by Phil Freeman
King Crimson has existed in many incarnations since their inception approximately 50 years ago (they formed in 1968). During that time, the only consistent member has been guitarist and primary conceptual force Robert Fripp. The current lineup, at eight members strong, is the largest they’ve ever had. They recently played two nights at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, NJ; I attended the first show.
The front of the stage was taken up by three drummers: from left to right, Pat Mastelotto, Jeremy Stacey, and Gavin Harrison. The back row was, from left to right, saxophonist Mel Collins, bassist Tony Levin (who played, at various points, an upright, a bass guitar, and a Chapman Stick), keyboardist William Rieflin, singer/guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, and tucked into a corner, seated and wearing shooting-range headphones, Robert Fripp. All were dressed in button-down shirts, dress pants, and most wore ties; Stacey also wore a bowler hat, and Levin and Fripp sported vests. The atmosphere was not at all that of a rock show; this was a meticulously rehearsed recital, with carefully delineated spaces for improvisation.
Jakszyk’s guitar bore the agonized face from King Crimson‘s debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King; Levin’s bass guitar was bright yellow, and adorned with the double arch figure, like an elongated version of the Under Armour logo, from the Three of a Perfect Pair album cover. Each drummer’s kick drum head had a slightly different version of the cyclopean Oscar Wilde seen on the cover of the band’s recent three-CD live set, Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind (reviewed here).
The drummers dominated the music, as might be expected, but they rarely operated all at the same time; on most songs, one man (usually Mastelotto) would take the lead while the other two would occasionally interject a percussive comment, or double up with him for a moment or two. There were a few times when all three would bash out a cymbal pattern in unison, which jumped the energy level up somewhat. On certain songs, Stacy switched from drums to a small keyboard, without getting up from his seat. His parts were piano-like, while Rieflin, who never seemed to move or change expression, handled the more atmospheric and Mellotron-esque synths. Levin and Jakszyk were the most animated and “rock band”-ish members of the ensemble; the singer did his best to match the sound of previous Crimson vocalists Greg Lake and John Wetton, and pulled it off very well. Levin, when playing his bass guitar, frequently opted for a wide stance suited to a metal band, though he seemed to be ill (he blew his nose a lot during moments of inactivity). Fripp was not at all dominant, and indeed didn’t even seem crucial to the proceedings much of the time; when his guitar did cut through, though, it was instantly recognizable. He’s got a weird buzzing tone that sounds almost like Greg Ginn‘s, but obviously much, much cleaner and more high-tech. Collins was walled away behind Plexiglas baffles, so that his various saxophones and flutes could be mixed more clearly by the house engineer. On a lot of songs, he played baritone, fitting in well with the drummers and giving the arrangements an extra whump. When it was time for a solo, though, he’d pick up a tenor or a soprano, and at a few points played flutes of various sizes. The music was surprisingly jazzy, not just because of how much sax Collins was playing but because of the way the drummers loped and swung and bounced off each other.
The songs came from all eras of Crimson. Radical Action totally ignored the ’80s albums, but the first piece performed in Red Bank was “Neurotica,” from Beat, and they later played “Indiscipline,” from Discipline. The early ’70s albums In the Wake of Poseidon, Islands and Lizard were all represented, as were Larks’ Tongues in Aspic and Red, from the band’s most highly regarded era (1972-74). They also performed pieces from The ConstruKction of Light and The Power to Believe, as well as several as-yet-unrecorded pieces and their recent cover of David Bowie‘s “Heroes.” And of course, they closed with their best-known song, “21st Century Schizoid Man” from the debut. As might be expected, given the unique nature of the lineup, the songs often sounded quite different from their studio versions, but for the most part, the changes were positive. The exception was “Islands,” which was re-arranged into some kind of smooth jazz/lite R&B tune; I half expected a guest vocal from Jennifer Warnes.
He’s made statements to this effect many times in the past, but it was glaringly obvious from this concert that Robert Fripp is only interested in playing King Crimson music when he can find a way to make it interesting for himself. He has no interest in pushing his fanbase’s nostalgia buttons—yes, he seemed to say many times throughout the evening, you know this song, but it sounds like this now. Compare that with other prog rock bands, who do everything they can to re-create their albums onstage, even when they’re not just playing them front to back, and it’s hard not to admire the guy, whether you’re a fan or not. I like a lot of King Crimson‘s albums (basically, I ride with them from the debut up through 1974’s live USA, and have no use for anything after except for Radical Action), but even as I walked through the door of the Basie, I wasn’t sure I really needed to see them live. I came away very glad I’d gone.
Stream Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind: