Personnel: Keith Emerson (vocals, piano, organ); Lee Jackson (vocals, bass guitar); Brian Davison (whistle, drums, percussion).
Audio Mixers: Ben Wiseman ; Mark Powell.
Recording information: Fillmore East, New York, NY (12/19/1969-12/20/1969).
Up until the middle of 2009, the core of the recorded history of the Nice lay rooted in the three albums they cut for Immediate Records between late 1967 and early 1969, augmented by Five Bridges, released during the period following Immediate's bankruptcy, and all of it appended by the posthumous collection Elegy and Autumn 1967/Spring 1968. This double-CD set moves the center of gravity of that legacy forward, toward the group's 15-month post-Immediate history -- their manager, Tony Stratton-Smith, wisely recorded a good deal of their live work during this period, and an amazingly high percentage of it has proved worthwhile listening, including these tapes from two shows at the Fillmore East from December 19 and 20, 1969 (shows on which they were billed alongside the Byrds, the Sons of Champlin, and Dion). And what makes the tapes even more astonishing is that these performances date from a period after Keith Emerson had made the decision to abandon the group -- but there's no sign of less than 100 percent effort or total cohesion in what is heard on this set. These tapes also demonstrate just how far the group had come since its spring 1969 U.S. tour -- whereas the best of the work from their earlier Fillmore shows (released on the group's third Immediate album) shows a band starting to seriously redefine conventional song structures, on this set of performances the Nice are opening out much of their material even further, and scratching it out wide enough to drive a tank through musically -- and at times, that's what they come close to doing. Not all of what they attempt works -- the more expansive rendition of Bob Dylan's "She Belongs to Me" included here was probably great to see as a performance, but it doesn't hold up as well as the more concise interpretation that it received in the spring 1969 show, and ultimately it's a slight disappointment when compared to that earlier version. Even that track is worth hearing, however, and is different enough so that completists need not feel cheated or abused by having to buy it here.
As for the rest, the trio roars through "Ars Longa Vita Brevis" (complete with a two-plus-minute drum solo from Brian Davison), sandwiched between bracing performances of "Rondo" and "Little Arabella," which is done pretty straight. It was their rendition of Dylan's "Country Pie" from these performances that would eventually find release on the Five Bridges album, but otherwise Stratton-Smith shelved the rest of this body of tapes in favor of Fillmore performances from a year later, on the trio's final U.S. tour, for use on the Elegy collection. Here, listeners get an odd yet worthwhile rendition of "Hang on to a Dream" done on a Hammond organ rather than a piano -- the piano version works better, but hearing this rendition will disappoint no one who likes Keith Emerson or the band. There's a riveting performance of "The Five Bridges Suite" as a piece for trio (the work is most familiar from the Newcastle live recording, done with orchestra), plus a romping and playful version of "Intermezzo: Karelia Suite" that leads into a pounding and fierce performance of "America," complete with an interpolation of "The Star Spangled Banner" (plus what sounds like Emerson's attempt to graft part of Holst's Mars, Bringer of War, from The Planets, into the piece -- and could that have been his political comment at the time about the United States and Vietnam?). And, as a finale, the trio gives listeners an improved updating of the early Nice composition "War and Peace." This set will obviously be a must-own release for fans of Emerson or the band, and the producers have spared little to make it worthwhile in terms of packaging -- the fidelity throughout ranges from very good to excellent, and the annotation is extremely thorough as well. ~ Bruce Eder