Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy, live at the Park Theatre, Holland, Michigan, September 30, 2017.
by Rick Krueger
What does it feel like to be the last man standing? Other than a few heartfelt but brief words between pieces, Carl Palmer didn’t say much about his late bandmates Keith Emerson and Greg Lake last night. Instead, he let the music do the talking, digging deeper into the unique way he’s presented the work of ELP for the last 15 years, revealing just how audacious this repertoire really is.
Palmer, guitarist Paul Bielatowicz and bass/Stick player Simon Fitzpatrick crammed the stage of this tiny 130-year-old theater, knocking back the 200-strong audience with their opening take on Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown.” All the strong points of ELP’s barnstorming arrangement were note-perfect — the wailing synth glides, the driven organ flourishes, the burbling low-end work, the tongue-in-cheek folk-tune quotes — stylishly reshaped into fretboard fireworks, delightedly sailing over Palmer’s busy, irresistible drive. Given that neoclassical shredmeisters like Yngwie Malmsteen acknowledged their debt to Emerson & Palmer’s virtuosity back in the 1980s, the approach makes an odd kind of sense — defiantly different than expectations, but coming from an intriguing angle that made for some cool surprises.
The biggest surprise was how adaptable so much of the ELP catalog turned out to be. Focusing on music from the debut album, Trilogy and Brain Salad Surgery, along with tributes to Emerson’s work in the Nice and Lake’s contribution to King Crimson, the first set ran a broad gamut of moods. It certainly helped to have players of Bielatowicz & Fitzpatrick’s caliber — for example, as the guitarist took the lyrical piano licks of “Trilogy’s” opening, the bassist “sang” Lake’s vocal lines on his high strings with precision and passion. “Jerusalem” flipped their roles, Bielatowicz grabbing the vocal and organ parts, Fitzpatrick simultaneously laying down bass lines and synthesizer flourishes on his Stick. Each of them also got a chance to shine by themselves: Fitzpatrick duetted with Palmer on a stirring “Take A Pebble;” Bielatowicz closed the first half with a meditative solo version of Debussy’s “Clair de lune.” Palmer matched the mood throughout, always attentive and focused whether banging out intense grooves or making his cymbals sing.
For the second half Palmer & company wheeled out the big guns: the full-length ELP arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, with the trio obviously fired up by the stop and start rhythms of “Promenade” and “The Gnome,” the muted menace of “The Sage” (illustrated by video screen photos of Rasputin?), the rollercoaster moods of “The Old Castle/Blues Variation” (complete with Bill Evans/Jim Hall quotes) & “The Hut/Curse of Baba Yaga,” and the grandeur of “The Great Gate of Kiev.” “Fanfare for the Common Man” followed, climaxed by Palmer’s exploding into his long-awaited epic-length solo.
At 67, the man is still overwhelming on his instrument, a monster technician and an unstoppable force of nature, moving from brain-melting polyrhythms to playful showmanship on his ride cymbal to giving his twin gongs the whacking of their lives. With Neil Peart and Bill Bruford in retirement, I’d argue there is no more amazing and impressive rock drummer onstage today (though Gavin Harrison is right up there). With a speedy, whimsically crazed encore of “Nutrocker,” Palmer and his sidekicks took their bows, promptly retiring to the merch table for greetings, autographs and fist bumps (pre-concert announcement: “Please do not shake Carl’s hand or give him a high five”). All in all, great value for money, an unmissable chance to see a legend from 50 feet away, and an evening of serious fun.
Karn Evil 9, First Impression, Part Two
21st Century Schizoid Man
Take a Pebble (Fitzpatrick/Palmer duet)
Clair de lune (Bielatowicz solo)
Pictures at an Exhibition
Fanfare for the Common Man with drum solo