Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Greg Lake - Songs of a Lifetime - A Proper Retrospective, and A Great Look Back

Greg Lake - Songs of a Lifetime is a brilliantly executed document - it's like having the man in your front room for an evening, and who wouldn't love that?

Lake is a troubadour. Sure, he's been in a couple of the most explosively musical rock bands that have graced the planet, but at the end of the day, it's a guy with a guitar playing his songs. Yes, Lake is a minstral of the type that has been touring the world for many centuries, and he's one of the better acts to have done it in the last century.

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Songs of a Lifetime came to be as Greg was writing his autobiography, which will, of course, be entitled, Lucky Man, after the title of his biggest hit. You might not know it, but Lake wrote that legendary tune when he was but twelve. Indeed, he's a blessedly lucky soul, but I get the feeling he's been doing this since he and Bill Shakespeare were comparing notes.

Lake is a very engaging and charming host - is this the same kid who got off his own jet, standing on a Persian rug, and chewing gum in front of 250,000 at Cal Jam in 1974 as he tossed off gems like Lucky Man, and Still... You Turn Me On? It is, and the years have burnished off any rough edges, remarkably so, and this whole night of music is an amazing testament to just how much ground Greg has managed to cover over the decades.

I was curious about the use of backing tracks as opposed to either a live band, or a pure solo performance, and at the end of the day, I find this to be a very cool option. The tracks are appropriate, but done with enough reserve to keep us focused on the matter at hand, the voice the songs, the guitar of Greg Lake - well played.

Right off the bat, we're given a minute of the prog/metal of 21st Century Schizoid Man, the 1969 King Crimson classic. It's a nice way to start, and I only wish there were more of this classic.

Lend Your Love To Me Tonight is from Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's Works Volume I, a record that was unique in its time (1977), as it saw the band basically doing three sides of solo material, and one side featuring the band as a whole. Lake's contribution was largely made up of his true stock in trade, romantic balladry, a trade he plies in such a manner that I can only posit Sir Paul to be his peer in this lofty form. True love songs are very special, and few in this age aside from McCartney and Lake have been able to completely embrace them without scorn, irony, or cynicism. This is a great first acoustic number, with some doubled guitar, a restrained rhythm section, and some nice strings coming along for the ride - you get a fairly little known tune, but a great encapsulation of Lakes huge skills.

Lake is in fine voice - sure it's a step lower than it was in the seventies, but if he was selling himself as a youngster at age 65, I know I'd be cringing instead of the big smile I'm smiling. He's sounds graceful and dignified - as rock should when it matures.

When Lake stops to address the audience for the first time, we get a glimpse of who it is we're hearing, and he's a very charming and likable character. He explains his premise, and the stage is set for the rest of the evening.

From The Beginning is as enthralling as it's ever been, and its aged so well. Actually, when it was newer I thought it sounded almost too young, as if it were not quite possible for someone so young to sing with such wisdom and depth. Hearing it now is like a travelogue of my life - I see scenes from every chapter of my life, and I smile when Lake plays a very tasty guitar solo. It's often overlooked, the fact that while he was known as ELP's bassist/vocalist, he's also a wickedly fine six stringer, and whether it's intriguing acoustic composition, or snarling leads, the man has had some great guitar moments - more than most, certainly.

Elvis enters the building as Lake tells a great tale of seeing The King in Lake Tahoe at a casino in the '70s, and it's a great leads that to an unexpected Heartbreak Hotel, and again he pulls it off.

King Crimson's Epitaph is next, and this is a prog tour de force, we finally get the full effect of Lake's backing material, and the fact that Lake was present at the creation - when he segues into The Court of the Crimson King, I'm physically moved. Goosebumps. What in some hands could be clumsy and inelegant is instead majestic.

Lake then takes a few great minutes to tell the tale of King Crimson, and the moving tale of how the album's legendary cover came to be. Again, and again, I'm taken by Greg's ability to not just entertain, but to make all this grand history very personal for everyone.

I Talk To The Wind is one of Lake's favorites as he humbly states, and it's a song that anyone would be thrilled to have been a part of creating. Gorgeous in melody and prose, if you'd have played this for me in he seventies and told me that this is where it would wind up, I'd have been immensely pleased. I admit that I'm a sentimental sort, but what true lover of music and life isn't? The flutes that intertwine with Lake's slowly picked J-200 is sublime and while there's no piano player, the piano is pristine and lovely. And, yes, that voice....that voice.

The Beatles are next in the telling of the tale, and he speaks of a cool story involving Ringo, and Lake's enduring love of The Fab Four. You've Got To Hide Your Love Away is another winner as the man leads the fans through the choruses.

Touch and Go brought hard rock into the realm of prof when Cozy Powell partnered up with Lake and Palmer in 1986, and it's pomp is as large as its legend, this supposedly being roughly based on the melody of English folk ballad, Lovely Joan. It's as compelling a number as it was then, and I only wish Powell were here to be bashing behind Lake, or anyone for the matter.

Back to the ELP catalogue, it's Trilogy - Lake always had a tremendous skill for composing acoustic guitar pieces that seemingly had no template, and it's put to great use here. I don't know that Greg's ever gotten his due as a songwriter - so much of the legacy has been tied to the band's larger than life antic and epics. At the heart of all the virtuosity lies the troubadour, singing to castles and princesses.

Still... You Turn Me On is a personal favorite, and I can never hear the tune without remembering Lake's performance of the tune at the famed California Jam in 1974 in front of 250,000 fans at the Ontario Motor Speedway, in which ELP's touring sound system was set up almost a half mile from the stage and fed to the audience via a tape delay system to merge with the stage sound. That performance set a standard which has seldom if ever been bettered, as the singer nervously chewed his gum and wove his tale.

Well, this is a more intimate setting, and it's another time and place - Lake's voice is wonderfully dynamic, and if his range isn't what it may have been 40 years ago, he's still one of our finest tenors, and his phrasing and pitch is pretty amazing. His voice is huge and paints in large swatches of beauty.

C'est La Vie comes after the telling of the tune's origin, and it's a tear jerker, as it has always been. I know nothing of his personal life, but Greg Lake is a deep well of emotion when it comes to the man's art. "Is there no song I can play for you, C'est La Vie...." Lake hits notes he has to clearly reach for, but he does it with such command that I could imagine it being sung no differently.

Greg Lake wrote Lucky Man when he was twelve years old. A little kid's song, he calls it, a medieval fantasy - he says he never wrote it down, he just remembered the song. I'll save the rest of the story for you to hear, but it's another great anecdote, and the song is as great as it ever had been. Of course, it's not a silly song written by a child, but a moment of musical prescience that suggests that this might not be Mr. Lake's first lap around the pool. This sounds like the final victory - game, set, match.

People Get Ready, the Curtis Mayfield classic from 1965 is an unexpected pleasure, read straight from the heart to close the show.

The encore is a bit of rock, provided by 1973's Brain Salad Surgery album - Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression, Pt. 2 goes from set opener to closer, almost as if Lake wants to reinforce the point that there is still power to burn in his tank. His vocal is downright fiery, and he's belting from start to finish. I like that he breaks out the bass on this and 21st Century Schizoid Man - it's a nice touch.

Songs of a Lifetime is a great trip through the career of Greg Lake - I'd recommend giving up the preconceived notions of 'greatest hits karaoke,' that I've heard from some - if you watch and listen, you'll love this. It's one of the seminal British rockers playing his life out on a stage for his fans, and could we ask for anymore? I think not.

Songs of a Lifetime - available Feb 25th from Cherry Red Records:

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