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CD Review: Emerson, Lake & Palmer - A Time And A Place

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Prog rock seems to be the last unexplored outpost for indie musicians, the one remaining genre that hasn’t been plundered to death by previous generations, which may explain its recent resurgence in popular awareness. The last twelve months alone have seen Genesis inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame (though it’s worth noting that the same kind of rock establishment that chose Jethro Tull over Metallica at the 1988 Grammys has seen fit to induct Metallica into the Hall Of Fame in advance of Tull themselves, or any other progressos), American (mostly East Coast) appearances from Van Der Graaf Generator, the Gentle Giant-derived Three Friends and Neu! offshoot Hallogallo 2010, and the first show since the late 1990s by the proggiest progs that ever progged: Emerson, Lake and Palmer. This 4-CD box set compiles live performances from across their history, with each of the first three discs representing a different era (early seventies, late seventies, and their 1990s reunion tours) and the fourth compiling fan-recorded audience tapes across all the eras.

Now, I won’t pretend that ELP is for everybody. I can’t always decide whether they’re for me or not. They embody all the strengths and weaknesses of the prog approach in one neat little package. They’re guilty of everything the punks ever accused them of - bombast, goofy conceptualism, showboating musicianship, and a general failure to rock, or groove, or swing. But if they lacked swing, they still had classically-trained precision on their side, and the ability to play stuff that no one else would have conceived. And when you have that kind of skill at your disposal, you can go places no one else does. One thing ELP also had going for them was the ability to turn bombast into a strength, to go right over the top and sound like they were going crazy even when they were just playing carefully-crafted parts. In the live recordings from the early seventies, their sense of drama is still developing, but by their final tour in 1978, they had it honed to a science, and the version of “Tarkus” on disc two has more sharply defined highs and lows than its studio counterpart. It’s perhaps more ham-fisted, but with music like this, that can be an improvement.

There’s no shortage of existing live ELP albums, and there’s little here that will be unfamiliar to anyone who already has the three-disc Welcome Back My Friends set from 1974, and the 1978 In Concert LP with the symphony orchestra. But Welcome Back seemed to have been recorded on a night when the band were perhaps overconfident and playing too fast, losing whatever bounce and flow they’d found in the studio. This set has superior renditions of some of their key tracks, especially their take on Aaron Copeland’s “Hoedown.” Disc three, with the 1990s material, is pretty weak by comparison, sluggish and lead-footed, although the version of another Copeland hit, “Fanfare For The Common Man,” is agreeably energetic.

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The bootleg disc has one or two interesting moments - a blinding Palmer solo on “Toccata” and a rare performance of “The Endless Enigma”, which may never have been professionally recorded. But the rest is inexcusable. The sound quality is better than your average audience bootleg, but not much better, and with music this dynamic and intricate, murky cassettes from the back of a sports arena just don’t cut it.

The packaging is fairly minimal, as befitting the budget-friendly price. The “collectible poster” advertised is a three-page color fold out with various ELP ticket stubs, buttons, concert ads and press clippings - a nice seventies touch, though I was kinda hoping for a Kiss Alive-style foldout with dramatic snaps of Emerson stabbing his keyboards. The same illustration of a Manticore that’s on the front of the box also appears on each of the four CD covers with a slightly different color scheme.

So, in the end, only half of this set is any good, but if you’re in the mood for ELP, I’d say it’s very good indeed.