Classic Rock

In Memoriam – Keith Emerson

“From the beginning” it seemed as though “The Three Fates” predestined Keith Emerson to be an “iconoclast”. “The hand of truth” deemed that Mr. Emerson would become a veritable “tiger in a spotlight”. He approached the keyboards like Jimi Hendrix played the guitar: tilting and contorting the instrument and performing “the miracle” of melding feedback into a melody. Other keyboardists had to “step aside” after he entered the music scene. Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s sheet music became like “paper blood”. While I never possessed the skill to play Mr. Emerson’s compositions, I’m a “lucky man” for having had the opportunity to listen to them. I have immense admiration for the composer.

Keith Emerson passed away at the age of 71 this past March 10th. I send my deepest condolences to his friends and family during this difficult time. I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing him personally. As with any artist I feel like I got to know him a bit through his work.

I first encountered his music in the early 1980’s. Synthesizer driven ditties were ubiquitous staples of pop radio. Based on what I heard over the airwaves I figured the instrument rather facile to master. As I matured musically and began exploring Progressive Rock, Mr. Emerson proved me wrong. He approached the instrument as a substitute for an entire orchestra on covers of “Fanfare for the Common Man“, “Mars, The Bringer of War” and “The Barbarian”. In fact, I first heard a rock group play with an orchestra on ELP’s 1979 release In Concert. The Third Movement from Mr. Emerson’s “Piano Concerto Number 1” inspired me to learn more about Classical Music.

Not that Mr. Emerson’s capabilities were limited to that one genre. Had he so chosen, he would’ve made an outstanding Jazz Pianist. His playing on tunes such as “Step Aside” and “Show Me the Way to Go Home” exhibited his range with the instrument. One should also include his proficiency with ragtime playing, as well. He delivered a fine rendition of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” on ELP Works Volume Two. With the aid of a synthesizer he even covered Blues legend Freddie King’s “Hideaway”; a tune Eric Clapton also recorded.

In addition, the man had a fantastic ear for pop music. I can still recall the days in 1986 when Emerson, Lake and Powell’s “Touch and Go” received continuous play on MTV as well as the radio. His playing on “Karn Evil 9 First Impression, Part Two” served as a unique melding of classical and pop music. Of course, his addition of the modest synthesizer solo at the end of “Lucky Man” gave that track a unique character.

While not known as a balladeer, Mr. Emerson wrote the music for some of my favorites. “Farewell to Arms” from 1992’s Black Moon earned a special place in the band’s catalogue for its message. 1986’s “Lay Down Your Guns” featured the most intricate musical arrangement I’ve ever heard on a song about a troubled romance.

Musicians such as Mr. Emerson convinced me that the keyboards were too challenging for someone of my limited abilities. After trying to learn the instrument for years, to the relief of friends, family and neighbors, I gave up in favor of the bass guitar. The man even intimidated me at that! The bass line he played on his Moog during the “Battlefield” section of “Tarkus” on the live 1974 album would’ve given Bach a run for his money. The fact he managed to do this with one hand while playing the chord progression on an organ with the other made this achievement even more remarkable.

In addition to these outstanding attributes of Mr. Emerson’s abilities, he truly excelled as an arranger. The way he coordinated all the parts to “Pirates” made that song one of the best ever recorded. I liked how the orchestra, the band and the melody all worked together in such a way that didn’t clutter the mix. While a great accomplishment, he reached his true apex on 1994’s In the Hot Seat. On that album he directed an arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “The Man in the Long Black Coat”. (Yes, you read that correctly. Even ELP covered Bob Dylan’s music.) While ELP played numerous classical pieces, I always felt this one their best non-original recording.

I did have one issue with Mr. Emerson. On the cover of 1979’s Love Beach he showed off his washboard abs. The man was a classically trained rock musician who spent a lot of time on the road. The fact he managed to keep himself in that kind of shape took away any excuse I had for letting myself go when I worked as a performing musician.

