An ardent group of all-star musicians paid their respects and provided the perfect sendoff to the greatest keyboardist in rock history Saturday night at what was billed as The Official Keith Emerson Tribute Concert.
The rollicking three-hour wake at the cozy El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles, with a Moog synthesizer standing in for a portrait of the deceased, made for a wonderful salute to Emerson, the master British showman who died March 10 at his home in Santa Monica from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 71.
Marc Bonilla, the left-handed axeman and singer of The Keith Emerson Band, was the driving force behind the concert and led the proceedings. He said all the musicians, which numbered more than two dozen, performed for free.
“His spirit is here. I can see it in your faces,” famed keyboardist Brian Auger, who said he talked with Emerson on the eve of his death, told the audience. Auger then steered a delicious medley of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo” (Emerson favored the latter during his early days with The Nice).
Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater spoke about when, on a “completely straight and narrow path to be a concert pianist” while studying at Juilliard, his life changed forever when he heard the Emerson, Lake & Palmer album Tarkus for the first time. “I played it over and over and over,” he said before whipping into the title track of the 1971 classic.
Michelle Moog-Koussa, the daughter of Moog synthesizer inventor Dr. Robert Moog, said that when “Keith left us, I felt like a part of my father had died.”
Sure, others employed her dad’s creation, but only Emerson “dared to take the instrument on stage night after night, country after country,” she said. “Keith took this daunting, sometimes delicate and highly expressive new technology that was originally designed to sit on a table at some studio, and he boldly brought it” to the masses.
It took a village of keyboardists to do the job of one Emerson on this evening, and those up to the prog, honky-tonk or classical task also included Eddie Jobson, Jonathan Sindelman, C.J. Vanston (who stroked the Yamaha piano strings like a harp on a poignant “Take a Pebble”), Philippe Saisse, Ed Roth, Steve Porcaro, Kae Matsumoto and Rachel Flowers, the blind, 22-year-old Emerson disciple who was awe-inspiring on “The Endless Enigma.”
Son Aaron Emerson choked up after playing an original piano composition, and Mari Kawaguchi said that Emerson, her fiance, was disliked by no one and that his music should be taught in schools to keep his legacy alive.
“He’ll go down in history as the best keyboardist, but he also was a very good composer,” said Norwegian conductor Terje Mikkelsen, who collaborated with Emerson and Bonilla on the 2012 album Three Fates Project.
For a triumphant version of “Fanfare,” Mikkelsen, who flew in from Oslo for this, conducted more than a dozen musicians crammed on the small stage, including a five-piece brass section and three folks on kettle drums in a boisterous scene that brought back memories of ELP’s 1977 Works Vol. 1 tour that featured a 65-piece orchestra (before the band ran out of money).
Earlier, the crowd of about 800 was treated to a series of slides that showed Emerson with Greg Lake, Carl Palmer and other bandmates over the years; playing the piano, whether he was upside down in mid-air or reaching over one while it rested on top of him; or conducting an orchestra.
There were intimate family snapshots, too, of Emerson as a toddler, astride on a motorcycle or at the beach with a bird perched on his shoulder. Smiles broke out when he was seen scratching his head while gazing perplexed at a “Moog Owner’s Manual” or the book “Keyboards for Dummies.”
ELP shows were not known for their lead guitar, but there was plenty of riffs to go around Saturday, with Bonilla, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Steve Lukather and Mike Wallace filling in where once there were keyboard sounds. Drummers Joe Travers, Karma Auger, Gregg Bissonette, Troy Luccketta and Vinnie Colaiuta and bassists Travis Davis, Dan Lutz and Mick Mahan did Palmer and Lake proud.
After earlier showcasing his skills on the bouncy “Bitches Crystal,” the enigmatic Jobson, a virtuoso of such bands as U.K. and Roxy Music, returned to put that imposing Moog synthesizer to thunderous effect during the final prog climax on “Lucky Man” (Rick Livingstone of The Best, another Emerson band, handled vocals on “Lucky Man”). Jobson and the instrument created vibrations so intense, one wondered if the El Rey’s signature chandeliers were about to crash to earth.
Bonilla intoned the final lines of “Pictures at an Exhibition,” the ELP classical orchestral piece: “There’s no end to my life, no beginning to my death. Death is life.”