Keith Emerson: A Musical Celebration at Birmingham Symphony Hall - live review

The great and the good gather to celebrate Keith Emerson's music

Rick Wakeman plays piano on stage at the Birmingham Symphony Hall
(Image: © Jerry Lofaro)

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There is a considerable buzz in the bar of The Symphony Hall prior to tonight’s concert. Prog hears someone excitedly relaying that they’d heard how some fans had travelled from mainland Europe, the USA and even China. Another voice pipes up, “I used to be Keith’s keyboard tech,” while someone else tells his friend that Lee Jackson, formerly of The Nice, is sitting just a few tables away.

Once inside, with standing ovations from the word go, it’s impossible not to be swept up in a wave of emotion. There is less a sense of build-up than a constant and demonstrative outpouring of love and positive vibes. Comedian and major Emerson Lake & Palmer fan Jim Davidson is both the organiser of the event and this evening’s compère, and his blokey banter helps to keep things somewhat down-to-earth.

The first number is a version of Abaddon’s Bolero with Terje Mikkelsen conducting the 60-piece Keith Emerson Orchestra. Initially it seems to evoke a Disney-style army appearing over the horizon – with a tongue-in-cheek snatch of the old American marching song The Girl I Left Behind – then bass, drums and guitar add to the heft of the sound, building to the intense, slightly menacing finale, with Rick Wakeman on synth.

This vividly arranged, well-drilled reading puts one in mind of Keith Emerson’s early, tentative experiments between rock group and orchestra with The Nice, and ELP’s own difficulty playing the multi-tracked composition live as a three-piece. It’s also a reminder that, on the cusp of the 70s, musicians like Emerson needed to fight to get orchestral players to take it all seriously. Times have changed and to hear it played this way makes perfect sense.

Apart from a reworking of The Nice’s take on America by Noddy’s Puncture, with Lee Jackson on bass and Tom Szakaly suitably flamboyant on Hammond organ, and a blazing, brass-powered version of Fanfare For The Common Man with Keith’s son Aaron Emerson playing synth, the evening concentrates on Emerson’s own compositions rather than his classical adaptations. American multi-instrumentalist Rachel Flowers, who participated in a similar tribute last year in Los Angeles, plays the Fugue piano solo beautifully in between the two orchestrated main song sections of The Endless Enigma. And later, this slight, blind musician, is led back onstage by her mother to perform the third Toccata movement of Emerson’s Piano Concerto Number One. She plays it with sharp articulation and considerable power.

Rick Wakeman comes on to tell us that he and Emerson had planned to make an album together, but the idea had been blocked by their respective managements. He mentions how Emerson had written some beautiful melodies and demonstrates this by playing some piano variations on the balladic first part of Trilogy, weaving in a little of the Tchaikovsky-derived Nutrocker. Thierry Eliez underlines Emerson’s skill as a melodicist – sometimes overlooked in the Sturm und Drang of ELP’s work – by playing a sublime, jazzy, extended solo piano and vocal version of Emerson Lake & Palmer’s loveliest composition, Take A Pebble.

Beyond The Stars is a striking orchestral piece that seems to nod towards Debussy and Ravel in some of the woodwind parts, with a cinematic sweep that also evokes Gershwin. It has a modernist feel derived from some of the same crunchy chords that Emerson would occasionally drop into his keyboard playing. This is the last piece the musician had been working on prior to his suicide in 2016, and it was finished by Mikkelsen. To add further poignancy, it receives one of the best receptions of the night.

Mike Barnes

Mike Barnes is the author of Captain Beefheart - The Biography (Omnibus Press, 2011) and A New Day Yesterday: UK Progressive Rock & the 1970s (2020). He was a regular contributor to Select magazine and his work regularly appears in Prog, Mojo and Wire. He also plays the drums.