The next time I hear Greg Lake utter the iconic line, “welcome back my friends to the show that never ends” I’ll feel a tinge of sadness. Perhaps Mr. Lake said it best in the lyrics he wrote appropriately enough for “The End” section of “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

There’s no end to my life

No beginning to my death

Death is life.

C’est la vie.

Whitesnake – The Purple Album

I tell fellow Deep Purple fans that some of these renditions of the band’s songs on this album “mistreated” the originals. You “might just take your life” after hearing some of them. The Purple Album features this week’s line-up of the band Whitesnake performing songs from the three albums their lead singer, David Coverdale, recorded as Deep Purple‘s lead vocalist. This seemed like a really good idea at its inception.

My first issue concerned the song selection. Deep Purple is primarily known for the guitar driven classic rock staple “Smoke on the Water”. The band went through, and continues to evolve through, various musical phases. During the Coverdale era, Deep Purple transitioned their music into a funky, soulful direction while still retaining their hard rock edge. The musicians on The Purple Album nailed the hard rock part, but lacked soul. The solution? Play everything much, much louder. The mastering on this recording is unbelievable. Even when I listen to it on my Kindle I need earplugs.

With personnel such as guitarists Reb Beach and Joel Hoekstra along with drummer Tommy Aldridge, I thought heavier Purple tracks such as “Speed King” and “Child in Time” would’ve accommodated their strengths better. Coverdale limited the song selection to tracks from Burn, Stormbringer and Come Taste the Band. When he played with Deep Purple in the 1970s, earlier tunes such as “Smoke on the Water”, “Highway Star” and “Space Truckin’” were part of their set lists. Why not include them in the “tribute”?

David Coverdale undoubtedly deserves to be ranked among rock’s greatest vocalists. The version of “Mistreated” from Deep Purple’s Made in Europe sounded like an anthem. He deserves to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for that recording alone. It bothered me to hear him struggling through it on this album. I’m not attacking his talent. The man’s been singing and touring for the last 40 years. That wears on one’s voice. It’s just a shame to listen to someone so talented having trouble hitting notes he nailed with ease in his heyday.

My biggest issue with the album concerned the personnel. How, and I mean how, can a group possibly do a tribute to Deep Purple without a keyboard player in the band? (Derek Hilland added keys on this CD, but he wasn’t formally a member of the group.) While no musician can mimic Jon Lord, adding a second guitar player didn’t serve as a comparable substitute. I’m sorry, but Lord’s organ on “Stormbringer” made that song heavier than a dozen guitarists could have.

I did like some of the new arrangements. Bassist Michael Devin added a harmonica intro to the beginning of “You Fool No One.” The group also included a bluesy slide guitar to the opening of “Might Just Take Your Life”. That harkened back to the R & B days of Whitesnake with guitarists Bernie Marsden and Micky Moody. I wish Coverdale made this kind of music a bigger part of the modern Whitesnake’s repertoire.

I felt torn when I heard “Sail Away”. Coverdale scrapped the funky guitar riff. (For those who haven’t heard the original: think “Play That Funky Music White Boy” pushed into overdrive.) He transformed it into a slow acoustic ballad. The new version is much different, but it’s as strong as the original. It goes to show you: a great song is a great song no matter how it’s played.

When David Coverdale fronted Deep Purple, Glenn Hughes sang back-up vocals. With the greatest of respect to the Righteous Brothers, those guys sang the best rock duets ever recorded. It made me glad to hear Hughes join Coverdale on this album. He still has an outstanding voice, albeit without the high notes anymore. I liked hearing the two of them sing “Burn” together again.

Deep Purple and Whitesnake are two of the best bands in rock history. In the latter’s early days, three of the members of the former played in it. Some fantastic music resulted. I had similar hopes for this album. Deep Purple is still together. Maybe they’ll do a tribute album to Whitesnake with better results. For now, I’ll listen to my Coverdale era Deep Purple albums.

