Monday, July 10, 2017
Live Review: King Crimson, Red Bank, NJ, July 9, 2017
What is King Crimson? The answer is notoriously hard to pin down, because the band has rarely stayed the same for very long -- in sound or in membership. The monster morphs at will -- the "will" in question being that of Robert Fripp, guitarist extraordinaire and the only constant in a nearly 50-year span of King Crimson.
I won't pretend to know everything there is about King Crimson, nor to have been a life-long devotee of the band. I bought their first album -- In the Court of the Crimson King -- around 1977 or so, as my Yes/Genesis prog days were giving way to my Clash/Jam/Damned punk days. By then, Crimson was on hiatus, and, already being the sort of gig-obsessed music fan that I still am, when I realized that fact, post-purchase, it took a little gild off the lily, as it were, for me. I liked that record, but never quite got around at the time to loving it because, when I bought it, the band wasn't a practicing entity any longer. By the time that status changed -- 1981 and the Discipline album with a reformed four-piece Crimson -- most of my listening had moved on.
So when that early-'80s reunion occurred, I skipped out on all that, somehow, and, while I was busy listening to some genius American and English punk in the early '80s, the boys in Crimson were putting out some of their best material (I later learned).
Then they split again; then they were back together in the early '90s for Thrak, with some of the same characters from the '80s plus more.
I still didn't catch back on.
There were a few more releases, more tours, membership changes. Me? I didn't really check back in for quite some time.
Then, about 2010, not having given a thought to anything Crimson-related in years, but beginning to revisit some old prog and jazz, I stumbled across a cheap copy of Red. I bought it, eager to delve into what one reviewer has called: "a new type of heaviness. . . one that effectively disengages itself from the blues-derived riffology practiced by the big three of early 70s hard rock – Sabbath, Zeppelin, Purple – and instead creates a starker, colder, darker version of heavy that nevertheless still delivers serious cathartic thrills."
I like cathartic thrills. I like dark. I like heavy.
I dug in.
I dug it.
I was hooked. The mid-'70s version of Crimson that released the trio of Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, and Red was significantly more dangerous than the first-album version of the band. Yup, that means that I followed my purchase of Red with those Larks and Starless albums. I loved them. If they lacked anything, it was solid production. They sounded, well, a little old, but, god, they sounded good. And weird. And dark. And, yes, dangerous.
If the fringes of punk rock had taught me anything, it was the adage, "Punk is whatever we made it to be," and, it appeared to me, nothing was more punk in spirit than the ever-shifting persona and sound of King Crimson.
The next step for me was to explore the '80s and '90s incarnations of the band. Sure, I could have headed for the band's second through fourth albums from the early '70s (post-Court, but pre-Larks), but reviews told me that the '80s and '90s versions of the band had more in common with the power and unpredictability of Red than did those second through fourth albums where it seemed, from the reviews, things were a little lighter, albeit still challenging. I didn't want light. I wanted thundering, disjointed darkness with a side helping of weird.
I loved it all, but I fell particularly under the trance of this one:
Sure, it's prog as hell overall -- with Tony Levin anchoring down the basic rhythm on his Stick contraption while Bill Bruford plays drums in circles around and over and under him and Belew and Fripp weave with shards and spindles of broken glass -- but the harsh edges are the best punk to me as well. It challenges; it pulls you back close; it punches you in the face.
Fast forward to 2016.
I read an article about a King Crimson tour. They had seven members and three of the seven were drummers. It sounded heavy and dark and (there's that word again) dangerous. Moreover, from what I read, the typical setlist that tour was, for the first time, spanning the entire Crimson catalogue as Fripp and company reestablished their five-fingered death grip on songs that had long lay dormant, but they did so in a rejuvenating way. This was no greatest-hits/resting-on-one's-laurels/cranking-out-the-same-old-crap tour. This was experimental and cutting edge, but with the feet of the beast planted in many different eras, stirring the musical pot.
"Don't disappoint me, gentlemen," I muttered as I hit the "buy" button on the 2016 live box set. "Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind" is the title. Readers of this blog will know that I'm definitely against the hold that monkey mind sometimes has on me. I'm also most certainly in favor of radical action to unseat that hold. I had high hopes.
The album did not disappoint. For my money -- and there are likely legions of Crimson fans worldwide that will want to draw and quarter me for this statement -- it is the best thing the band has ever done. That tinny-production complaint that I blasphemed regarding some of the older albums? Not here.
It's heavy. One of the discs is called, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, "Mostly Metal." But it kind of is. The 2016 takes on "Larks' Tongues" Part 1 and 2 render them nearly different songs. "Red" has a little extra oomph and I dare say that there is not a studio version of one of these songs that I prefer to the Radical Action version.
There are also a few newer compositions that hold their own. I was ready for a Crimson appearance in Philly.
They announced a tour. Philly wasn't on it. But Red Bank, NJ was. Re-muttering, "Don't disappoint me, gentlemen," I hit the "buy" button on a single second-row ticket that I bought when I could not find anyone that was both willing to spend the substantial price for a ticket to this tour and not already busy that night. I was going to be on a rare solo trip for this show.
Fast forward to Red Bank, July 9, 2017.
First observation: the crowd is a bit of a dude-fest. I can't say I expected any different. But the lines for the men's room are going to be epic. The queue for the merch counter was already considerable at 7:10 when I walked in for the 8 p.m. show.
