DVD Review: Emerson, Lake & Palmer "Pictures at an Exhibition" (Special Edition)

DVD Review: Emerson, Lake & Palmer "Pictures at an Exhibition" (Special Edition) 
Eagle Vision
All Access Review:  B+

Leaving themselves wide open for a hailstorm of criticism from all corners of the music world, the absurdly ambitious Emerson, Lake & Palmer resurrected, in 1970, Mussorgsky’s tour de force “Pictures at an Exhibition” in a live setting for the great unwashed – i.e., the brutish masses that had turned on to rock and roll and had long ago turned off classical music – at London’s Lyceum.

Eager to bridge the ever-widening gulf that separated these two warring factions and somehow negotiate a truce, or even initiate a greater understanding of each other’s points of view, ELP, only together for almost a year by the grand unveiling of this extraordinary undertaking, went for the jugular in this triumphant showcase of their musical virtuosity and uninhibited, almost Barnum & Bailey-like showmanship. If the Stones had their “Rock and Roll Circus,” this was ELP’s Cirque du Soleil, and this colorful, vintage concert DVD of that show captures the band in full, majestic splendor.

With an armada of keyboards at his disposal, Keith Emerson, in particular, plays to the crowd, heaving an organ to and fro to coax strange, tortured sounds from its mechanized soul. His fingers flying across the keys, Emerson makes you wonder if Robert Johnson wasn’t the only musician’s soul the devil has in his back pocket. But his playing is dazzling, frantic and fluid, as is Carl Palmer’s intricate, preternatural feel as a drummer and Greg Lake’s transformation from a gentle, expressive acoustic folkie to galloping, swinging bassist. And the cameras, with a variety of well-framed close-ups and revealing shots from odd angles, display, in fantastic detail, what adventurous, supremely confident and playful players all three are, especially on “Blues Variation” and the fiery opening twin salvo of “Promenade” and “The Gnome.” There is a kind of chemistry between them that cannot be understood by any kind of science, but it’s palpable and it blazes with energy as they leave the closer “The Great Gates of Kiev” in wondrous ruins.

Mussorgsky is said to have composed “Pictures at an Exhibition” to re-create, musically, a stroll through an art museum. There is nothing in ELP’s version that would suggest an easy, carefree walk while studying lines, use of color and all those other elements that make great art. Lively, grandiose and vibrant, ELP’s take is gutsy, at times dangerous and funny, and not at all respectful, which is what you want from an art-rock combo that always walked a tightrope without a net.

Closing the Lyceum performance with ELP classics “Take A Pebble,” “Knife Edge” and “Rondo,” the trio draw a lineage from their classical influences and in their capable hands, “Pictures at an Exhibition” was a rousing critical success, just as their 1972 live “Pictures at an Exhibition” LP actually won the day commercially as well. This DVD is an essential document of how the classical rockers and their sometimes dark and scary art-rock proclivities, as self-indulgent as they were, absolutely destroyed anything that smacked of convention.

Watch the bonus 1971 Pop Shop performance also included on this DVD, even with its inane, throwaway interview footage, to see how ELP was just as wild and unpredictable with its own material, Emerson’s multiple stabbings of that old organ of his with a set of knives being just one of the sensational, over-the-top moments that made you either giggle or gasp. Either way, ELP never, as this incredible concert film shows, played it safe, and for that, they should always be lionized.

-         - Peter Lindblad

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