Purple Encomium

My “woman from Tokyo”, a “gypsy” named “Anya” looked at me with a “demon’s eye.” She’s a “strange kind of woman”. “You fool no one,” she said. “Don’t hold your breath.” I’d told her that, although I’m not a “fortune teller”, someday Deep Purple will wind up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The place may seem like a “castle full of rascals” for their “wicked ways” in keeping them out so long, but “lady luck” finally came through. No one on the admissions committee had been a “speed king” about it. They thought we fans had “time to kill”, but “halleluiah!” The group will be inducted in 2016.

Some may think I’ve got a “bad attitude” and should “hush”. It’s unfair to criticize the hall for their “wicked ways”. Sorry, but this affront won’t be “soon forgotten.” “Sometimes I feel like screaming” about it. But then again, no longer can I say “the battle rages on.” Deep Purple will no longer be “mistreated” by the hall. For some the “truth hurts”, but they’re in.

The guys weren’t “lazy”. They worked their “fingers to the bone” to get enshrined in Cleveland. This is something every rock group “burn”s to do.

I can’t stand people who try to cleverly insert names of bands’ songs when they write about them. Just about anyone who does that is an “almost human” “ramshackle man” who’s a “nasty piece of work”. Just this one time, I can’t resist. I’m thinking the guys may decide to “abandon” “Don’t Make Me Happy” from the set-list when they jam at the ceremony.

Congrats go out to all members of Deep Purple past and present. I hope this achievement doesn’t mean they’ll “sail away” into retirement “this time around.”

“Talk about love,” I’ve been a huge Deep Purple fan for years. I am in “Seventh Heaven” and “any fule kno that.” I’m heading out to the pool with my copy of Deepest Purple. I’m going to grab a cigar, hop on my raft and have a “smoke on the water.”


Music Review – Jimmy Page and the Black Crowes: Live at the Greek

Listening to Chris Robinson attempt to croon “In My Time of Dying” made me wish it was my time of dying. His effort to sing the “Woke Up This Morning” made me wish I hadn’t woke up this morning. This album was but should never have been. As one can guess, I won’t share a “Whole Lotta Love” in this review.

The concept struck me as ill-advised. I’ve never heard of a lead guitarist touring with a separate band and 99% of the set list being songs from his previous band. When this album came out in 1999, the Black Crowes had a pretty extensive musical catalog. While talented, they were no Led Zeppelin. Why then play primarily Zeppelin tunes? I don’t get this one.

And what was going on with Jimmy Page? In the late 1960’s, he took over the Yardbirds after joining. Thirty years later he felt the need to take over yet another band. In addition, he got the top billing. I’m sorry. If Eric Clapton felt comfortable with The Delaney and Bonnie on Tour with Eric Clapton title just two years after leaving Cream, Jimmy should’ve had the same sentiment 19 years after Zeppelin’s split.

At times I think Chris Robinson deserved credit for taking on Robert Plant’s songs. Then I listen to the result of his doing so. These cuts seem totally unsuited for his vocal style. He sounded like he strained to hit the high notes on every song. Even on the more tenor-based Yardbirds track “Shapes of Things to Come” he struggled to maintain the melody. Keith Relf sang the original on that one. To put it as politely as I can, Relf was no Robert Plant.

Some of the arrangements were painful to listen to. “Hey, Hey What Can I Do?” and “You’re Time is Gonna Come” are acoustic classics. Why plug in and crank them up? At least they did keep a mandolin in the former. The later just sounded silly. How silly? Think Metallica pounding out “Can’t Find My Way Home” or Megadeth breaking into “Dust in the Wind”. Still, they played them better than “The Lemon Song”.

I did like the band’s rendition of Peter Green’s “Oh, Well”. It reminded me of the rave-up style of early Yardbirds tracks, such as “Smokestack Lightning”. I’ve never heard the original version of that song, though. Judging from the rest of this review that could be the reason I enjoyed it.

I’d suggest Led Zeppelin fans pass on this one. Go back and listen to the originals of these songs. For Black Crowes fans, delete this one from your catalog. Even Jimmy Page’s presence can’t improve a bad concept. What a “Heartbreaker”.