It really shouldn’t be this good.
No disrespect to either of the players, but come on. E and L without the P is like... well, P and E without the L was a late eighties muddle that few people would light a candle for; and E and L with a different P really wasn’t much better. But there is something about the most recent prolusion of the truncated tarkus of old that fits so neatly in with the rest of the catalog that... welcome back my friends to the show that never ends. Ladies and gentlemen... Emerson, Lake and no-one.
Live from Manticore Hall, suggestively subtitled “an intimate evening with...,” is Greg Lake and Keith Emerson reunited back in 2010, for a show that hovers in a peculiar midground, somewhere between an unseen episode of VH-1 Storytellers, and the demos for an Unplugged collection. Without the visuals, of course. And, despite the absence of Palmer, with percussion.
It’s the trio’s two prime songwriters tracing back across their shared past, while revisiting material that does not necessarily fall into the same past you’d expect. There’s nothing here from Brain Salad Surgery, so universally regarded as the full unit’s finest hour; but Tarkus delivers both it’s side long title track and the other side’s “Bitches Crystal.”
A full fifty percent of the band’s self-titled debut LP remind us just what a startling set that was at the time, even as Lake’s reprise of King Crimson’s “I Talk to the Wind” sets us remembering from whence that album’s DNA came. The show opens with a number from the oft-forgotten Trilogy; and a couple of songs from Works, Lake’s “C’est La Vie” and the tout ensemble “Pirates,” suggest that no small mammals would be harmed if we all climbed back up the cliff and gave that benighted lemming another listen. At the time,Works felt like a hog-faced-conceit-gone-wrong too far. Now, maybe not.
Lake explains the notions that fired this collaboration during an introductory chat, how he and Emerson were songwriting one day, and relaxing between new songs by looking back at some old ones. And realizing, in the process, that they were essentially stripping their past back to its protoplasmic form, tender (and not so...) little pieces rejoicing in melody and music alone, before the Headless Horsemen of Prog Rock Supreme were unleashed across their hapless carapace.
Some fascinating corners of history are illuminated. “I Talk to the Wind,” from Crimson’s megalithic (and, of course, Emerson-free) debut is a song that Lake inherited from the matchless Judy Dyble, and her own box set scheduled for later this year reveals the traffic going in the opposite direction, as she serves up a delectable version of “C’est la Vie.” Both songs, of course, were lyric-ed by Pete Sinfield, so it’s odd to see Lake alone credited on this album’s track listing. And, in fact, omitting Sinfield from his recollections about the song’s creation. But did you know that Johnny Hallyday had a French number one with his cover of the song? No matter who, or how many, wrote it, as Lake himself points out, that’s a rare feat indeed for an English song in schoolboy French.
It’s also entertaining to hear Emerson recall how Bartok’s “Allegro Barbero” became “Barbarian,” then warn the audience “it’s one of those annoying tunes that you can’t get out of your head. You’ll probably go home tonight and be whistling it all the way.”
It’s not a wholly acoustic experience. Emerson‘s vintage, original, Moog is in full flight where required (the aforementioned “Barbarian” gives it an early work-out) and “Tarkus” could scarcely roll into action without some additional propulsion. The squelchy, squishy pleasures of “Aquatarkus” are not only revisited, they are accompanied by as powerful a percussive backdrop as they could ever have demanded.
Still, Live from Manticore Hall is very much the sound of E and L in full pompless glory, the songs standing nearly naked in a fashion we would never have imagined back when these songs ruled the world and haunted the airwaves. But they work. It works. Welcome back my friends, indeed....