Kate Koenig, Arts Editor
This past Wednesday October 12, the Foothills Performing Arts Center was honored to present “drummer’s drummer” Carl Palmer. Palmer is most known for his work with Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP,) a progressive rock act from the 70s, but also for his involvement in The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Atomic Rooster and Asia.
Oneonta favorite Dopapod fit perfectly on the bill as opener, dutifully delivering an unfailingly fascinating set of instrumental jams. Layered guitar effects by Rob Compa with organ groans, growls and warbles from keyboardist Eli Winderman made their sound seem like the soundtrack to an epic space monster battle. Backed by tightly deliberate yet consistently funky drumming and technical bass grooves, their sound moved over, under and through genres including afro-beat, funk, trance and progressive rock. It’s a challenge to keep an audience interested in solely instrumental music, but Dopapod knows what they’re doing; various time signatures kept things interesting and a voice could be heard in their music although none literally exists.
This was only a small preparation for what came next. Placed center stage with a dual kick drum and gong setup, and flanked by bassist Simon Fitzpatrick and lead guitarist Paul Bielatowicz, Palmer led the power trio with colossal energy as they obliterated piece after piece. Opening with “Karn Evil 9” they moved their way through a string of ELP classics, including “Take a Pebble,” “Bitch’s Crystal” and “Trilogy.” The musicianship of the assisting band members was not in short supply; at one point, Fitzpatrick plucked his bass like a banjo and bowed it like a violin with astonishing technique.
Aside from their musically complex originals, ELP was known for adapting classical and jazz pieces to their 70s progressive rock sound. This culminated in an early release, their 1971 interpretation of Modest Mussorgsky’s classical suite “Pictures at an Exhibition,” recorded live. Palmer’s band took on the task of performing a heavier version from start to finish, a treat for the audience who leapt from their seats in ovation at the close.
This was the “first real show” of the tour according to Bielatowicz, and the band appeared confident and rehearsed although not without a bit of sass. During a more complicated piece Palmer muttered an audible “shut up” when a few members of the audience whooped in the middle of a dramatic pause. After the show, he signed autographs but his manager announced to the crowd that no handshakes, only “fist bumps” would be acceptable as Palmer feared an intoxicated fan could injure his hands, therefore affecting his playing ability.
It was clear why Palmer is such a celebrated musician, as during an extensive solo towards the end of the set, he showed tremendous technical proficiency and began balancing and projecting his sticks onto the kit in jaw-dropping display without losing the beat. He is also well-versed in music business strategy; earlier in the day, he gave a free lecture in which he imparted his knowledge on the industry to those in attendance.
The Times had the pleasure of speaking with Palmer a few days after the show, where he spoke of his experience, influences and background. Having been playing professionally since the age of 14, he has studied at the Guildhall School of Music, one of Europe’s leading conservatories, as well as the Royal Academy in England, under five to six personal teachers. He cites many influences “outside of the drumming world,” including Miles Davis, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson and Dexter Gordon. He’s been playing with Bielatowicz and Fitzpatrick under the Palmer moniker since 2003, and describes the experience as “remarkable.” While the group is a trio like ELP, the main melodic instrument has switched from organ to guitar, which Palmer seems to enjoy: “If you give the same guitar to [different people], they’ll sound completely different. You give somebody a stack of keyboards, and most of the keyboard players sound exactly the same, because of all the processed sounds. So there’s a bit more personality that you gain from using guitar in this type of classical adaptation work I’m doing, and because of that I think it gives a different inflection on the music.” As for future classical pieces to be adapted, Palmer is considering Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” saying “there’s a lot more scope for the future in still playing a certain amount of well-known classical adaptations in this kind of ‘rock’ music, only-guitar type format.”