When I saw that King Crimson was touring I asked some friends if I should go see them. I’ve been a fan more in theory than in practice. I like a lot of their stuff, always planned to listen to them more, but I barely scratched the surface of their output (they’re the kind of band who has released dozens and dozens of things with varying project names and incarnations and since they’ve been recording since 1969, it’s daunting to say the least).
So when two friends basically said they’d give their eye teeth to see the show, it was a quick decision to get my tickets.
It was time to brush up on my back catalog. I had no idea what they’d be playing, so it was something of a crap shoot what discs to look into. As it turned out between the two old CDs and the one live CD that I bought, I covered nearly everything that they played. And that was pretty awesome. I had grown to really enjoy the CDs over the last few months and to see it done in front of me was… well, it was amazing.
King Crimson haven’t toured since 2008, and I have never seen them before. This line up was new for the touring band as well. It was the first time that Adrian Belew hadn’t toured with them in decades. But there were some old favorites playing: Tony Levin, frequent KC contributor and amazing bassist (bass and more); Mel Collins, played with KC in the 70s but hasn’t since, and here he is (Sax, flute); Jakko Jakszyk, recent contributor to Fripp’s projects and the real unknown for me (guitar, vocals). And then the three, yes, three drummers: Gavin Harrison has played with KC before (drums), Bill Rieflin, mostly known for playing with Ministry (!) (drums), Pat Mastelotto has played with KC before, including with Bill Bruford (drums). And of course Robert Fripp (guitar).
So, do you need three drummers? Isn’t that overkill?
Yes and yes.
The three drummers were utterly amazing and they were the focus of the show. As you can see from the photo, the drums were out front so you could watch everything.
Before I get into the show, The Kimmel Center is beautiful and the sound was amazing. I had first row balcony seats. My one seating gripe: I was in front of Fripp, but he basically sat sideways facing the stage (and his wall of gadgets) so I never really got to see him do anything. He was in profile most of the night, and I saw his hands moving, but that was it. So, next time, pick stage left to sit. Also, bring binoculars, because why not.
Back to the three drummers up front. Mastelotto on the left (I could see him perfectly), Rieflin in the center and Harrison on the right (profile, but he was very visible). Behind, l-r Collins, Levin, Jakko and Fripp.
As I said, though, it was all about the drums.
Mastelotto had a lot of weird percussion (sheets of metal and other effects) and when he wasn’t making weird noises, he was banging the hell out of the drums. It was a little scary. He is one of the most intense looking drummer I’ve seen. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone hit them harder. Rieflin had a small kit and a keyboard and he played a lot of textures and sounds when he wasn’t keeping beat. And then Harrison was like the prog drummer he is–super fast, lots of rolls (a huge set) and really nice light touches. Sometimes they all played the same thing (which was intense), sometimes they played off of each other (which was so cool). At one point it looked like Mastelotto was challenging Harrison to a duel. Sometimes one of them would do nothing but hit a cymbal every few measures while the other two went to town. At one point they were all playing the same thing but timed their snare hits to within seconds of each other so it sounded like an echo. They even played some gentle percussion sections (on various electronic gadgets). I never knew where to look.
And that’s all going on in front of the other guys–the guys who are actually playing the (super complicated and intense) music. There were times when the guitar and sax were wailing away and you could see they were doing intricate stuff but the drums were always out front drawing in your eyes.
Collins played a lot of solos (sometimes Fripp’s guitar sounded like the sax as well), and he used the bass sax like a bass guitar (while Levin was doing his own thing) a lot. I really enjoyed the sounds he got out of his horns (except the one sound, more on that). And I just loved when he busted out the flute a few times–a wonderful contrast to the guitar and drum noise.
As I say, the drums were really loud which was very cool, the only problem was sometimes Levin got lost in the mix, especially when he was playing the Stick (which I was watching him do amazing things on but barely could hear it–or maybe it was mixed perfectly and I was listening for more bass notes when the stick plays more tenor sounds). But when he pulled out the bass guitar, blam, that was loud and rocking.
They started the show with the drummers playing around, and it was really intense to watch these three guys with very different styles bash away. I never would have guessed that they were playing the percussion intro to “Lark’s Tongue in Aspic Part 1.” The three drummers suddenly made a lot of sense as one handled the beat, one handled the wild percussion and one played the fills–and then they all played together too. And then they played “Level Five.” A huge complex instrumental with a wall of noise and distortion–just on the edge of being too loud, but actually mixed perfectly for the venue. I was smiling for the first twenty minutes.
