This is one of those live collections that on the surface seems like a can't miss, but upon close inspections it really doesn't hit the mark. ELP were no doubt a fearsome live act in their day, and by all accounts their headlining set at 1974's California Jam festival in front of 350,000 people was the pinnacle of their career. So it's a shame that this 2CD set plays up that performance, yet only includes a brief, and poor sounding snippet from that gig. On top of that the edits are very questionable.
The set opens with the drum solo by Carl Palmer from "Toccata", then fades out. What happened to the rest of the song? We are then treated to Greg Lake's acoustic numbers "Still...You Turn Me On" and "Lucky Man" (who really had an amazing voice back then) and Keith Emerson's "Piano Improvisations", all part of "Take a Pebble Excerpts", although, curiously, only a few brief moments from that song are included. In addition, a fine but edited version of "Karn Evil 9" is included, showcasing Emerson's dazzling keyboard, yet also, we are treated to some unusually sloppy lead guitar work from Lake.
The remainder of Disc One and all of Disc Two are selections from the 1997/1998 Now Tour. While there is some overlap as far as songs included compared to the 1974 show, there are some surprises. "Time and a Place" is given a blistering and symphonic treatment, driven to new levels by Emerson's brilliant and flashy synth and Hammond work. Lake's vocals are also very strong on this piece as well. The bassist pulls out his acoustic guitar for "From the Beginning", and belts out some strong and rich baritone alongside Emerson's synth passages. In fact, Emerson is the real reason to hear this set, as his flashy playing is all over songs like "Tiger in a Spotlight", "Karn Evil 9-First emoression Pt. 2", the amazing "Hoedown", and the symphonic "Fanfare for the Common Man". Another old favorite of many fans, "Knife Edge" is given dark and daring coverage, and the complex "Bitches Crystal" is majestic and sophisticated thanks to Emerson's intricate piano and Lake's rumbling bass lines. The FM hit "Touch and Go" covered here, as is the King Crimson staple "21st Century Schizoid Man" and the wonderful "America", both part of the closing medley.
One would think that the California Jam selections would be the highlight of this set, given that practically the entire booklet's essay centers around that massive and legendary gig, but it's the 1997/1998 material that really shines. Sure, the band are not as hungry and on fire as they were back in the early days, but given that so little of the 1974 set is included here, I'll have to plug the newer stuff and give this collection and overall thumbs up, although somewhere in the middle. For ELP completists this is probably a must have, but those wishing to take a plunge on live material from the band would be advised to start with "Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends ", "Works Live", or "Live at the King Biscuit Flower Hour" first. If they ever can manage to release the whole California Jam set, I'll be on line to check it out.
2. Take a Pebble Excerpts: Still...You Turn Me On/Lucky Man/Piano Improvisations
3. Karn Evil 9: First Impression, Pt. 2/Third Impression
4. Time and a Place
5. Piano Concerto No .1: Third Movement
6. From the Beginning
1. Karn Evil 9: First Impression, Pt. 2
2. Tiger in a Spotlight
4. Touch and Go
5. Knife Edge
6. Bitches Crystal
7. Honky Tonk Train Blues
8. Take a Pebble
9. Lucky Man
10. Fanfare for the Common Man/Blue Rondo a la Turk
11. 21st Century Schizoid Man/America