Earlier this week I went to see one of my favorite bands, King Crimson, perform in Boston. They are a progressive rock band led by the inimitable Robert Fripp, a virtuoso guitarist who is well known for his pioneering experimentation with looping and effects to craft unique sounds with the instrument. He is also credited with created an alternative tuning method. King Crimson has been around for quite some time. Their debut album, IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING, was released in 1969. They have released many albums, their lineup has continually shuffled members, and they have had some long periods of inactivity. Their current tour, The Elements of King Crimson, is a return to the stage after only a handful of shows in 2008 (which, sadly, I missed out on). So, needless to say, I was excited to have tickets and see them as the opportunity does not come often enough.
My dad first suggested the music of King Crimson to me. It had been a band he listened to when he was younger and thought they might appeal to me. On his recommendation I purchased the aptly titled CIRKUS: THE YOUNG PERSON’S GUIDE TO KING CRIMSON LIVE. It was a good introduction to the numerous lineups and music of a band whose sound has changed dramatically over the years. The set included two discs, the first entitled Neon Heat Disease that covered 1984 to 1998, the period of Adrian Belew as lead singer and guitarist and the instrumental ProjeKcts. The second disc, Fractured, had some overlap spanning 1969 to 1996, but focused on songs from their early incarnations. I purchased the set while we were on vacation in Ohio to visit Cedar Point at a Best Buy in 2000. I don’t know why to include that anecdote, but it’s something I remember, oddly enough. So I’ve been a fan for quite a while.
I became further initiated into the musical world of King Crimson from a coworker at a music store (my first job) since he was a big fan. He helped me grasp the diversity of King Crimson beyond what a simple 2-disc set can claim to do. Look at their discography; it’s daunting to figure out how to piece all that history and music together. That’s always been a problem (or benefit) to most of the bands that I listen to. I have to know every album, b-side, personnel change, etc. I wish I listened to more bands, but my need to be a completist tends to stifle me while simultaneously making me more knowledgeable.
My friend has joined me the other two times that I’ve seen King Crimson perform, both in Boston. The first was March 8, 2003 at the Orpheum Theatre and the second was November 12, 2003 at the Avalon Ballroom. These shows were in support of their album THE POWER TO BELIEVE. The Avalon Ballroom show was particularly enjoyable as it was general admission and I was front and center. It’s not often that happens. I can’t believe I’m at an age where I can write or say, “I haven’t seen them play in 10 years!” but that’s the case.
This tour was not without more lineup changes, but this is never a negative thing for King Crimson. Every incarnation of the band is comprised of consummate musicians. Many groups change members and it takes some getting used to or completely changes some quality or aspect of the band that made it special. To give an example, I loved Bush and, following the departure of their guitarist, Nigel Pulsford, the band became more polished, losing the harsh and creative playing on earlier albums. Their new releases are now generic rock music to me, which sometimes isn’t a bad thing, but it is when a band feels as though they’ve regressed into “safer” sonic territory. This issue of security and assurance is not a concern in regards to King Crimson. They purposely eschew these qualities and push away from any such notions.
The new King Crimson consists of seven member configuration with Fripp on guitar, Jakko Jakszeyk on vocals and guitar, Tony Levin on bass, Mel Collins on saxophone and flute, and three (yes, three drummers) including Bill Rieflin, Gavin Harrison, and Pat Mastelotto. Many of the members are Crimson-alums from various periods, but this is a band that plays so tightly that you quickly forget who they are as individual players and how the previous Crimsons sounded.
King Crimson have always had a loud and ferocious sound, tempered with some lighter and softer moments, but they are, above all, a rock band in the best sense of the term. The Elements of King Crimson tour, as its name suggests, gets back to what makes King Crimson, well, King Crimson. The tour is not supporting new material and journeys through all periods of the band. The Belew-led Crimson, from 1981 to 2008, rarely played earlier material, always pushing forward, leaving nearly all of the legacy of the 1969-1974 era to languish. I’m unsure how the material would have translated to those configurations of King Crimson. However, it is clear that the arrangement and lineup for the current King Crimson fit it perfectly.