Then they played “A Scarcity of Miracles.” I admit that I don’t quite get Fripp’s love of cheesy ballads. Almost every album has a mellow song that’s borderline cheesy. The older stuff I attributed to being the 70s, but even his latest albums have these jazz-lite experiments. This song has a sax right out of a Kenny G song. I guess it was a nice palate cleanser, but it was so weird to come off all that noise and then get this delicate sax ballad. (People gave standing ovations for all the loud songs, but for none of the delicate ones, ha).
Speaking of the crowd… you could hear a pin drop, (and there may have even been one with all that percussion). At one point the percussion was so quiet and we all focused as each drummer delicately hit the side of one cymbal followed by another and another going on a circle. And no one breathed while each note rang out. Best audience ever. By the end of the show they were a bit more raucous between songs, but in the beginning it was pure reverence.
I couldn’t believe they played “Pictures of a City” (I had just gotten the album that that came out on when I was in Michigan a few weeks ago).One of my favorite KC albums is Discipline. They didn’t play anything off of that (it’s a very Adrian Belew album, so that makes sense) but they played three song from Red, another one of my favorites. And Jakko sounded an awful lot like John Wetton (the original singer) for those songs. They played “One More Red Nightmare” which they apparently had never played before (see the set list below for more scintillating info like that). They played “Red” (and bathed the stage in red lights–the only concession to “visuals” during the evening) and, yes, they ended with “Starless and Bible Black,” which was awesome.Jakko has a strong voice, and he fits very well into the KC mould of singers. His guitar playing was pretty great too. I wasn’t always clear who was playing the solos, but he sounded fantastic whenever I focused on his fingers.I don’t have the album Islands, so “The Letter” and “Sailor’s Tale” were new to me, but I loved the juxtapositions of mellow and heavy (which, naturally were super tight), something that KC does so very well.
But let’s not forget the drummers. “The Talking Drum” was also great with the three drummers doing their own thing. They introduced that with Harrsion and Mastelotto competing on bongo-like drums. There were three percussion centered pieces “Hells Bells,” “Hell Hounds of Kirm,” and “HooDoo,” which are all drum and percussion solos for the three guys to play around on. They were all stunning and you can see a rehearsal of one of them here. But the above intro about taping was right, this doesn’t do any kind of justice to what they sounded like live.
The newer(ish) stuff from the THRAK era is stuff I only know from one of their live albums, but they were great to hear. It may be my favorite era, and I need to get more of it.
Tony Levin did a very short bass solo which seemed more like an intro to a song, but when he was done, Fripp played a sample of an audience politely clapping, so we all applauded along–there seemed to be a surprising amount of humor in the show (Fripp doesn’t seem like he’s a funny guy, but I understand he’s really enjoying himself so far this tour).
After like an hour 45 minutes they left the stage, and the crowd was insane. A guy behind me confidently says “they’re going to play schizoid.” I had not looked at any set lists prior to the show so I had no idea what they’d play, but I assumed they’d never play “21st Century Schizoid Man.” And yet, after a percussion intro, there were those notes. I was blown away. It was tight and fast and amazing. There was a drum solo (Harrison) in the middle which seemed to be a way for him to show off any drums that he hadn’t hit yet. And the end was just cacophonous joy.
It was truly staggering.
Unlike other shows where it’s flash and visual pyrotechnics , none of the 7 of them moved an inch all night (well, except to sit down or change instruments). Nevertheless, I was captivated from the first notes. It was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Had I known, I would have bought tickets to the NYC show as well.
This one last video shows some scenes of the band (without the music) just to give an idea of what these 7 guys in suits looked like live.
Here’s the setlist from my show. The nice folks who added this at Setlist.com added some notes about the last time these songs were played. Since my show was actually the fourth or fifth show this tour, these obviously weren’t the first time they were played, but if we consider it a tour first, here’s how long it’s been for some of the songs.
Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One(First live performance since June 6, 1974)
A Scarcity of Miracles(Jakszyk, Fripp and Collins cover)
Pictures of a City(First live performance since June 2, 1984))
One More Red Nightmare(First ever live performance )
Hell Bells(Percussion piece)
The Letters(First live performance since 1972)
Sailor’s Tale(First live performance since 1984)
Hell-Hounds of Krim(“solo” for three drummers)
Coda: Marine 475
The Light of Day(Jakszyk, Fripp and Collins cover)
The Talking Drum
Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two
Starless(First live performance since July 1, 1974)
21st Century Schizoid Man(First live performance since August 26, 1996)