Emerson, Lake & Palmer never have to worry about their reunions tarnishing their legacy. There have been few bands as critically unloved as these monsters of progressive rock, and with their critical reputation cemented by countless appearances on “worst rock band” lists, it is almost impossible to realize just how popular they were at their peak. It seems almost absurd that a synthesizer-based power trio dedicated to side-long suites about mythical creatures mixed with rocked up versions of classical music standards would ever even scrape the charts, let alone hit the top 10. A large part about Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s baffling appeal was their legendary live shows. Although they desired to be musical innovators, bringing the worlds of classical music and rock & roll together, in their hearts they were showmen.
Their dedication to the stage is one of the prime reasons that Live at Montreux 1997 is a cut above the average reunion tour document. Even if they were no longer selling out stadiums, Emerson, Lake & Palmer refused to coast on past achievements like most classic rock dinosaurs. The band was no longer at its musical peak, particularly Greg Lake’s vocals which went from boyish intensity to a gravely murmur, but only the most ardent ELP hater could deny that it fascinating witnessing the band, with all its members on the wrong side of forty, playing with the same vigor as they had in their heyday. This DVD actually explains away some of ELP’s undeniable musical sins. Critics will never forgive them for their constant egotistical soloing and musical showboating. While these tendencies could sabotage their albums, only Brain Salad Surgery holds up as a consistent album, they make for a thrilling spectacle when the band actually performs them live.
For instance, consider Keith Emerson’s solo piano showcase “Dance Creole”. It is a meandering piece, complete with useless flourishes that add nothing to the musical aspect of the performance. But watching Emerson’s fingers slide crazily across the keyboard, a la Chico Marx, provides a huge visual thrill. It may not be much of a song but it’s a killer performance. When Emerson starts to slam the keys with his elbow, Emerson reveals himself not to be the pretentious would-be classical musician he was accused of being, but as a true rock and roller in the Jerry Lee Lewis mode.
Even that most hoary of ’70s clichés, the drum solo, makes a certain amount of sense when the viewer gets to actually experience the live show as an actual show, not just as some phantom noises coming from speakers. Carl Palmer’s drum showcase is not a musical event, instead it is an athletic feat with his drum kit transformed into a demented piece of gym equipment. The fact that Palmer is showing his age only heightens how impressive his marathon drum solo is. The man bangs and pounds everything in sight while still managing to interact with the audience between every drum fill.
Of course, this is a music DVD, and all the showboating in the world would not redeem a terrible live show. Thankfully, Live at Montreux 1997 shows the band, for the most part, at their best. Lake’s vocals falter at key points during the band’s spacier songs, most notably “Karnevil 9 – 1st Impression Part 2” and “Take a Pebble”, but his newfound gruffness adds a touch of hard rock attitude to songs like “Tiger in the Spotlight” and “Bitches Crystal” while adding a touch of true poignancy on his naive ballads, “From the Beginning” and “Lucky Man”. Emerson and Palmer, with the exception of their showcase pieces, keep the band restrained and the songs running a reasonable length, with Emerson eschewing his classical noodlings for much needed touches of blues and jazz. For a band noted for its excesses, they seem remarkably concise.
Of course, old habits die hard, and towards the end of the set Emerson, Lake & Palmer close with a totally regretful epic that reveals all of the band’s weaknesses and none of their strengths. The band makes the decision to combine two of their epics, “Tarkus” and “Pictures at an Exhibition” in a pompous, overlong medley. The fragments never coalesce into a single work, leading to an awful soup of prog rock clichés and meaningless interludes. The most often levied complaint against Emerson, Lake & Palmer, indeed most progressive rock acts, were that they were “boring”. For anyone who is not a hardcore ELP head, “Tarkus/Pictures at an Exhibition” only validates that complaint.
Luckily, the encore nearly makes up for the flaccid finale. The band returns to crush into a medley of classical music favorites, all deconstructed and played with punk-like ferocity. The band transforms “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Carmina Burana” into unrecognizable synth-fuzz anthems, closer to modern electronica and industrial music than anyone on either side would care to admit. By the end, when Keith Emerson plows through Bach’s “Toccato In D Minor” while straddling an ancient Moog synthesizer like he were Jimi Hendrix reborn, the listener has to make a decision: Is this painful silliness or is this genius? The same question, I believe, that was once asked about the Ramones, the anti-ELP in every way, shape, and form. The answer, as always, is, “yes”.