One thing that I couldn’t help remark upon was how comfortable the oeuvre of Crimson fit together to make a coherent performance. As I mentioned, this band has changed its sound over the years, but this concert made me appreciate the boundaries they would regularly bulldoze as what ties their music neatly together. The way the band re-configured some of its later material to include instrumentation from earlier period (sax, flutes, percussion), allowed you to hear King Crimson in a simultaneously new and old way. Though the setlist has changed nightly, consisting of basically the same songs played in a different order, I loved the one-two opener of this show with “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (Part One)” and “Level Five.” These are two of my favorite songs and with the former song from 1973 paired with the latter from 2003, it opened the door for these musicians to play anything. I would argue that this was the weakest aspect of the era of Belew for King Crimson. The songs for every tour were always the same ones, mixed with whatever had been recently composed. To see a band dig into its work and history for the first time was special. The crowd was ready to be taken on a journey through the past.
The three drummers brought the trip all into focus. I won’t even try to explain the power, proficiency, and force that Rieflin, Mastelotto, and Harrison played with. It was something, like the pre-recorded conversation with the band members discussing why one should not take photographs and “viddy” recordings prior to coming out on stage, only to be experienced. Here’s about as close as you can get without being there: drum(s?) solo at rehearsals. I would link to something to specific from that evening to give you an idea of what I mean, but as I mentioned, the band is notoriously against photography and audience recordings. I’m sure they’ll release something from this tour, as they have put out an extensive number of live concerts over the years.
My only complaint, if that’s possible, were those strange pre-recorded conversations that played before the band came out and in between some songs. There were interviews with a lot of “ums” from an interviewer and Fripp responding curtly and hilariously to rambling questions. Fripp states in the first pre-recorded segment to have “fun” and “enjoy” the show, two words one does not typically associate with the stoic and unemotive Fripp we see in concert. The whole thing was fun, but those Monty Python-esque segments were distracting. They tried to let the audience eavesdrop, in a joking way, on a band who cannot explain itself easily, as it is a frequently mutating animal, aside from letting the music say everything. It kept the audience more distanced by waiting for the next song to immerse us, rather than feeling drawn in, as I think the intention was to illustrate a Crimson that was now willing to open the door to its history a little bit wider.
Aside from these pre-recorded voices, no one said a word. I can’t remember if this has been the case with the previous concerts. At any rate, the instruments did the talking and no one was introduced. After all, King Crimson fans are pretty familiar with most of those on the stage.
It felt to me as though, different from other tours, every member was as intricate to the construction (or, should I say ConstruKction) of the sound in a new way. Musicians were given their moments to shine, but it was only flashes. I think, again, this is not to bash Adrian Belew in any way (I love the guy), but Belew tends to make the band a bit more flamboyant. To clarify, he seems to try to translate his enjoyment of playing to the audience by letting us clearly see that he’s having fun. While all the musicians in this Crimson were enjoying playing (believe me, you couldn’t not think they were feeling glorious with the positive response from the audience), there was some element that lent a professionalism and coherence so that no one seemed to be more expressive than another member. Even the cohesion in their attire suggests this idea, with suits and button-up shirts for everyone.
Overall, it was a solid performance with great surprises in the set (you have no idea how long I’ve yearned to hear some of them in a live setting), and I would expect nothing less from this band. It matched what was an incredibly enjoyable day spent with a friend and my dad. We had great conversations, ate way beyond what any human should reasonably consume at the Yard House, and then even got dessert (mine was a giant triple chocolate cookie) at Finale before the show. Why can’t every day on earth be like this? Oh yeah, because I’d be deaf, poor, and horribly obese. Maybe it’s good they don’t tour so often.