The story goes that the origins of The Boys Club goes back to April 6, 1974, when Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer headlined the Cal Jam rock festival at the Ontario Motor Speedway in Southern California. While that was the night Keith Emerson and Glenn Hughes first shared a stage, that gig seems a bit remote to say it inspired what was to come. After all, it was nearly 25 years later when Emerson and Hughes did come together in The Boys Club. But this was a band best described as an Emerson/Marc Bonilla collaboration with Hughes serving as guest vocalist. In fact, The Boys Club can better be described as the opening salvo from the team of Emerson and Bonilla that continues to produce classic prog rock, for lack of a better term, to the present day in The Keith Emerson Band.
Still, for years the Boys Club 1998 California concerts were the stuff of legend until a 2009 single-disc release startled listeners who’d never heard the music before. It’s time to be startled again. The new Live From California – The Complete Concert is a two-disc set featuring four previously unreleased performances: “Close To Home,” “Creole Dance,” “Honky Tonk Train Blues” and “Fanfare For The Common Man/Rondo.” These long undiscovered treasures alone are worth the price of admission.
From start to finish, the heart of the concerts were the astonishing and majestic instrumental virtuosity of Bonilla on guitar and Emerson on keyboards, with bassists Bob Birch and Mick Mahan, drummer Joe Travers, keyboardist Ed Roth, and guitarist Mike Wallace, better known as the infamous Dragonchoir. The set opens with Bonilla’s “Afterburner,” which both suggests what ELP might have sounded like if they had employed a guitar player and begs the question—why isn’t Bonilla better known as one of the most individualistic and powerhouse guitar gods alive?
In fact, it takes a few numbers, “Long Journey Home” and Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown,” before Emerson begins to move centerstage and demonstrate that he has two of the most creative hands in the business. Finally, Hughes joins the mix and takes to the mic to deliver perhaps the finest version of Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” you’ll ever hear. He also sings lead on “Cover Me,” a song he co-wrote with Bonilla. Decent if not memorable melody, that one.
Disc one then largely becomes the Keith Emerson show without Hughes but with three of the previously unreleased numbers, “Close To Home,” “Creole Dance,” “Honky Tonk Train Blues”—which sounds like its title performed in hyper drive—followed by “White Noise” and the ELP standard, “Nutrocker.” Once again, Bonilla demonstrates that ELP would have been a band of wider colors and textures if an axeman had been along for the 1970s ride. You know what to expect from Keith. Bonilla provides many of the surprises, fireworks, and nuances never heard back in the glory years.
Disc two is more of a mixed bag, with an 18-minute “Tarkus” and the newly released “Fanfare For The Common Man/Rondo,” two tracks which continue the domination of Keith Emerson’s very precise and nimble fingerwork. The former, I must say, was not one of Hughes’ finest moments. His delivery, almost growled in a lower register than that of Greg Lake (who sang the 1971 original), seems a tad out of place. The latter reminded me of something Carl Palmer once told me, that the main problem with drum solos is that they ever start. Well, Travers deserves his moment to shine as his solo isn’t one of those extended ramblings that gives the rest of the band time enough to go offstage and engage in non-musical recess activities. In fact, we needed a break from the keyboard pyrotechnics while wishing these selections had a bit more Bonilla in the recipe.
Then, the final two tracks are rather surprising as neither fit the styles or moods of what preceded them. The bluesy, funky “Dreams” really feels like a Boys Club collaboration, with Hughes’ screaming vocals pushing the sound deeper into hard rock territory. It’s not quite Deep Purple, but it’s as close as the Boys Club gets. Bonnilla, Emerson, and Hughes co-wrote “Middle Of A Dream,” which takes the group into a smooth jazz percussive groove. Hmm. To be honest, I’m still scratching my head over this one.
In the end, disc one of Live From California – The Complete Concert is indispensable listening for any rock fan of any genre. Disc two should appeal to Emerson devotees, particularly of the ELP vintage. It’s the transitional moment between ELP and the Keith Emerson Band which proves there’s life after Lake and Palmer. That life, on stage and in the studio, is clearly Mark Bonnilla.