Keith Emerson and Greg Lake did an astonishing number of things wrong Sunday night at the Murat Theatre, from preparation (using pre-recorded drums and settling for an electric piano rather than a grand) to execution (mostly plodding tempos, periodic inability to find or hit the right notes, an obnoxious light show, thudding and muddy bass).
And yet...there was something oddly appealing about their show. Apparently, it's possible to be god-awful and good at the same time.
The first two-thirds of the 1970s prog-rock supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer presented what amounted to a sort-of career retrospective. I say sort of because while they covered tunes they recorded with previous bands (Emerson re-created The Nice's versions of "America" and "Rondo"; Lake sang King Crimson's "I Talk to the Wind"), the bulk of the show stuck to the first three ELP records.
And they played on a set designed to look like a recording studio, the idea being that fans would get an inner look at how their songs originally came together. But then they abandoned that approach and just played.
That kind of inconsistency spread to the performance too. Emerson, as great a keyboard player as rock has ever produced, seemed to periodically forget where he was in the song ("Barbarian" was particularly egregious). Lake's vocals sounded marginally in tune in the beginning, but by the encore, "Lucky Man," his voice was full and rich.
The rare times they maintained a consistent tempo was when the drums were piped in. (Man, they miss Carl Palmer.) Much of the time, they played slightly slower versions of their songs — think of a 33 1/3 album playing at 30 rpms — which sapped the energy from "Bitches Crystal" and several other tracks. The only time that approach worked was on "Take a Pebble", which made it more dramatic.
As bizarre as this may sound — and believe me, it was strange — it also was fun. ELP made its name for unified musical perfection, not its sense of humor, but Emerson and Lake shared stories about chance meetings with Leonard Bernstein and Dave Brubeck, took questions from the audience and generally appeared to be having a good time.
Emerson no longer has his flying piano, but he still plays his old Moog synthesizer and likes to wow the audience by standing in back of his keyboard and playing from behind. Lake seemed to enjoy chatting, especially about a French singer who recorded his song "C'est La Vie."
They were so personable that you could almost forgive them for being this inattentive to details. Almost.