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The music of Emerson, Lake & Palmer lives on with Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy

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Carl Palmer is touring the US with his power-trio "Carl Palmer's ELP Legacy," performing new arrangements of the classic music he created with Keith Emerson and Greg Lake in Emerson, Lake & Palmer in a multimedia show that also incorporates film and fine art. Carl Palmer is touring the US with his power-trio "Carl Palmer's ELP Legacy," performing new arrangements of the classic music he created with Keith Emerson and Greg Lake in Emerson, Lake & Palmer in a multimedia show that also incorporates film and fine art. (photo courtesy of Carl Palmer)

As a founding member of the bands Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Asia, drummer and percussionist Carl Palmer’s irradicable status as a rock icon is indisputable.

Palmer is currently touring the world with guitarist Paul Bielatowicz and bassist Simon Fitzpatrick as Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy – a multimedia stage show that incorporates film and fine art with live reimagined arrangements of classic pieces from the ELP catalog. The trio has undertaken five hugely successful North and South American tours in recent years, including their current US tour.

As you read this, the trio just finished a scheduled three-night stand at Iridium Jazz Club in New York City and are headed for points south and west before wrapping this leg of the tour in Indianapolis. After the holidays, Palmer’s band will embark on a three-month European tour.

With sales exceeding 50 million, ELP has recently seen their entire music catalog remastered, restored and reissued on CD and vinyl by BMG, complete with bonus live material and bonus remixes by Steven Wilson.

When Palmer formed a power trio with drums, bass and guitar back in 2001, he says the idea was to celebrate the classically-driven musical legacy of ELP by performing the band’s music for a new generation. Today, Palmer says his trio – Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy - also celebrates the lives of former band-mates Keith Emerson and Greg Lake – both of whom passed away in 2016.

Carl Palmer checked in with The Maine Edge to discuss the tour, the music he made with Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, and the passing of his friends and band-mates, including John Wetton of progressive-rock supergroup Asia.

The Maine Edge: How does the audience react to the new arrangements of the material they know and love from Emerson, Lake & Palmer?

Carl Palmer: The audience reaction is very strong here. They understand that we’re not trying to duplicate what ELP did. There are no keyboards and we’re not heavy on the singing as it were. We have vocals but not on every track. What we’re doing is bringing the music of ELP to a new generation of fans. When I look into the audience, I see three generations. There are guys my age – the original fans – and I see their sons and grandsons. The tour has been fantastic so far. We always have a blast in America.

TME: Which pieces on this tour have invoked the biggest reaction from the audience?

Palmer: Each time we come back to America, we flip between big pieces like “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which is about 23 minutes long, and “Tarkus,” which is about 17 minutes long. We’re doing “Tarkus” this time and the audiences love it. The show is just under two hours long and features both Paul and Simon at various times. Simon is featured on “From the Beginning,” which was one of ELP’s big radio hits.

TME: Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s music still sells in extraordinary numbers. I’ve always felt that part of the success of ELP is that you were more than just a progressive rock band and your audience knows it.

Palmer: We were always astonished that we were usually referred to in the press as just a ‘prog-rock’ band. We actually thought that was quite limiting because we were quite eclectic in what we played. We may have played classical adaptations in a kind of ‘proggy’ way but we also played a bit of jazz and we had these acoustic sort-of folk songs. We had ballads. We played lots of different types of music but it all worked.

The Maine Edge: When you initially got together with Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, what was the first song you played?

Palmer: That’s actually one of the stories I’ve been telling in this show. On this tour, I tell some stories behind the songs, and the truth is, when we first got together, we weren’t sure what kind of music we were going to play. Keith and I were keen on adapting classical music, which he had done as a member of The Nice and I had done that as a member of my pre-ELP band, Atomic Rooster. It wasn’t an original idea. There was a French jazz artist named Jacques Loussier who was already playing Bach, but when we used the contemporary instruments of the day it was a new approach for the music.

The first thing we played was a track Greg Lake had done with King Crimson called “21st Century Schizoid Man” (from King Crimson’s 1969 debut album “In The Court of the Crimson King.”) I thought it was a very weird track to do at the time. Why would we do that? We were kind of in competition with King Crimson. Greg Lake wanted to play it because he didn’t have to learn it and Keith Emerson and I did (laughs). It was a tricky piece to learn but we had to start playing something. We play our version of it in the show now and the audience loves it.

In America, jam bands were popular even then. English bands weren’t really jammy in their approach. It just wasn’t us. We wanted to learn something at home and then get together to play it. We wanted to be constructive from the get-go and play something rock-solid together.

The Maine Edge: How helpful was American radio for Emerson, Lake & Palmer?

Palmer: When you look at the songs radio still plays – “Lucky Man,” “From The Beginning,” “Still You Turn Me On,” “C’est la Vie,” “Footprints in the Snow,” – those were not prog-rock songs - they’re ballads or folk songs but they opened the door to radio. Radio would play those songs and then dive into the album where the music ran deep. There was a lot of quality there. You needed those commercial songs to get on the radio in those days but once you hit the album, you heard a lot of musicality flying around.

The Maine Edge: In 2017, Asia toured with Journey shortly after the death of your friend and lead singer, John Wetton. (Wetton died of colon cancer on January 31, 2017. It must have been tough to deal with the death of another bandmate just months after losing both Keith and Greg.

Palmer: It was. When the opportunity came along to support Journey, we didn’t know that John was going to die so soon. He knew about the tour and thought he could do it. He wasn’t sure if he could do the whole tour, so we brought in Billy Sherwood as a reserve singer. Billy had made albums with John and it was John’s wish to have Billy come along to play bass while he concentrated on the vocals. We didn’t get that far because John died about four months before the tour began. We questioned our involvement in the tour after John died but Journey wanted us, so we did it and it was a pretty magical tour. From security to the sound to the catering, everything was the very best. Journey has everything going for them. When you go to a Journey concert, it’s frightening how good it really is. It’s interesting when you look back at the early years of Journey. They were really kind of a prog-rock band in those days. I remember them supporting Emerson, Lake & Palmer in the ‘70s.

The Maine Edge: I’m looking at some of your art pieces at www.CarlPalmerArt.com . The images are incredible. How do you create them?

Palmer: I’ve been painting with colored light produced from the end of a drumstick which has an LED light in it. Both sticks can have these lights fitted in them. If you are set up in a dark room, the movement of the colored light in the air allows you to create some very interesting shapes. It’s quite beautiful. When you are filming with digital cameras that have offset shutter speeds you can capture certain reflections and shadows from the materials around me. The gongs that I use are chrome so there’s a lot of rebounding light reflection from there. The drums are stainless steel so there’s a lot of light that will come up under my face at times.

That’s how they construct it in a 12-foot room and one guy with handheld cameras. For example, I would play (Asia’s) “Heat of the Moment” and try and capture the movement of the sticks and the mixture of the colors from the lights. It might take seven or eight hours to do and you may get something or you may not.

I first decided to do one for Keith Emerson called “Welcome Back” which was highly successful. Before I released the canvas, I put it up on the website as a dedication to Keith with a percentage of all paintings sold donated to charity. Before I got around to that, Keith died in March (2016), Greg died that December and John (Wetton) died the very next month. I decided to call the series “My Legends” with one piece dedicated to each of them. “Welcome Back” is for Keith, “Lucky Man” is for Greg and “Heat of the Moment” is for John. More than anything, these pieces have had a healing effect on me. When you lose three people in such rapid succession who were that important in your life as bandmates and as friends, it’s a blow. It isn’t something that you ever thought could happen.

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