EMERSON, LAKE, & PALMER - Once Upon a Time in South America
4-CD Set, 2015 / Rock Beat
Review written by Marc Tucker - May 16th, 2017
ELP went through a number of phases. Essentially the New Nice, the threesome carried on Keith Emerson’s progressive and neoclassicalist visions much more thunderously, making the trio a byword for progrock, launching the group in the upper reaches of the prog stratosphere. One cannot even mention progressive music without referring to ELP and a couple dozen other bands. Keith was one of the three greatest keyboardists rock ever engendered, the others being Jon Lord and Rick Wakeman, all now sadly passed on. It was a shocking day when Emerson committed suicide, but this epic release, a four disc set of a nearly 25-year old reunion tour is one of the keys to his story. I’ll tackle that first.
ELP peaked with Brain Surgery Salad and then began a slow elegant quasi-neoclassicalist decline with Works, Vols. 1 & 2 (1977), bombing disastrously only a year later with Love Beach (1978), a wretched collection of opuses, followed a full 14 years later (1992) by Black Moon, an attempt to crawl back from the Beach and onto dry land. I know what happened, as do all sensible prog-hedz: the lads had tried to expand into the pop arena, where the real money was. Genesis, after all, was beginning to turn the trick (of the tail) into what would be a huge success, but Keith and the lads should’ve spoken to Gentle Giant, who’d tried and died on the same grounds. From Beach forward, ELP would never again attain to its erstwhile primacy.
What’s rarely mentioned, certainly not in this generous release’s weak liner notes nor anywhere else, is that, after this south-of-the-border tour, Keith was forced to take a year hiatus due to an unidentified form of arthritis similar to “writer’s cramp”. His bio, Pictures of an Exhibitionist, tells of a surgery that finally allowed him to, in 2002, regain full use of his hands, playing to strengths, once more. However, less than a decade later (2010), a colonoscopy revealed a dangerous lower-colon polyp. By the time of his death (2016), it was found he also suffered from a heart condition and depression aggravated by alcoholism.
The muses can be exceedingly kind to artists for a while…but they’re also notoriously fickle bitches, disdainful, vengeful, sociopathic.
That all said, we’re now prepared for the music on this sprawling nearly-5-hour previously unavailable diary of a too-brief three days (April 1, 5, & 16, 1993) in Santiago (Chile) and Buenos Aires, (Argentina). Think of Once Upon a Time as a very well recorded bootleg, something the group and label were refusing to issue for whatever odd reason until now but which you’re now suddenly slaveringly privy to. Think of it in line with Yes’ recent Progeny and King Crimson’s Road to Red and Starless box sets, but much later in time, as, like that trio of gems, it contains many repeated songs, and that’s precisely what we bootleg fanatix tremble for!
The 16:17 melange, “Fanfare for the Common Man / America / Rondo” (disc 4) is a long drink from the Nice’s fountain-of-youth apogee harking back to its incredible Elegy (released in ’71 but recorded in ’69) rendition of “America”, still one of the most riveting cover opuses prog can boast of, a cut I aver John Cage and Karlheinze Stockhausen must have heard and smiled upon (if not, I’m sending ‘em the YouTube extract via a couple of rogue angels I know). This carries into “Karn Evil 9, 1st Impression, Part 2” and then “Hoedown” with a completely different mutation of the Dick Hyman “Minotaur” lift that blew my mind on Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends. The extract continues on “Lucky Man” as well.
Even the songs I’m not nuts about in the studio renditions (WAY too sugary!), that post-’78 period, come across nicely here, more refined, often with somewhat differing arrangement, as evidenced by “Paper Blood” (disc 1) with its flashy jazz-rock organ solos, and, yes, it and its brethren are frequently powerful but not as in days of olde, as with the original Tarkus LP (and the “Tarkus” track recurs 3X through this set). “Black Moon” plods a trifle, but “Close to Home”, a solo piano piece, is, if you want to look at it that way, a continuo on the Nice’s Five Bridges Suite and Pathetique explorations. “Creole Dance”, a solo work with a debt to Ginastera, just about Emerson’s fave composer if not the, continues his virtuosity, showing, though an absence was ominously impending, he still had highly impressive chops. Once again, we’re dancing on the golden bridge from the Nice to ELP’s inauguration. The crowd, by the way, goes NUTS!!
Greg Lake is his usual self, bass and guitar work more than satisfactory though his voice comes close to cracking many times. Was he suffering from a cold? Had his pompous haughtiness caught up with him? Carl Palmer of course has always demonstrated perfection in percussionistics and this gatherum is no exception. That guy is indefatigable and never makes wrong choices.
Now for something a tad different: on the back cover of Edward Macan’s behemoth and definitive volume on ELP, Endless Enigma, you’ll find a quote from my OpEdNews days: “The gargantuan Endless Enigma emerges as the first and last word on ELP while echoing the entire genre as a contextual backdrop; no music aficionado of any stripe should be without it”. That, however, was not the whole quote, which originally read this way:
“Despite the treacley gushing of progrock crtics, who tend exalt anything even vaguely progressive no matter its massive deficits, there are those who write with clearheaded and well-researched vigor, and Edward Macan is one of these rare individuals, so rest assured you’re in good hands. The gargantuan Endless Enigma emerges as the first and last word on ELP while echoing the entire genre as a contextual backdrop; no music aficionado of any stripe should be without it”.
Eddie and Open Court Books decided to delete that first passage because it was feared I’d render offense to other critics. Oh heavens!! Well, good grief, of course! I’m a critic, not a pom-pommette like 99% of my “compeers”. Regardless, I cite the incident to mention that the individual who penned the notes to Once Upon a Time is too frequently way off base, and I advise consumers to ignore it lest their sanity suffer irreparably. Progrock has first and foremost suffered from its critics, not its fans, and there are damned few truly comprehensive, very well-written, and exhaustive treatises in the genre, but, if you dig proglit, after listening to Once Upon a Time in South America, grab that mammoth museum of artifacts. Clear your calendar for a week or two, you’ll need it, and Once Upon will serve as soundtrack, so you’ll never even notice the time passing.