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The Nice - The Nice Live at Fillmore East CD (album) cover

THE NICE LIVE AT FILLMORE EAST

The Nice

Symphonic Prog


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ExittheLemming
PROG REVIEWER
4 stars Bladder Control in North London

According to Mrs L, the last time I was this excited was prior to my first and only visit to Highbury to see Arsenal play against West Ham circa 1988. By way of contrast to waiting for this lost prog gem to finally land in my hot furry lap however, I didn't on this occasion wet the bed. Much to my delight and surprise, (apart from the dry mattress) none of the performances contained herein are duplicated on any other previous releases, which confirms the world's leading Nice expert Martyn Hanson's claim that they were recorded at an earlier concert than the one excerpts appeared from on both the Nice and Elegy

The trio are captured in (mostly) pristine detail at the peak of their powers on a set-list that finally does justice to the breadth of stylistic bases this incredibly versatile band could negotiate without ever reaching for the RETURN key.

Practically the entire Ars Longa Vita Brevis suite is included, which I have never heard in the live environment before, plus Little Arabella, a 'band only' version of Five Bridges and holy guacamole !, even the rollicking blues of War and Peace from the début is dusted down for that final push over the top of the trenches.

It is frustrating that Davison and Jackson hardly merit a breath as one of the great rhythm sections in prog, but even a casual listen to this or the magnificent Refugee album with Patrick Moraz provides ample evidence that they could more than cut it when unharnessed from the Emerson bandwagon. Blinky's avowed inspiration came from jazz and his playing betrays that lineage even on straight eighth note rawk patterns as he brings a subtle but still perceptible swing to such habitually rigid fare. Brian played with an interactive feel and intuition for the nuances of musical dynamics that for all his technical spin doctoring pyrotechnics, Carl Palmer could never muster.

Lee Jackson's abilities are somewhat more modest in scope, but even within his fairly narrow orbit, his personality, humility and cackling bonhomie shine like a beacon. He's one of the very few singers whose inaccuracies of pitch are just so damn loveable. You hire Lee for your band and no-one is ever gonna disappear up their exit holes on the solos. (The citizens of Newcastle deliver their nest eggs hard boiled but sunny side up)

Keith would have been just 25 years old when this gig was recorded and we are witness to a musician very firmly in that elusive 'zone' as described by the greatest athletes in their respective fields. In terms of designing a template that could be subsequently overlaid onto all 'Prog' as a measure of its credentials thereafter, you have the first proof read draft in your hands readers. Every performance of a Nice number was a completely unique critter and so finely honed were Keith's improvising skills at this point, I suspect he had very little firm idea what he would play on the solo sections on any given date. (So if you think you've heard all these tracks before, think again)

Rondo, Intermezzo from Karelia Suite, America and War and Peace are all quite faithful to existing versions already available, so I'll dispense with describing same (but do pay heed to my caveat that Keith's solos on the foregoing certainly make them new and worthy additions to any Nice fan's collection)

Little Arabella - This withering put-down of yer archetypal 60's flower child is delivered with a finger snapping jazz wink that conjures up a paler Jimmy Smith vamping beneath Jackson's mordant teasing. Keith always had stubborn fantasies of being a vocalist and he sings the bridge section here decently enough but like I mentioned before, just getting the notes right emotes precisely squat in my neck of the woods. The central improvised section is much harder edged than the studio version and what was playful pastiche gradually mutates into urgent jazz fuelled rock as Emerson racks the intensity higher and higher on a sulphurous extemporisation.

She Belongs to Me - This is a good example of one of the soloing techniques Emerson has exploited to enduring effect over the years. In an interview from the early 80's he described a ploy of attempting to get from one famous musical quotation to the next as a guiding route for his improvisations (and the more unrelated the landmarks were, the better) In this case he treads an unlikely musical pathway from The Big Country via some Bach and finally what can only be described as spy music written by Bartok after some suspicious mushrooms appeared in the latter's goulash. Who needs synths when you have electrifying spring reverb explosions or can pluck the innards of the organ to recreate the timbre of baritone Brontosaurus dyspepsia that dominates the ghostly atonal ambient section?. Apart from the sung portions of this Dylan song the remainder was entirely improvised every night and vouches for Emerson's faith in the abilities of his colleagues to guess correctly where on earth (or beyond) the number would end up.

Country Pie - I ain't knocking Dylan here but as on She Belongs to Me, this is what 'progressive' really means (notwithstanding the latter's textual complexity) i.e. a rather gauche folk nursery rhyme is melded seamlessly to one of Bach's Brandenburgers over a visceral and elastic rock groove with the result being a 'Prog on a Bun Triple Whopper' without a trace of excess fat or cheese to be seen anywhere.

Five Bridges - Shorn of the introductory orchestral Fantasia the opening Piano sounds like it was played from the dressing room under a sheet of tarpaulin so muddy and boggy are its strains. These audible piano artefacts suggest there was a 'Houston , we have a problem' scenario in their FOH midst, hence it's exclusion from most of this album. Chorale is one of the most beautiful pieces Keith ever penned and like much of this band's output illustrates a grudging respect for the past wedded to a daring irreverence for dragging the former by the 'ruff' of its neck into alien contemporary apparel. Keith plays the high level fugue a la Jacques Loussier but much of the fiendishly demanding counterpoint requiring of complete independence between hands is gobbled up by the aforementioned voracious ivory gremlins alas. The rousing finale does not have the delightful jazzy brass of the original but Emerson more than makes up for this omission with a coruscating organ solo to end a very energetic and endearing adaptation of this orchestral suite.

Hang on to a Dream - played entirely on organ, Emerson dials up a lovely liturgical tone for the verses but the song suffers when denuded of the exquisite waltzing piano of the original.

Ars Longa Vita Brevis - A tricky piece to do justice to considering that it was built from departed guitarist O'List's searing eastern inflected riff. However they make a very high spirited attempt and Keith accentuates the oriental flavour of the main theme on the organ by adding some extra spicy dissonance. Many of you will probably be bored rigid by Davison's drum solo but as I've confessed previously, I like drum solos (so kill me, I probably forfeit consciousness for such perverse crimes)

Due to the unfortunate piano hitches that rendered the beastie inoperable plus the fact that over 90 minutes of barbecued Hammond organ might be a dish too rich for even a Nice fanboy like me, I've shaved a star off in recognition of these shortcomings. Apart from that it's a live belter of the first order that no-one should be without if you want to trace the lineage of a genre we all profess to love dearly.

Although Jimi Hendrix, King Crimson and the Nice seem like strange bedfellows, they were in my estimation kindred spirits. All three understood that music was an indivisible 'whole' and that attempts to draw artificial boundaries between its league of nations was the antithesis of the trailblazing pioneering ethos. Once the nascent marketplace realised the leverage to be gained by a demarcation process kicking in, it foisted an engineered 'brand patriotism' on its consumers which would lead to the 'phony' wars that are still being waged from within the forums of this very website.

Who won the game then?

(It turned out a boring nil -nil draw)

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Posted Thursday, February 04, 2010 | Review Permalink

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