There’s a reason this April 6, 1974 concert, held during the sprawling California Jam at the Ontario Motor Speedway, has for so long been a favorite among bootleggers. It stands as one of the best examples of Emerson Lake and Palmer in their prime, melding traditional classical forms, English folk and brawny rock into something that was then entirely new.
Even so, Live in California 1974 — now seeing official release on December 11, 2012 via Shout! Factory — actually builds towards its legendary status, constructing a staggering intensity moment by thrilling moment, step by considered step.
There is, at first, only the gnarled bursts of tandem keyboard and guitar on Ginastera’s “Toccato,” and then the ringing folk romanticism of “Still … You Turn Me On” and “Lucky Man” — the last of which is stripped bare of even Emerson’s original free-form synthesizer ruminations. Next come the layered, classically tinged explorations of “Piano Improvisations” (you’d swear at one point that Emerson is playing with three hands, maybe four) and the calling melancholy of “Take a Pebble.”
“Karn Evil 9, First Impression Part 2” then bursts out, with Lake growling over a thumping groove from Palmer. “You’ve got to see the shooooow,” Lake howls. “It’s rock ‘n’ roll!” And, as his serrated guitar riff opens the door for a thumping cadence, Emerson begins a series of cascading runs. All of the pent-up expectation from the album’s initial quietude is released in a torrent of sound. Palmer’s drum solo must have consumed a week’s worth of calories.
“Karn Evil 9, Third Impression” follows, with its clarion-call beginning from Emerson. Palmer plays with a metronomic menace, while Lake somehow commits even more completely to the lyric. But it’s Emerson’s showcase, never the less. He’s a walking satchel of sounds, from question-mark squiggles, to locomotive chugging, then these slashing jabs, then these billowing runs, then these bulbous blurbs of psychedelia, even some blips that sound something like jazz.
Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at the Exhibition,” a stunningly conveyed 10:30 minute closer, begins with another series of eye-popping declamations from Emerson, but Palmer is game. He answers each and every query with a sizzling intellect. As the song unfolds in all of its episodic glory, its has the feel of a futuristic movie plot — building toward an almost unimaginable climax: There stands, then, Lake — singing like a man surrounded by whipping winds, in full cry: “Wipe away endless years,” he sings, sounding at times simply overwhelmed with emotion, “childhood tears as dry as stone.”
The power and the glory of that moment, once only heard through swiped second-generation transfers from old tapes, is felt anew on this sparkling clear new release. It’s like hearing Emerson Lake and Palmer all over again for the very first time.