Pictures At An Exhibition: Special Edition (DVD)
Eagle Vision, 2010
REVIEW BY: Ken DiTomaso
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/12/2010
Over the years, Emerson, Lake & Palmer seems to have become the primary whipping boy when in comes to putting down progressive rock. Whether it’s justified or not, critics and casual listeners alike seem to be put off by their lengthy songs, pretentious delivery, and classical adaptations. Thankfully, I have no qualms about any of those things as long as they’re done well. So, do ELP deliver the progressive rock goods on this DVD? Well, sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. Depending on what you’re looking for you may want to snatch this up or pass this by. There are a few major pros and cons here that may make or break this concert film for some.
The primary draw on this DVD is, of course, the band’s 1970 performance of Mussorsky’s “Pictures At An Exhibition” at London’s Lyceum. Fans of the band will already know the live version released as an LP in 1971. It’s great to finally have the visual side to ELP’s version of these songs, and that's key, because regrettably, the performance of the suite in general isn’t quite up to the same level that the audio-only LP provided us. That alone isn’t particularly much to complain about as far as I’m concerned, since the band obviously would have wanted their strongest performance to be the one put onto vinyl. But what I do have a gripe about are the visual effects.
After a few songs of normal uninterrupted performance footage, these effects begin to kick in, and with a few exceptions, they refuse to let up. The image of the band playing is repeatedly put through various ever-changing colored filters and image overlays. Sometimes it’s fairly stable, but at other points, the colors spin and spin, making it very difficult to see the band members playing. Now, I’ve seen similar effects to these done before in other concert videos. In those instances, the film was damaged and the effects were used to cover it up. If that’s the case here, then I’ll let it slide, but if it’s not, then there is no excuse for it. It bothers me to no end and takes my focus entirely away from the band and the music.
If the visual effects don’t bother you and you can focus on the performance, you’ll certainly find a lot to like, but perhaps not exactly much to love. The songs are classics, of course, and everything is performed well, but this concert simply lacks the spark to make it of interest to any but the hardcore ELP fan. If the DVD contained only that one concert I would have felt contented to give this a mediocre rating and call it a day. However, the makers of this DVD have done everyone an enormous favour in their selection of bonus material.
What they give us in addition to the main video is separate performance by the band from Belgium’s Pop Shop program in 1971. It’s significantly shorter than the main concert, and the setlist is very similar to it’s predecessor's encore with “Nutrocker” and a “Blues Jam” being the only selections that wasn’t already in the primary concert film. So what’s the big deal then you may ask? Well, very simply, this performance completely blows the other one out of the water. In nearly every regard, this set is an improvement over its companion. Throughout the entire show, the band is absolutely on fire. Unlike during the Pictures performance where they played well but appeared to just be going through the motions, the band is obviously having a great time here which only adds to the fun.
The camera picks more dynamic angles to watch the band from. You can see Emerson's fingers flying along the keys with ease, and his hilarious knife stabbing routine is longer and no longer obscured behind the organ. Every song is performed with tons of energy, and the band is simply a joy to watch. Again there are visual effects added, but these are merely short clips of roads and forests and things, which aren’t at all distracting or annoying. The Lyceum performance may be fans-only territory, but the Pop Shop performance should be essential viewing for anybody even casually interested in ELP. It is masterful performances like these which truly ensure ELP’s long-term reputation as a vital progressive rock band. So by all means give this DVD a shot; it’s nice to have video of the entire Pictures suite, but it’s the Pop Shop set that makes this worthwhile.