Percussionist’s Outsize Extraplanetary Homage to Keith Emerson at Boulton Recalls ELP Heyday
Reviewers should be prohibited from assessing the value of artists who contemporaneously ascend to prominence as the reviewer comes of age.
But watching Carl Palmer play “Bitches Crystal” at the Boulton in Bayshore last week was to catch a master at work redrawing celestial motion — behind a blur of simple sticks.
Time to blast an exception to that Keplerian rule.
Greg Lake and Carl Palmer are the two remaining musicians from the original ELP lineup, a band that was one of the earliest of the 70’s rock supergroups. When Keith Emerson died in March, Palmer announced that the Carl Palmer touring band, consisting of Palmer, Paul Bielatowicz and Simon Fitzpatrick, would tour as “ELP Legacy Tour 2016.”
This month’s sellout Boulton appearance – or rather disruption of the cosmos — was part of that tour.
Transcription to Transcendence
“Knife-Edge,” as Palmer reminded the Boulton audience, was an adaptation of a part of Leoš Janáček‘s Sinfonietta, a fact Emerson had not mentioned to the other two. The evening also featured an extended version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, with the much-loved, seemingly rock-inspired “Baba Yaga.” “The Barbarian” was an adaptation of Béla Bartók’s Allegro barbaro (1911). In the oft-forgotten “The Only Way (Hymn),” Emerson imports JS Bach’s “Toccata in F” and “Prelude No. 6.”
Two of the evening’s – and ELP’s most successful hits – were versions of Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown” and Fanfare for the Common Man.
ELP, probably more than other top tier prog rock group of that era, included liberal quotations from classical music. For a generation of young classical musicians who hadn’t bought into Presley or the Beatles, ELP arrangements were an onramp to electric instruments, triple forte and possible stadium stardom.
Hearing Carl Palmer credit Bartók when introducing “Barbarian” was a reminder of just how fused the genres became, albeit for a short time.
One is left listening to Sinfonietta back at home (I confess to owning at least six copies of the orchestral version) wishing for an enhanced percussion part in the original score.
Palmer Live: Percussionist and Person
Palmer’s stage presence is live-friendly. More than, for instance, the self-deprecating keyboardist-humorist Rick Wakeman (“Grumpy Old Rick” was seen in a local appearance with Jon Anderson not long ago), Palmer clearly enjoys the warmth of audience appreciation.
He shared with the audience his belief that Emerson was to have met up with the band for a couple of performances on the next tour. He shared the exhilaration of landing the first time at La Guardia (probably JFK according to Emerson’s website) and hearing Scott Muni play ELP’s song in its full 22-minute glory on WNEW.
Trivia Question: At which New York City venue known for its classical music performances did ELP play at in 1971?
With video of the band’s heyday era projected while they performed the trio’s final songs, Palmer invited all to photo and socialize Keith Emerson’s memory.
Influences Heard and Wished-For
Palmer’s accompaniment style is not often copied, but he set a high bar for those who came later. Palmer’s energy and tempi are present in Alex Van Halen’s “Source of Infection.” Today’s cut-and-paste drum track era seems to favor simpler approaches – even when the music calls for more. The polish of Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” is a bit less shiny due to an uninspired drum track. Tarja’s “500 Letters” is an interesting song with an uninspired drum track. Her anthem “Die Alone” is a stunner, with workmanlike percussion, but one can hear what Palmer could have added. Most of Stream of Passion’s fine “Computer Eyes” works with a minimalist drum track, but the dramatic extended verse drops into a chorus that merely keeps time. A-ha’s superb 2015 song “She’s Humming a Tune” features an unnecessarily understated performance by Karl Oluf Wennerberk.
Luckily there are many notable exceptions. The Evanescence track “Weight of the World” features a Palmer-esque style by Rocky Gray. The tradition was carried on ub Dream Theater by Mike Portnoy and by Marco Minnemann in Satriani’s “On Peregrine Wings” and Vinnie Colaiuta on “Keep on Movin’.” Muse’s Dominic Howard carries on the tradition in “Assassin.”
As for contemporaries, Palmer’s countryman Ian Paice (“Fireball,” “You Fool No One”) comes to mind as another percussionist whose playing still aspires to the sidereal.
