The Newberry Opera House got jolted last night, when progressive rock drum legend Carl Palmer came to town with his power trio, ELP Legacy. I got to the Opera House about 45 minutes before showtime, and I checked out the merch table. Because I didn’t want to have to sleep with one eye open for the rest of my life, I managed to resist the urge to buy the $400 autographed snare drum. Instead, I opted for the gig-used drumstick for $20. The urge to own a relic is strong.
As I waited for Justin (the other half of the Berries’ rhythm section) to arrive, I watched the crowd. Most appeared to be in my general demographic, maybe a little older, and there was a large gathering of Homo Sapiens Progdorkicus (which I suppose includes Your Humble Narrator) there as well. I saw at least one eight-year-old boy wearing a Court of the Crimson King T-shirt. That’s OK, kid… prom in ten years would have just been money you could spend on the Gentle Giant catalogue.
A few minutes before showtime, I struck up a conversation with the Opera House’s technical director, who had a lengthy career as a touring tech guy before settling down in Mondoville. “These guys are loud,” he said. “People are going to feel this.” This is not what subscribers to the Opera House’s annual programs usually expect, but I thought it was welcome news. Justin and I wondered how many of the more sedate attendees would make it through the first tune.
We sat in one of the boxes on the orchestra level, with the stage to our right:
The show began on time, a couple of minutes after I sat down, with a ferocious rendition of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” In fact, ferocity was a motif of the entire show — guitarist Paul Bielatowicz filled each solo with two-handed tapping and sweep picking that covered the high melody lines, while Simon Fitzpatrick used a six-string bass and Chapman Stick to maintain a bludgeoning sonic impact. However, each was also capable of playing with delicacy and dynamic control, which they demonstrated during feature spots in the two-hour set. Both of these guys are players to watch.
And Carl Palmer, of course, remains Carl Palmer. I’ve enjoyed his work since I was a kid, probably from the first time I heard “Karn Evil 9 (1st Impression, Part 2)” on an AOR station in Nashville. However, I’d never gotten to see him in such an intimate setting, and his drums were far enough forward in the mix (Hey, it’s his band) that each stroke was distinct. And as usual, Palmer has more chops than a karate class. Every song included high speed 4- and 6-stroke ruffs on the double bass drums, and his left hand speed is — well, terrifying. Even at 65 years old, and even after a recording career that has spanned almost 50 years, he’s playing at speeds that will even make metalheads nod approvingly, and he’s still working in logarithmic time signatures.
The set list included numerous ELP favorites, from the band’s heyday of the early to mid-70s. One medley went from “Mars, Bringer of War” into “The Barbarian”, and the group also did a fine version of the Tarkus suite. Palmer would step out from behind the kit between tunes to introduce the songs, crack jokes, and tell stories about his history — he says a memoir will be coming out next year. He was affable and a little wise-assed, and the crowd (which was about two-thirds capacity) delighted in it. All the songs were instrumental versions, and while at first it was a bit odd to miss Greg Lake’s vocals, the songs are more than satisfactory listening even without them.
But all good things must come to an end, and eventually some sequenced horns led the band into its version of Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” including Palmer’s solo. Here’s a version of it from a recent show, and last night’s version was very like this:
The trio took their bows, but didn’t leave the stage, and resumed their places for an encore of Copland’s “Hoedown,” while a projector displayed photos and clips spanning Palmer’s life and career. Another set of bows later, the band made its way back to the lobby for signings and a meet-and-greet with the audience. The policy was that Carl would sign one old item and one purchase from the merch table. I got him to sign the CD booklet from my copy of Brain Salad Surgery, and although the stick I bought already had his name on it, I found a nice substitute:
I’m the one on the left.