Emerson, Lake & Palmer

Works Live

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In 1977, after three years' time off working on various solo projects -- which were to have culminated with a trio of solo albums -- Emerson, Lake & Palmer reunited to release Works, Vol. 1, a double LP containing the best of the solo works plus a side of group-conceived pieces. All in all, it was the most ambitious and wide-ranging body of music they'd ever released, and was followed by the more modestly proportioned but still successful Works, Vol. 2 in November of that year, and a tour that fall and winter; in keeping with the albums that spawned it, the concerts initially featured a 90-piece orchestra supporting the trio. They weren't able to keep the orchestra for more than a handful of shows before the money ran out, and the group spent the rest of the tour working as a trio to pay off what was owed, but they recognized the importance of those performances with the orchestra and saw to it that one of them, at least, was captured properly and professionally -- and unlike Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends, their 1974 live album, which had its share of technical flaws, this time around the recording was state-of-the-art. Ironically, what they captured was almost an embarrassment of riches for their record label at the time -- by 1979, the brand of progressive rock represented by ELP was falling out of favor with critics and the public under the four-way assault of punk, new wave, power pop, and disco, and all Atlantic Records felt comfortable releasing at the time was a paltry single live LP, entitled In Concert. The advent of the CD era and the revival of the trio in the 1990s led to the latter's reissue and expansion into this two-CD set, released in late 1993. Recorded at the Montreal Olympic Stadium (pictured on the cover of both albums), it features the trio performing with a symphony orchestra. Technically, it's a beautiful album, avoiding most of the pitfalls and sonic shortcomings of their earlier concert ventures on record, and the repertory is the widest ranging of their entire history, reaching back to "Knife Edge" (from their first album) and reviving "Abaddon's Bolero," an instrumental from Trilogy, plus a brace of tracks of all proportions from both Works albums, among them Keith Emerson's "Piano Concerto" and his more modestly conceived "Tiger in the Spotlight" and his rendition of Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag," Greg Lake's "C'Est la Vie," "Watching Over You," "Closer to Believing," and his interpretation of "Show Me the Way to Go Home" -- all in versions distinctly superior to their studio renditions -- as well as the reconceived "Tank." Prog rock fans will be delighted by "Pictures at an Exhibition," here shorter, tighter, and obviously more symphonic than the group's 1971 recording. There is a real sense listening to this album, however -- despite some light and disarming moments such as "Tiger in the Spotlight," and good, cohesive playing throughout -- that you're really listening not so much to a band as to three personalities just chomping at the bit to go solo. Lake's featured numbers were, by now, so guitar-focused that they sounded like a separate body of music, which they were. Carl Palmer, who had fully come into his own as a creative musician by this time -- even recording a concerto of his own for percussion and orchestra that would get released 24 years later -- had also achieved a distinct voice, matching that of the other two members. Works Live is a proper and worthy successor to Welcome Back My Friends, capturing the group's last, grand musical gestures before ego conflicts tore them apart, though even in this regard there are flaws -- apparently, they never did get a usable official recording of "Pirates," a centerpiece of Works, Vol. 1, and on Emerson's concerto, represented here only by its last movement, an otherwise beautiful and bracing live performance ends with a lackluster finale. No one will complain of the sound or the scope, however, and the enjoyable and even surprising moments do outnumber the disappointments, even if most of the material is less focused than the repertory represented on their earlier concert releases.

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