A Trio Up to a Tarkus-Titanic Task
ELP was a trio whose music relied heavily upon the polyphony and multitimbral breadth of Emerson’s keyboards. Think of the Ravel-like layering as “Abaddon’s Bolero” progresses. Take that away, and it’s reasonable to question whether a keyboard-less ELP is feasible. Yet the trio of Palmer, Paul Bielatowicz and Simon Fitzpatrick achieved the impossible: to do justice to the complex arrangements — and bring it off with an audience, some of whom have been listening to these tunes for more than forty years.
All this is still more remarkable considering that Emerson’s untimely death was only a few months ago. The trio played this very full set, entirely from memory, ranging from “Pictures” to “21st Schizoid Man” and the aforementioned classical adaptations.
The subject of this commentary is Carl Palmer, but both Bielatowicz and Fitzpatrick deserve their own separate accolades. Where to start?
Start by recognizing that Fitzpatrick is expert with the rarely heard Chapman Stick instrument, or that he recently released his own version of Holst “The Planets.” Solo duties were handed off so expertly between guitar and “bass” (he alternated between a six-string bass and the Stick) that one had to pay close attention to know which was producing a given rendition of Emerson’s Hammond or Moog. Fitzpatrick was assigned to cover “Take a Pebble,” which he did without guitar. It had to be seen to be believed.
Paul Bielatowicz, wearing a “A1A Car Wash” T-shirt, was no less impressive. The guitarist, using only one guitar, one Peavey amp and pedals, was assigned to cover much of the keyboard-rich ELP arrangements. Many will question my veracity at this claim. Let’s just say every fret on the fretboard got a worko0ut. Consider that for his guitar solo, the musician chose to play his arrangement of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” from his album Preludes and Etudes.
It was to be an evening where vocals were covered by faithful fans, but together these two expert musicians enabled the New York audience to appreciate their idol’s gifts without the distractions that weaker arrangements – and technical proficiency — would have presented.
March Militaire of Mortality
Just how long Carl Palmer’s joints and tendons can stand up to this atmospheric playing level is anyone’s guess.
The evening included an extended solo for each member of the trio. For those fans of drum solos (an admittedly smaller audience than that for guitar solos), Palmer’s did not disappoint.
Solos aside, the trio’s rendition of “Jerusalem” was more poignant, with the sense of Emerson’s loss heavy in the air. Even with the addition of a full choir, there are no recordings (try one by the Choir of Exeter College, Oxford, or a Lesley Garrett) that match the majesty of ELP’s cover of this Hubert Parry’s hymn, further buoyed by lyrics taken from William Blake’s preface to Milton.
To Disclaim, To Declaim
Largely oblivious to Palmer’s work in the still-productive Asia until much later, I first saw Palmer at Westbury on Asia tours. (Unfamiliar with Palmer’s Asia? Listen to “Soul Survivor,” “Wildest Dreams”). Asia composed fine prog-rock tunes that could match the Greg Lake tunes (“C’est La Vie,” “Still You Turn Me On”) but Asia’s percussion parts tend to float down in the mix when compared to great ELP engineering.
This was an audience that could admit it. After all these years that ELP’s music “Still You Turn Me On” is to be declaimed, not disclaimed.
Never mind the solo standard, “Tank,” which at the time probably vaulted Palmer into the upper echelons of rock percussionists.
Instead remind yourself of Palmer’s drumming in the fifth minute of Ginastera’s “Toccata.” Imagine “Living Sin” without Palmer’s rolls and accessible bass drum part. No “Bitch” in “Bitches Crystal” without Palmer’s rapid, crisp snare. Imagine the fortissimo synth parts ending the piano solo in “Trilogy” without Palmer’s cymbals, or, later, at the song’s breathtaking 4:52 mark, the unfolding percussion counterpoint. In “Tarkus,” setting aside the occasional 10/8 time signature, the playing styles encompass jazz, rock, military – rescuing otherwise lugubrious keyboard semi-melodies with rhythm parts that sparkle with originality. Palmer gave songs with moderate tempi, such as “A Time and a Place,” the energy of a presto.
Part 2 of “Endless Enigma” would be so much less enigmatic without Palmer’s descending drumhead pitches (at 1:28). His drums are the celestial mechanics for Lake’s naked, C major-like lyric: “. . . The reason why I’m here.”
To have been alive for ELP, even in my night sky, a time of dark and enigmatic Satanic Mills, is one of mine.
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
from Milton by William Blake
An abbreviated version of this review appeared on Patch.