and flute leads. It’s a potent brew of traditional folk and rock musical forms, all of which goes down easy, while also inspiring dance in any fleet-footed listener.
We caught their recent gig at Don Quixote’s in the small town of Felton, California on a stormy night during which they presented their new album in its entirety. Multi-instrumentalist, composer, and singer Lief Sorbye fronts the band, as it’s founder, and he leads the procession from center stage, playing his double-necked electric mandolin, guitars, flute, and other instruments. He is backed by long time drummer Adolfo Lazo, and new able bass player Josh Fossgreen, who adds adept riffs and solos during their frequent jams. Newer member Kathy Buys, is an award winning fiddle player and vocalist – she plays leads and recalls the best of folk traditions with her lightning fast, rhythmic delivery. Greg Jones plays electric guitar, often adding a harder rock edge to the mix, always invigorating the whole. The band plays together in a loose but practiced manner, exuding an infectious joy in presenting their music to fans and new converts alike.
I had the chance to talk to Lief this week about the band, their new release, and upcoming concerts:
D: Is there a new direction on this album, a change for Tempest?
Our musical policy has always been open. When I started the band, I called the music “Celtic Rock” because we needed a label to put on the music we were doing, and people had an idea of what “Celtic” was and certainly what “rock and roll” was, so that was the label we used then in order to get record deals and gigs to play. But it was always a wide-open type of platform – we incorporated music from the British Isles, and Scandinavian influences and Norwegian songs, which have always been part of the Tempest repertoire for the last 26 years. We never said, “no you can’t touch on this or that” – the backbone has always been inspired by and steeped in traditional folk music. Together it always sounds like “Tempest” music and that’s the case with the new album – its part of our history. I don’t know if it’s pointing in a new direction or just painting on the large canvas that we’ve called our own.
When we went into the studio for this new record and worked on it for a month what we come out with is an album of material that’s also a document of this period in the band’s life. Looking back over our 15 or so albums over time they tell a story – they are each real recordings of places and times. We try to do that when we record. The stylistic influences you hear on the new record are a product of the people that are playing together at this point – the stuff we are interested in right now – people bring different things to the table. It’s a spontaneous, organic process.
D: Kathy is bringing some wonderful playing to the band, and this lineup is changed much since the last record.
Yes, it’s a lineup that has not recorded before – it’s been 5 years since our last studio album, Another Dawn (2010). That was a culmination of the lineup 2005-2010. After that, we waited to go back into the studio until we had something to say. There’s no point to making a record unless you have something to say – musically or otherwise. You’re making a statement and it’s there forever. The chemistry in this particular band is really important, and we had a great experience together in the studio. Everybody was really excited about the music coming alive during the recording process. We are predominantly a live band – a working band. We play gigs frequently and that’s where the music comes alive for us – so normally we play the songs live first, get them road tested, and then bring them into the studio. This time was a bit different – we had at least a third of the album that we played for the first time in the studio. Everyone worked diligently, had fun, and left good tracks behind, and that’s the title of the album The Tracks We Leave– I felt we left some good footprints for the future and there was a lot of joy in it.
D: I noticed one of the tracks “Surfing to Mecca” was very tight in concert – the flute really stands out – dueling with Kathy’s fiddle.
That song, “Surfing to Mecca” is the last track on the album, and probably the furthest away from a Celtic rock song, and that’s a bonus track because it’s an older Tempest song from 20 years ago that we re-recorded – it was the title track from our 2004 release.
I had started playing flute again, which I’ve picked up again after not playing it for a long time. Because of that we started playing the song live, which was a hit with our crowd 25 years ago, so we decided to put it at the end of the album. It’s not that different from the original version, though we added Arabic-style drumming to give it a bit more of that flavor.
I pick up the flute when I feel the time is right, but have never played it consistently – I have a love/hate relationship with it – now I’ve had it with me as part of our repertoire for the last year and its probably the longest I’ve played it ever. I do play in on Turn of the Wheel (1996) which I think is one of our strongest albums and one of my favorites, and it’s on there because the folks at Magna Carta asked me to play it. With the flute, I feel like I’m dabbling, but I put as much heart and soul into it as possible. If you listen to early 70’s jazz-fusion –like Herbie Mann, and others, flute is all over the place. Then it found a home on late night detective shows with the usual wah-wah guitars and all of the sudden it dropped off the planet. But it’s a cool instrument combined with a fiddle because they are known fixed pitched instruments – you can do a lot of interplay. Right now its fun to play, even though it can be difficult to play and be heard in a rock band!
