You'd think playing for two historic, multiple-platinum bands - Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Asia - would pretty much fill your musical calendar. Plus, if you're the drummer for those progressive rock acts - and therefore required by law to play the requisite double-bass kit the size of a space shuttle - well, that's a lot of equipment to carry around.
But for Carl Palmer, downtime is not fun. As such, breaks in tour and recording responsibilities for the past 12 years have been filled with his own musical vision - to wit, Carl Palmer's ELP Legacy. It's a guitar/bass/drum power trio that instrumentally reenvisions the titular catalog of a virtuosic band whose signature melodic components were the keyboard histrionics of the great Keith Emerson and the vocals of Greg Lake.
In the ELP Legacy, Palmer is joined by guitarist Paul Bielatowicz and bassist Simon Fitzpatrick.
Now, since Emerson, Lake & Palmer officially called it quits three years ago, Palmer's Legacy has become the exclusive outlet for the drummer to continue to explore a body of important work he helped create on such albums as "Emerson, Lake & Palmer," "Tarkus," "Trilogy," "Pictures at an Exhibition," "Brain Salad Surgery" and "Works" volumes I and II.
"The Legacy has worked out pretty much the way I envisioned it," Palmer says. He was on the phone earlier this week before heading out on a tour that brings him to the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, where his ELP Legacy performs tonight.
"My idea was to bring the music into a new era," Palmer explains. "Obviously, the melodies are very important and stay the same, but the musical approaches are very different. It's exciting from the perspective that we're not trying to recreate what happened in the past, but to present the core ideas in a very contemporary fashion."
Palmer has released three albums with the ELP Legacy; all of them are live recordings capturing three different tours whose set lists respectively interpreted different segments of the ELP catalog.
The show coming to The Kate, part of the "Twist of the Wrist Tour 2013," is conceptually a bit different from previous Legacy tours. For the first time, in addition to new ELP arrangements, the band also will perform select tunes by other composers. Palmer is also integrating expanded video projection into the mix.
"It's part of the idea of being more contemporary," Palmer says. "At this point, it's very gratifying that we see many of the same fans that were around when the (Emerson, Lake & Palmer) albums first came out. They like what we're doing with the music. But at the same time, it's equally gratifying to see younger people and newer generations in the crowd. We try to keep the entire show fresh and new."
The idea of a few video screens as part of a concert is admittedly modest by the technogical overdose of the Emerson, Lake & Palmer tours at the height of their stadium-filling popularity. Particularly memorable was the "Brain Salad Surgery" production, where the band's crew and equipment traveled in dozens of semi-trucks. Presentations featured a quadrophonic sound system; a rotating percussion platform; a hydraulic construct allowing Emerson's grand piano to rise off the stage and twirl; and of course an immense Persian rug on which Lake stood and sang.
"Actually, all of that was pretty small by today's standards," Palmer says. "I guess we did sort of set up a blueprint for the possibilities in stage production. Nowadays, they have all sorts of things including leap-frog stages, with a second crew setting up a stage in the next town while that night's show has a different crew." He laughs. "Obviously, I'm happy to say I don't carry around a lot of equipment anymore."
As for the set lists on any given ELP Legacy tour, Palmer says the decision has never been difficult. He says, "Basically, the songs are chosen on the popularity of the tracks. Since we're presenting new arrangements, it's important that we play favorite material. Fortuntately, there's a lot of fan favorites to choose from."
The drummer says he's completely open to song suggestions from Bielatowicz and Fitzpatrick - who are 35 and 25, respectively.
Palmer says Bielatowicz and Fitzpatrick, for example, suggested they try an arrangement of "Knife-Edge" from the first ELP album. "It's a fairly simple song that I hadn't thought about," Palmer says. "But it worked immediately. That's how you continue to keep creative. You try it. If it works, it works."
At the opposite end of all this, though, are the original recordings - perhaps sacred to some fans or at least imprinted with fond affection for millions. Does Palmer himself maintain affection and nostalgia for those records?
"I think every artist blessed with a long career experiences those feelings," he says. "It's the nature of creativity. Some of it, you look back on and rethink it."
He references "Tarkus," one of the band's most popular albums: a futuristic concept work about reverse evolution. It featured a seven-part suite that combined hard rock, mind-erasing time changes and musical-hall-style whimsy.
"'Tarkus' seemed a great idea at the time," Palmer says. "At least we thought so at the time. We were certainly at the height of our creativity, and the music itself was to very high standards. But, looking back, I'm not so sure the concept was that strong. That doesn't mean I don't enjoy listening to it - or reimagining it."