On This Day (August 15)…Emerson, Lake & Powell Take the Stage

3,500 people and I gave it a 4 out of 10.

Cozy Powell from his tour diary.

Emerson, Lake & Powell performed on this day in 1986 at the County Coliseum in El Paso, Texas.

Promotional image of Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and Cozy Powell. Retrieved from here.

Leadup

Emerson and Lake:

Since last appearing onstage together in 1978, Keith Emerson and Greg Lake had walked very different musical paths. Lake had remained a rock ‘n roll performer, teaming up with Gary Moore for two studio albums and some time on the road. He had then guested briefly with other progressive rock refugees Asia; this saw him reuniting with Carl Palmer for the first time since the group went on hiatus.

Keith Emerson, meanwhile, turned his attention to the movie industry, providing soundtracks for movies like Inferno and Nighthawks. From what I can gather, this would have been the first strict rock work he would have done since Emerson, Lake & Palmer folded. Barring a single one-off concert in 1983, August 15 is his triumphant return to the concert stage.

Thus, the two approached a new collaboration together with slightly different perspectives and greater experience than they had had in the past. According to Lake at the time, they also did so because they were in need of some money. Originally, this meant they would be completing a single album. Once they got their third member on board, however, things changed a bit.

Powell: The New Ingredient

When Emerson and Lake had resumed communications and decided to create another album in 1985, they had been unable to get Carl Palmer to join in due to his commitments to Asia. While they had originally planned to simply take on some talented session drummer for the album, instead they got hard rock fixture Cozy Powell. Powell was then best known for his long stint in Rainbow, had recently parted ways with the band Whitesnake, and would go on to be part of the original heavy metal band Black Sabbath.

However, anyone familiar with Powell would know that he was naturally a much better fit for ELP than one would think just reading those names. Cozy Powell’s Hammer, an early band of his, covered a song by Dave Brubeck, “Le Souk”. This immediately starts him on a good foot with Emerson, who himself famously reworked one of Brubeck’s songs, “Blue Rondo”. Meanwhile, one of his signature moves was ending his solos playing along to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, a piece he had also reworked on a solo album. He thus would at least be capable of keeping up with a pair of progressive rock artists whose influences included both jazz and the classical canon.

From a personnel standpoint, too, there was no one better than Powell for this group. Carl Palmer has spoken repeatedly over the years about the difficulty of working with Emerson and Lake, as well as the importance of having a mediator when the two’s working relationship became strained. In his previous bands, Powell had worked with some of the most famously difficult people in the business; this included a five-year tenure in Rainbow alongside one of the most famous divas in rock business, Ritchie Blackmore. Mediator or not, this experience would doubtless have left Powell very capable of handling any offstage drama.

Concert

Together, these three apparently had so much fun together that they decided to reform ELP properly, albeit this time as “Emerson, Lake & Powell” instead of using their original name, and go on tour. This was the first concert on their sole tour. As with every opening concert, this El Paso date saw the band setting the pattern which the rest of the tour would follow.

Ticket for the show. Retrieved from here.

Onstage, the group performed a mixture of their original work and ELP’s old hits. On this first night, new songs included “The Score”, “Mars”, and “Touch and Go”. They also apparently played “Step Aside”, though I do not have the recording on which that is included, and it was not included on the setlist I found. Just to make sure everyone knew who they were when they opened with “The Score”, however, the band played the fanfare portion of “Fanfare For the Common Man”! They would perform the rest of the song near the end of the concert.

The numbers from ELP’s canon touched on multiple albums, including the debut, Tarkus, Pictures at an Exhibition, Brain Salad Surgery, and Works, Volume 1. By the end of the tour, the band played at least one song from every ELP album except Love Beach.

Keith Emerson augmented the setlist further with two solo pieces. The first, “Dream Runner”, came from his soundtrack work. The second saw him returning to previous influence Alberto Ginastera. Emerson famously based the diabolical “Toccata” from Brain Salad Surgery on a piece by Ginastera, for which he went to the composer directly for permission. Sadly, Ginastera had passed away by the time Emerson returned to his work. Emerson’s newest piece, “Creole Dance”, was based on the Coda of Ginastera’s Suite de Danzas Criollas for Piano, Op.15. He would carry this piece with him when he returned to ELP.

To my knowledge, this concert also saw the first time “America” was attempted onstage by ELP or one of their major spinoff bands. It was included in a concert-ending medley begun by “Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression, Part 2” and ending with “Rondo”.

Cozy Powell’s drum solos appeared in the middle of “Mars”. He omitted his usual gimmick of playing along to the 1812 Overture in favor of playing on an electric drum set. Many of the odd sound effects from the set resultantly sounded like a space war, a fitting thematic extension of “Mars”.

One last innovation came from Keith Emerson. For this concert, he stepped up to the microphone, not as an MC as he’d been in past or to provide a spoken-word portion of a song, but to sing a single voice of “Lucky Man” with vocoder. He had not sung onstage for the duration of ELP, but would do so for the remainder of the tour.

While the concert was overall good, the problems already began. One was with the supporting act. Yngwie Malmsteen had apparently been booked as the supporting act for the duration of this tour. However, at this concert, he refused to play. He was thus quickly removed from the tour, and they went on without a support act.

The other consistent problem on this tour, attendance, seems to have been present too. Powell noted in his tour diary that about 3,500 people showed up. However, the venue seated about 7,000. Consistent issues with filling stadiums resulted in the tour coming off as a financial failure despite the high quality in music and the positive memories of fans to this day.

This concert is known to have been recorded with multiple sources, and is in circulation online.

Emerson, Lake & Powell – Powell First Concert (2Pro-CDR) Blue Cafe ...
Front cover of a bootleg. Retrieved from a vending site.

I talk more about the venue at which they performed, the El Paso County Coliseum, here.

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