The organ is doing something to Keith Emerson. Nearly 14 minutes into “Emerson, Lake & Palmer on Tour 1973,” and the supergroup’s brooding keyboard player has not said much. Suddenly, Emerson pushes his battered Hammond over, jumps under it and his back pushes the instrument up and down — as if trying to escape its oscillating sound attack.
“When you want to put on an emotion, such is aggression, and the music is not enough to express it, I set myself loose,” Emerson says. “It’s sad to think that sometimes it’s only the visuals that people remember.”
Funny he should say that. “On Tour 1973,” a 1973 document of ELP by journeyman director Nick Hague, offers a lot of fun backstage footage, at least two strong performances and a few insights into musicians in the midst of a massive, two-year arena tour with more than 130 shows. “On Tour 1973” focuses on the start of all that, when the band was tight and confident, coming off the release of its “Trilogy” album.
Captured before the “Brain Salad Surgery” album was released, the film includes the debut of “Karn Evil 9” at a rain-delayed show. “It’s not going to rain anymore,” Emerson jokes. “We just telephoned the Vatican and it’s all cool.”
‘If you don’t join this band, you’re not only damaging yourself, you’re damaging me,’ Palmer recalls singer-bassist Greg Lake telling him.
Most of what’s interesting here comes from Emerson, who’s seen drilling the band in a rehearsal and who spends time with the crew discussing his musical philosophy. Drummer Carl Palmer gamely trains for the material, letting the cameras in as he’s tutored on the “William Tell” overture. Like in most looks at the band, he comes off as both happy and obligated. “If you don’t join this band, you’re not only damaging yourself, you’re damaging me,” Palmer recalls singer-bassist Greg Lake telling him. “That’s heavy.”
Lake drives the accidental narrative, by trying to work through a throat infection and getting laid up for a few days. Hague bends that into a neat comeback story, with a clearly wounded performance of “The Great Gates of Kiev” setting up the problem and a triumphant version of the song telling us that Lake’s back. Not much is done with Lake himself, though he’s the one member of the group clearly enjoying the scale of the shows.
“We drew more people than the Olympic Games, which is nice,” Lake says of a show in Munich. The spectacle of this tour was worth capturing, and Hague does it well with digressions into the life of roadies and the daily construction of the stage proscenium. He shows the aftermath of a 10,000-person show, then the blue-collar workers who unbuild the stage, then the iconic helicopter view of rental trucks marked EMERSON, LAKE and PALMER, an epic visual lost on the people driving by them.
There’s plenty of majesty here, but no decadence. A bottle of premium cognac on Emerson’s organ is all the indulgence we see, and a sticker slapped on a flight attendant’s rear is all the sex. When the band is recognized at an airport, there’s no Beatlemania crowd rush; fans admire the group through glass panels. Hague is telling us just how serious this band is, which he proves with vivid concert footage. But he frequently cuts away to show the tokens of its success — pools, game rooms, a clay shooting range where Emerson unwinds.
“On Tour 1973” is worth watching, even if Hague doesn’t show us anything ELP didn’t want us to see. When Lake is in good voice, the footage is transfixing, especially the May 1973 Rome concert that ends the film. Lake is in the best voice of his career, and Emerson’s improvisations click every time. Hague may have blundered by cutting one Emerson segment together with a fantasy of him in air combat (don’t worry about it), but he captures his mindset in the film’s finest set of interviews.
“I could make it easy for myself,” Emerson says, toting a bow and arrow. “I could write a simple 12-bar blues and maybe it would go down just as well. But the pieces that I’m writing now are beyond my limits. And they’re beyond the limits of the group. But I’ve got to have this push. I’ve got to strive for something new and different.”