Live at Nassau Coliseum ’78 (Shout! Factory)
by Phil Freeman
Last year, Emerson, Lake & Palmer released A Time and a Place, a four-CD box compiling concert recordings from throughout their career. Only the first two discs, which covered the 1970s, were of much real interest; the latter two documented 1990s reunion shows and bootlegs of dubious quality. But those first two CDs contained multiple mind-crushing examples of progressive rock at its most blastingly aggro. A 34-minute version of “Karn Evil 9″ recorded at 1974′s California Jam concert! A nearly 18-minute run through “Tarkus”! (Admittedly, that’s almost 40% shorter than the 28-minute version on their 1974 live album Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends, but it’s still pretty damn epic by any normal standard.)
Now, the group and Shout! Factory have released one entire concert from the Time and a Place box, a February 9, 1978 show recorded at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. It’s less immediately aggressive than Welcome Back…, but covers a lot of the same musical ground. Versions of “Hoedown,” “Tarkus,” “Take a Pebble,” and “Lucky Man” appear on both, though in all cases, the 1978 versions are shorter, the better to make room for excerpts from Keith Emerson‘s “Piano Concerto #1″ or “C’est la Vie,” Greg Lake‘s acoustic guitar song from Works, Vol. 1. The first disc of Nassau does close with a near-16-minute version of “Pictures at an Exhibition” which is a showcase for Emerson’s berserk synth work, all squelches and zaps with tribal drum throbs from Carl Palmer and Lake endlessly twanging one bass string.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s studio albums combined late ’60s/early ’70s rock’s belief in aggression as a vital sonic strategy with a desire to import classical compositional methodologies, the better to showcase flashy instrumental technique. They could be subtle—the songs Lake sang accompanied mostly by acoustic guitar and maybe a little bit of atmospheric synth in the background were often quite beautiful—but bombast was their primary mode, and they were great at it. Avoiding the tight, hairpin-turn arrangements of Yes, the frowning austerity of King Crimson or the Gothic horror of Van der Graaf Generator, ELP went for a raucous, gospelized fervor (Emerson was as happy playing barrelhouse piano or pounding arrangements of Aaron Copland tunes as he was interpreting more complex works) that brought audiences to their feet, roaring a visceral appreciation. They were showmen. For every “Piano Concerto” or “The Enemy God Dances with the Black Spirits” on this set, there’s a blast of primitivist rock ‘n’ roll (with a dash of Dizzy Gillespie‘s “Salt Peanuts” tucked in the middle) like “Tiger in a Spotlight” or an Elton John-esque bash-along like “Nutrocker.” This isn’t “An Evening With Emerson, Lake & Palmer,” this is a balls-out rock concert.
Ultimately, this isn’t a replacement for Welcome Back My Friends…, but it is absolutely a worthy companion piece to that album. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, like Grand Funk Railroad or Kiss, were a “people’s band” in the 1970s—it seems bizarre to say that about a group that made so much of its classical allusions (and appropriations), but it’s true. Critics hated them, yet they sold out arenas. And this double disc proves that if you weren’t around then, or weren’t paying attention, you really missed out on something. Something bombastic and occasionally foolish, yes, but also something awesome.