Upon its release, the 1973 LP Brain Salad Surgery had been hailed as Emerson, Lake & Palmer's masterpiece. A long tour ensued that left the trio flushed and begging for time off. Before disbanding for three years, they assembled a three-LP live set (something of a badge of achievement at the time, earned by Yes in 1973 with Yessongs and, somewhat more dubiously, Leon Russell with Leon Live). Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends gives a very accurate representation of ELP's shows at the time, including their uncertain sound quality. It isn't that the group didn't try hard to give a good show; they did, but left to just his two hands, without the use of multi-tracking and overdubs to build layer-upon-layer of electronic keyboard sounds, Keith Emerson was at a singular disadvantage on some of the boldest material in the trio's repertory. And even allowing how far the art and science of recording rock concerts had advanced in the 1970s, there were still inherent problems in recording a fully exposed bass -- Greg Lake's primary instrument -- in an arena setting that couldn't be overcome here. Even the most recent remastered editions could not fix the feedback, the occasionally leakages, the echo, the seeming distance -- the listener often gets the impression of being seated in the upper mezzanine of an arena. That said, the group still had a lot of fire, enthusiasm, and cohesion at this point in its history, and that does come through. And if they don't solve every problem with the sound, the remastered editions from Rhino, Japanese WEA, and Sanctuary do give Lake's voice and Emerson's piano their richest, fullest possible tone and a fighting chance in these surroundings, and bring Carl Palmer's drumming much more up close and personal than it ever was on the LP. On the down side, the division into two CDs (as opposed to three LPs) means that the 26-minute "Take a Pebble"/"Piano Improvisations"/"Take a Pebble" chain -- complete with Lake's excellent acoustic guitar spot for "Still You Turn Me On" and "Lucky Man" -- is broken up between the two discs. The song selection -- if not quite the career-ranging array of repertory that Yessongs was for Yes -- is stellar and features all the material from Brain Salad Surgery (with the exception of "Benny the Bouncer"), including a complete 36-minute rendition of "Karn Evil 9," which filled both sides of the third LP in the original set. The latter is thoroughly bracing, with a level of visceral energy that was lacking in some moments of the original studio version, and is also almost as good a showcase for Lake, whose singing and playing here are better than they were on the studio original, as it is for Emerson and Palmer. Add to that a 27-minute "Tarkus" -- complete with one Pete Sinfield-authored verse from King Crimson's "Epitaph" (which they'd been adding to the piece in concert at least since the Trilogy tour) -- and you now have three quarters of the music. Hearing any of those three pieces (and the stunning "Toccata") performed live, obviously without any overdubs, makes one realize how accomplished these musicians were, and how well they worked together when the going was good. This was the group's last successful and satisfying tour, as subsequent journeys on the road, in association with the Works album, were mired in acrimony about expenses, repertory, ego clashes, and the decision about going out with an orchestra (or not), or were motivated purely by contractual and financial obligations, whereas here they proved that even their most ambitious ideas could work musically, done by just the three of them. The sometimes disappointing sound quality should not be too much of a turnoff for fans, but newcomers should definitely start with the studio albums, and make this the third or fourth ELP album in their collection. And it should be listened to loud.
AllMusic Review by François Couture
Tarkus [i. Eruption, ii. Stones of Years' iii. Iconoclast, iv. Mass, v. Manticore, vi. Battlefield [Including Epitaph], vii. Aquatarkus] [Live 1974]
Piano Improvisations [Including Friedrich Gulda's Fugue and Joe Sullivan's Little Rock Getaway] [Live 1974]