(All Album Reviews by reallyPO'dhockeyfan)
This, the first of (to this point) three box sets released under the label The Original Bootleg Series from The Manticore Vaults, may also be the most consistent and satisfying of the three overall.
All told the set consists of seven CDs spanning four concerts, all taking place within a 12 month period in 1971-72. While this is a box set, don't purchase this (or either of the other two, for that matter) expecting lengthy liner notes or photographs. The design of the box itself is fairly spartan and, inside the box, you'll find a foldout, which covers the track listing for each of the concerts included and doubles as a poster, if you wish. This is designed as a budget multi-disc set and, while the set itself still looks nice, you shouldn't expect some of the 'amenities' you might find with other box sets.
Each of the four concerts here are included in their own pale blue cardboard sleeve with paper inserts containing each disc. Each blue cover is also given it's own original title and 'bootleg' artwork, contributing to the 'bootleggy' feel of this issue.
Yes, as you might guess, the original source for each of the recordings in this particular set were audience recordings from each of the particular shows included. While attempts have been made at cleaning up the sound quality don't expect professional quality recordings here. If sound quality is something you're really picky about you may want to avoid this release, even if you're a rabid ELP fan.
The first show included is from Gaelic Park, NY, on September 9, 1971, likely placing it on a tour in support of the Tarkus album. As the 'insert' indicates, the notoriety of this particular show among ELP fans stems from the presence of Robert Moog in the audience, apparently his first time witnessing the band live. Covering two discs, the show kicks off with a rousing version of “The Barbarian”, played in parts at a slightly more up-tempo and energetic pace than the studio recording. Definitely one of the highlights not only of this show but of the entire set. The show also features a wonderful version of “Tarkus”, played slightly fast and full of feedback from Emerson's arsenal. Lake's vocal abilities in particular shine on this track, a reminder of just how majestic and powerful of a vocalist he could be at this stage of his career. Lake's bass work, in particular, comes across remarkably different on this set of live recordings than fans might be accustomed to on the later, professionally recorded releases. Lake is much more aggressive here, seemingly attempting to make up for the over the top performances by both Emerson and Palmer, who both shine in the solo spots included in this particular show. Also notable here is the very extensive and impressive version of Rondo as well as Emerson's piano improvisation. Sound: 3/5
The second show included in the set is from April 21, 1972, in Louisville, KY, placing the show itself almost squarely in between the release of Pictures at an Exhibition and Trilogy. Covering 2 CDs, the show defininitely takes a slant towards those two albums in comparison to Gaelic Park, as “Hoedown”, “Bolero”, “Pictures”, as well as “Nutrocker” all make an appearance here. This set also features the 'super-extended' version of “Take a Pebble” reminiscent of the version from Welcome Back, My Friends... that many ELP fans will be familiar with, complete with a nice version of “Lucky Man”. The “Bolero” included here, frankly, leaves a little to be desired. It plods along, never really capturing the energy that one would like to hear from a live ELP version of the piece. The highlight here is a terrific version of “Pictures”, rivaling and often exceeding the original release in energy even if the sound quality doesn't quite measure up. A frenzied pace is set early in the piece and is retained throughout, with Palmer in particular being the standout here. Emerson 'drops out' of the piece for a slight period, possibly reflecting some technical problems but, overall, the performance doesn't suffer.
The third show of the box is a two CD set covering the Long Beach, CA, show on July 28, 1972, shortly after the release of Trilogy. In my opinion the box is worth purchasing for this particular show alone. Compared to Gaelic Park and Louisville the sound quality of the Long Beach show is superior and, more importantly, this is the best performance that the band gives between the four shows included in the box. “Tarkus” in particular, is a monster here, clocking in at well over 25 minutes and featuring stellar performances from all three players. Palmer and Emerson in particular, improvise a lot more here than on most of the other live recordings that I've heard and that alone makes it really stand out. Combine this with best bass work that Lake displays on the entire box and you've got a winner. Probably the best version of “Tarkus” that these ears have ever heard. Emerson's “Rondo” is also terrific here. Stretching out to over 18 minutes it features all the high pitched, screaming, distorted work from Emerson that ELP fans love. Tremendous...
The final show of the box is a single disc containing a portion of the show in Saratoga Springs, NY, on August 13, 1972. This particular disc has perhaps the best sound overall of the four shows included in the box, although some 'dragging' on the source tape is apparent in the early stages of “Tarkus”. It's a bit of a shame, then, that it is probably the weakest of the four in terms of overall performance. Still Palmer's work is much more easily discernable in the mix here and that alone makes it interesting from a listening perspective, especially when comparing this particular show to the other three included in the set. The highlight here is a terrific version of “The Endless Enigma”, which includes some of Lake's best vocal work in the entirety of the box, despite having to ask some people to 'sit down' at the beginning of Fugue to apparently prevent a conflict in the crowd.
The great thing about this box is the comparisons that can be made to professional recordings like Welcome Back, My Friends.... While sonically those professional recordings are far superior to what's included here, when it comes to the spirit and energy of the performances the official release just doesn't measure up. Realize that to hear these performances, however, you have to deal with static, the occasional audience conversation, and other limitations that you might expect to find on a bootleg recording despite the clean-up job that each of these recordings have received. Also realize that there is a lot of repetition of tracks throughout the box itself, with “Tarkus” and “Take a Pebble” being included from each of the four shows included. These tracks in particular, however, included quite a bit of variety from night to night to begin with and most ELP fans will likely appreciate that they really do receive four different versions of each of these tracks here. If anything it's interesting to hear the evolution of each of these numbers over the course of the twelve-month period covered in the set.
Realize that this probably is also a set that would be best enjoyed by seasoned ELP fans. This isn't a place to start with ELP, probably even when it comes to exploring the available live work of the band. Start with Welcome Back and then consider exploring a box set of this sort. Perhaps the single CD 'Best of the Bootlegs' issue, compiled from all three Manticore Vaults box sets, might be a consideration too.
In short, if you're a big ELP fan and don't mind the bootleggy sound quality of these recordings than this seven CD set comes recommended, especially at the price that you'll likely be able to find it for.