Sometimes you’re forced to work with what you’ve got. In the case of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Pictures At An Exhibition: Special Edition we’re treated to two magnificent performances of the trio but the original psychedelic-enhanced footage of the main event, sadly, makes this more of a must-have for the most diehard of fans and difficult to bear for anyone else.
The trio performs on Dec. 9, 1970 at the Lyceum Ballroom. They’re young, ambitious and with the creative arrogance to pull off a jazz rock revision of Mussorgsky’s classical piece, “Pictures at an Exhibition.” The small surroundings allow the musicians to happily interact and their musical personalities to come into distinct focus – Emerson as the speedy lover of the classics; Lake as the folk rocker and Palmer as the finely-tuned turbine with a jazz background who thrusts the material forward. Together, it’s as much rock ‘n’ roll as it is a fusion of rock subtly mixed with jazz. Watching them here in their prime makes this DVD a revelation of the members’ abilities and their pursuit of expanding sound and songcraft. Emerson looks like a mad scientist as he twists knobs, adjusts frequencies and allows his lightning-fast ten digits to fly around the array of keyboards. Lake shows that his angelic baritone equals what’s heard in the studio, and his bass playing becomes much more noticeable and integral to the overall musical picture. Palmer’s mischievous grin early on gives a strong indication of the playful quality from his contributions. That element is highlighted during the three joking around during a version of “Take a Pebble” that’s part of the Bonus Features. You can also hear hints of future tracks — 1971’s “Tarkus” during the “Pictures” section as well as “Tiger in a Spotlight” during a “Blues Jam” in the bonus tracks.
It begins well with a recurring musical theme, “Promenade,” sliding into “The Gnome” followed by “The Sage,” but unfortunately with “The Old Castle” segment the director relied on the “bright idea” of obscuring the musicians by going supra-psychedelic with the imagery. It rarely stops for nearly 20 minutes! The effects even show up during the band’s take on “Rondo” from Emerson’s previous outfit, the Nice. Did some classical purist hate them and want to sabotage the proceedings? With Emerson’s flashy clothes and approach to playing, Palmer’s whirlwind style and Lake’s more sedate but mesmerizing presence, it was totally unnecessary. During the bonus features of a 1971 Pop Shop performance from Belgian TV, another attempt is made to spruce up the onstage action, ala some artsy film clips inserted among the concert action. There’s much less happening here, making it far from annoying. If you can deal with the unnecessary post-production work, there’s enough here from these onetime brothers in arms to satisfy. A dose of aspirin for headache-inducing visuals not included in the packaging.