Second observation: damn. Mr. Fripp and company apparently do not want their photos taken while playing. Honestly, I totally get the no-video thing, and I get the no-flash thing. But no pics at all? I was sitting right in front of Gavin Harrison and I would have some pretty formidable shots of him playing drums if it weren't for the rules, maaaaan. But the rules were so clearly stated (signs!) that I didn't dare violate them from my vaunted spot near the front.
Third observation: sweet mother of god, I'm glad I brought earplugs. The speaker stack was, oh, seven feet in front of me at most.
Final observation: my mind is fully and completely blown.
Here is a link to the setlist.
Sure, I'd have liked a little heavier concentration on the Discipline/Beat era if I were writing my own "perfect" Crimson setlist, but this was, hands down, the tightest band I have ever seen in my life. They hit on almost all eras of the band, and paid a little extra effort to re-work songs so the "now" version of everything presented a cohesive feel. Go listen to tracks from the band's early years, then some from Red/Larks and then some from Discipline and Beat, and tell me you hear one band. Nope, but when those songs are performed by King Crimson circa 2017, they all come from the same primal core. I like the studio versions of almost everything they played (full disclosure: "Islands" has never been my cup of tea) but the 2017 live versions of everything truly breathe "radical" life and dynamics into all the songs.
The most "radical" concept of "Radical Action" is clearly the use of three drummers. Apparently it was going to be four drummers this tour, but that plan got scrapped along the way. But three is still one more drummer than I have ever seen playing at the same time on a stage and I wondered: would it all be a giant mess? With a resounding, "No!" the trio of Gavin Harrison, Jeremy Stacey, and Pat Mastelotto somehow managed not merely to avoid getting in one another's way, but they made everything better, as if they are actually constituent parts of a six-handed drummer with one collective brain and two feet. The fills never clashed, spinning glorious circles around one another, and the rare moments of simultaneous collective bashing were exactly the oomph the songs demanded at those spots. From my second-row position directly in front of Gavin Harrison, I'd say he's the most Bruford-esque of the trio, but it may be that my seat location led to prejudice in that regard. All three of them were jaw-droppingly skilled, and when they alternated fills -- like on "Lizard" or "Indiscipline" -- it made me simultaneously want to practice drumming more often and just give up. These men can play.
Speaking of "Indiscipline".... As a devotee of setlist.fm, I had noticed that most of the second sets this tour opened with that favorite of mine. When this one didn't, and the band launched at that juncture into a pounding, menacing take on "Larks' Tongues Part 1" instead, I shrugged it off. They were killing it anyway. I was good. By the time they played "Easy Money" as the third song of that set, I had mostly cast aside any thought of "Indiscipline."
Trust Robert Fripp to always keep me on my toes. Tony Levin began the rhythmic trancelike tap of the opening lines on the Stick, and they were off to the races on "Indiscipline." On the studio version, or even the live version in the video above, the intro section is short, much less than a minute. But 2017 Crimson is not mired in the past. It does what it wants to. It wanted to ride that intro groove for what seemed like a full five minutes. Levin played the bass part in 5/4 (or is it sometimes 6/4, or 11/4? Oh hell, I don't know) and locked that down while, I swear, the drummers alternated fills designed not merely to enhance the song but in a spirited competition to try to do the impossible: make Levin stumble. Levin emerged unscathed from the battle; he cracked a few grins, but he did not drop a beat. For five minutes of fury. And they paused for a second, as if all the air were momentarily sucked out of the room. Then.... pow. The main riff began and the band was on fire. But then came the biggest surprise of all -- a harmonized, sung jazzy vocal from Jakko Jakszyk and Tony Levin. I don't know if I like that vocal better than the original Belew one, but it was stunning. To quote the lyric, "I wish you were here to see it!"
What about, well, everything else? It was all perfect. There are many little moments that are etched on my brain:
-- Mel Collins' sax work that added a glorious Coltrane-esque skronk to whatever he played on.
-- Fripp strumming the hell out of his guitar to start Larks Pt 1, and nothing coming out, until it built slowly, methodically into a wall of noise.
-- My unremitting freaking joy when the usual first-set closer ("Islands") ended and the band didn't move. Instead, they all looked to Fripp, who began "Larks' Tongues" Part 2. It thundered and was the perfect finisher to the the opening set.
-- Every little visual cue traded between musicians, particularly Tony Levin's apparent near-constant bemusement, Jakko's and Fripp's beaming pride as Gavin Harrison took a drum solo that even I loved (I really don't like most drum solos), and the grins of delight between drummers as they took their turn on increasingly challenging fills.
-- Just how perfectly "Cirkus/Lizard/Red" is as a trio of songs in the middle of a set. Those first two are a bit similar in vibe, coming from the same album, but "Red" is, originally, a whole different level of menace and noise. The 2017 Crimson solution? Bring the first two up to the level of the last one. I like the studio versions of "Cirkus" and "Lizard" just fine, but what happens to those songs these days, with three drummers, and a significant increase in attack, is a wonder to behold.
-- The setlists are perfectly constructed to leave us spent and exhausted in all the best ways.
-- And, finally, yes, this, even though it sounded too "normal" for the rest of the night in many respects. It's a great song, and they did it well:
I could go on and on.
I think I already have.
Damn, what a performance. I'm psyched for the next tour already. Philly, gentlemen? I hope so.
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