D: The cornerstone track on the new record is the title track “The Tracks We Leave”- I noticed that keyboards are used on that song, which seems rare.
We have used keys over the years – when we record, Robert Berry becomes like the fifth member of the band, for those occasions where keys add to the soundscape. The history of Tempest is that when I started the band I did not want to have keyboards. Back then it seemed there was no label we really fit into – too much rock to fit in on a folk label and vice versa. I always thought we were progressive with what we were doing with folk music, so I always thought of us as a prog band, but not your classic prog band. So at that point in time, it made the most sense to work with Magna Carta. When we signed with Magna Carta, and their prog rock stable, we were told we should have keys on the record and in studio as they are must-have’s for the kind of music they were after. I met with a few keyboard players, and we started working with Robert Berry as a producer and engineer – he had a band called 3 where he played with Keith Emerson so I asked him if we could get Keith to play on the record, he introduced us, and we hit it off. Back then people were dabbling in DAT tapes, so we traded back and forth and Keith recorded in LA – what he did was really cool, and it worked well – I think that helped us with the prog community. We’ve always used keys carefully so you wont miss it on stage – we never arrange a song with keys as the featured instrument. Though the title track this time has a bit of grand piano, most of the time we only use a Hammond B3 organ. That’s the keyboard that has the great organic sound, like Jon Lord, I love that sound and it fits with our music.
D: “Alle Mann Hadde Fota” was a standout track during the show. Reading the English translation of these Norwegian lyrics, the story seems a bit unusual!
Especially if you try to translate it directly –it’s very curious – it has a macabre nursery rhyme quality to it. During my upbringing I believed in some of our folklore, like Trolls – if you’re a kid and you walk around in a dark forest in that part of the world, with its majestic mountains – rich in that heritage – it’s possible to believe! A lot of cultures have their own characters and share them – it’s fun to dabble in that as inspiration and source material for a rock band – as it’s been around for 100’s of years – being able to keep that around and drink from that well is great. When you are inspired by so many traditions you never run out of things to create.
Back to the title track, the melodic and harmonic structures in “The Tracks We Leave” for instance are steeped in the traditional music of those northern hemispheres. That proverb “we will be known by the tracks we leave” was a Native American proverb. I liked that, and Robert said that would be a great title for an album, so I snagged it and then needed to write a song with that title. Record companies like it when you have the title in advance – you can plan graphics and start talking about the work publicly. Normally I like the title to come spontaneously while recording the album – usually something happens in the studio while creating, and the title appears. This time I had it in advance. The reaction was “Oh of course – you are a musician – and you are recording tracks, leaving tracks behind” and I think its got other meanings too – the ecology of it – leaving a carbon footprint and the tracks you leave on the planet, and then there is the spiritual aspect. Last summer, my wife and I went back to Norway to visit my mother and we three took a holiday in the mountains in a rustic cabin – a significant experience with a profound impact on all of us. Patricia has been writing with me for a long time and wrote the lyrics and it all fell into place. The song was the last thing that got written and arranged just before we entered the studio. It was fun this time to have the title and concept before we had it all finished.
D: What are your plans for touring to support the album?
We’ve worked up a three-hour repertoire for the road, so we have lots of material to play – lots of variety. We are doing a series of 20 concerts in Las Vegas on the week of St. Patrick’s day, where we wanted for our own sanity to be able to play different shows, with some alternate tracks, so we will have a good time on stage, which will be our home for the week. From there we embark on a wider tour of the states.
Though we will play tunes from throughout our history, I like our Magna Carta releases better than what we recorded before 1995 – we’ve had the opportunity to record throughout the history of the band – from day one. It’s all there showing the progress of the band. For our fans, their favorite is always the record they got when they discovered us, when they got introduced to our music, which might be the time they were introduced to Celtic or traditional music – ours might have been an eye opener for them – when that happens we treasure that. We have a huge catalog to play from and we listen to fans requests – sooner or later everything comes around again.
And of course we will play several tunes from our new record – which is high-spirited, and fun – if you arrange traditional folk and dance tunes a certain way you have all sorts of tempo changes and time signature changes and all the elements you would find in classic prog rock. You can add anything to rock and roll and make it your own – it’s a great form of expression.
Recommendation: get yourself a copy of the new Tempest album The Tracks We Leave when it’s released this month, and catch them live this year, in sunny Las Vegas if you can make it!