The Nice

Live at the BBC

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This is a CD full of caveats, pro and con -- and yes, ideally, CDs should be full of music rather than cautions, but time and age being what they are, the latter can't always be avoided. There are those who will treasure everything by their favorite bands, and, in truth, a completist would probably have the easiest time forking out the money for this album, given some of its flaws. To be fair, however, there are some rarities on it, like the group's rendition of Charles Lloyd's "Sombrero Sam," which includes the group's original drummer, Ian Hague, in the lineup and Keith Emerson making like Jimmy Smith, weaving in and out of Maurice Jarre's Lawrence of Arabia theme (itself cribbed by Jarre from Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 6) while guitarist Davy O'List makes some bluesy excursions that ought to have been captured in a formal recording session -- but a version of this is also available on Swedish Radio Sessions, though not on any real album. There are also such never officially recorded gems as "Aries," "Blues for the Prairies," and a version of Zappa's "Lumpy Gravy" and the Byrds' "Get to You," all of which offer some wonderful psychedelic moods. And listeners also get one of Keith Emerson's live battles with Leonard Bernstein's "America" on which he's very clearly pounding the hell out of his organ, and which also includes a spoken (or, more correctly, shouted) superscription. There's a bit of repetition to some of the material, as these performances were spread out across months, but the performances (and the quality) vary sufficiently to justify most of the duplications, though not the August 29, 1968, performance of "Little Arabella," which is apparently the official studio recording. The later tracks do, indeed, show a significant improvement in fidelity. And therein lies the problem with this CD, not with the material or the playing, but with the sound.

As the label notes, these tracks were not made from the original master tapes -- which means the quality is far from pristine. There apparently has also been some restoration work done on the sources, which still hasn't prevented a lot of this, especially the 1967 and early-1968 sessions, from sounding like it's coming off a cheap transistor radio picking up a very distant signal (that fades in and out a bit as well). When you can hear it -- which is a little more than half the time on the early stuff -- the music is wonderful, and the tracks from the four-man lineup with guitarist Davy O'List are superb, especially "Rondo" (which one also wishes ran longer). And "Aries," an otherwise lost track, is a fine piece of very theatrical psychedelia that points the way out of sonic freakouts and toward the more ambitious sides of progressive rock, and it is perhaps no accident that it leads directly into a killer performance of "Ars Longa Vita Brevis," featuring O'List holding his own against the ever more rampant Emerson. Ultimately, virtues such as those do outweigh the faults, at least for those who care mostly about the music. It's also worth noting that these aren't the complete BBC sessions from the Nice -- they played two more in 1969 and 1970 that don't appear here. All of that said, it's true that you can't have everything, but at the very least a consumer should be able to expect a disc that's been through some cleanup software -- as this apparently has, to little avail on the oldest material -- so that it doesn't sound like a third-generation bootleg. Wonderful music, but sometimes hard to hear.

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