Volume Two in this series combining my passion for music, live concerts and photography with my love of Mexican food. I hope you enjoy this diversion.
Emerson, Lake & Tamales
Anyone who knew me in college, or for any length of time knows that I’ve always loved music and have attended many live shows over the years. From The Doors, to Deep Purple, to The Who – I’ve always enjoyed live rock-n-roll music. I still attend shows when possible but honestly, the people I still want see are getting older and tour less and less.
Of all the music from the by gone era of my youth, ‘Progressive Rock’ was what held my attention for many years. Referred to as ‘thinking mans music’ by it’s fans, the average or casual listener frequently called it ‘too busy’ or would say that it had ‘too many notes.’ They didn’t want to think about the music or be forced to pay attention to it.
It’s a fact that progressive rock music refused to hover in the background – you had to listen it pro-actively because it was rarely a predictable melody with ‘three verses and a chorus or two’. It was usually more about musical virtuosity and improvisation, and a single composition (sometimes epic in length) would frequently go through several major changes before its conclusion. Bands like Yes, King Crimson, Rush and The Mahavishnu Orchestra would fall into this category.
Of all those prog bands from the seventies, Emerson, Lake & Palmer was hands-down, my favorite and it was Keith Emerson in particular who captured my imagination. All three members were extremely accomplished musicians and created music of great power, intricacy and texture; but Mr. Emerson’s keyboard virtuosity and showmanship rivaled that of Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townsend or any other guitarist of the day.
ELP integrated many passages from classical music into their compositions and as trios go, were quite powerful on stage. Keith Emerson’s solo at the end of the song Lucky Man, is the first ever recording of a synthesizer solo and he is also credited as being the first musician to utilize synthesizers (complicated and quirky instruments) on stage in a live setting.
I was such a fan that I eventually met him – a few times.
When ELP reunited in the early nineties, I discovered that a guy I went to college with was Keith’s keyboard technician – a guy named Will Alexander. The schedule for the tour would bring them to Dallas, Houston and San Antonio and I got tickets to all three shows. I contacted the tour manager and arranged a meeting in Houston. Not only did we get autographs, but I got a special pass from Greg that allowed me to bring photographic equipment to the San Antonio show the next evening.
On a trip to the west coast in ’94, I visited Will Alexander and his wife Candy who lived half a block from Keith. At Will’s house, I played with Keith’s huge synthesizer -the centerpiece of his stage rig, along with the ribbon controller that Keith uses when he wants to be more like a guitarist and strut around the stage. Later in the week, I was invited to a barbeque at Keith’s place where we partied and drank chardonnay all day into the night. Keith was a warm and welcoming host.
So it was with some anticipation that I was able to get a couple tickets to see Keith Emerson and Greg Lake one weekend in Houston. Carl Palmer (the drummer) wasn’t there because he was touring with Asia – an eighties ‘prog super-group’, which includes members from Yes, King Crimson and ELP.
Truth be told, Houston has as rich a history of Mexican cuisine as San Antonio. Heck, I recently found a forum where a couple Houstonians were still debating where ZZ Tops’ Tres Hombres (1973) gatefold ‘Mexican feast’ photo was shot – one guy says Felix Mexican Restaurant and the other says Leo’s. So the prospect of a road trip to explore Tex-Mex there was too much to pass up. I invited my friend, David along since he’s an ELP fan and was also raised in San Antonio – making him every bit the Tex-Mex aficionado that I am. David was also with me for all three shows of the ELP reunion tour.
In the days leading up to our trip we discussed our dining options and got ourselves worked up into a Tex-Mex Frenzy.
We arrived downtown (near the venue) at around 5PM, parked and began wandering around trying to find a decent Mexican restaurant. We were hoping to find a Ninfa’s but apparently the original location is now only one location left in Houston, so after a while we got a little frustrated. We walked by a place that called itself a ‘Mexican Bistro’ which looked way to upscale to be Tex-Mex and continued to walk. After walking some more, we decided to turn back and go into the bistro to look at the menu.
You could tell as soon as we walked in, that Cielo’s, on the corner of Congress and Main, is definitely not Tex-Mex. It’s a very modern, upscale interior with wine racks from floor to ceiling. We ordered a couple Negro Modelos and scanned the menu. There was as much seafood, quail, steak and other offerings as there were Mexican style dishes and we got worried.
The chips arrived and they were awesome – home made and thick, kinda like ‘pita’ chips. The red sauce was good and very tasty, while the green sauce was creamier and tasted like poblano pepper with lime and ranch dressing. It sounds weird but it was pretty good and reminded me of Ninfa’s green sauce a little.
We decided to order queso and if it was no good, we’d drink our beer and move on.
The Queso was not just good – it was excellent! It was not very thick and it didn’t even develop the ‘skin’ you normally get when you stop dipping for a bit. No, this was almost the right consistency (could’ve been just a hint thicker) so that the green and red pepper shavings were mixed very well through out the dip making this a tantalizingly good queso. With the thicker chips, this queso was a real treat.
So now they have our attention and we were beginning to accept the idea of ‘interior’ cuisine this evening.
The waiter came back and as we asked some questions, he offered a sample of their mole sauce. I’m glad he did because even though I like a little bit of sweet taste, this mole was way too sweet – almost ice cream topping sweet! David thought it might go well with fried plantains – an interesting idea.
We decided to try the Tamales because they were homemade and they sounded the most Tex-Mex of all the offerings on the menu. When they arrived, we were taken back by their size – three very large tamales still in the corn shuck. They reminded me of the large, Guatemalan style tamales a friend of mine makes (recipe coming soon). With the rice and various condiments on the plate, the presentation was exquisite.
They offered two different sauces – a red, roasted tomato sauce which Dave ordered and a spicy green, tomatillo poblano sauce for me. The sauces were served in a separate bowl so we both were able to sample a tamal with each sauce. These tamales didn’t easily slip out of their shuck like normal and they came apart revealing the filling that included chicken along with roasted tomatoes, peppers and cheese inside – wow! I’ve only seen single meat fillings so all this other stuff inside was new for me.
Okay, so this is not Tex-Mex, but these tamales were absolutely wonderful – both sauces were great but my green sauce had more kick. While we’re eating, another waiter came over and explained how they were made and said there is absolutely no lard in these tamales – lard is a key ingredient in making the outer portion of tamales gelatinous. This also explained why they were a bit more difficult to remove from their shucks. So not only were they delicious, but they were healthier than the average tamales – man, we out-did ourselves today!
The rice with diced carrots & scallion slices was incredibly good as were the charro beans and I can’t just say enough about how much I enjoyed this meal. Definitely more ‘interior’ than Tex-Mex, but very good food indeed – so much so that I’d come back to check out other entrees if I resided in Houston.
The concert? Well, we entered with a hint of skepticism because this music without drummer Carl Palmer was hard to imagine. The premise of this paring was to let the public in on what a typical writing session in a recording studio might sound like – the building of the foundations of some of the music. The arrangements were quite interesting and extremely satisfying.
Gregg (Lake) has put on considerable weight but he was getting larger back in the early ‘90s’ during their reunion tour, so this was no surprise. His voice was as smooth as ever and he sang “I Talk To The Wind,” a song from the very first King Crimson album which he was a part of. Keith on the other hand, looked very good and seems to be aging quite well. We were treated to a great evening of music we’ve listened to and loved for years and while the arrangements were a bit different, it felt good to be ‘welcomed back to the show that never ends…’
Live ELP music and Mexican food – two of my favorite things.