King Crimson: The Vic, 9/26/2014

Posted 09/29/2014 by cal

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In case you hadn't noticed, I'm a prog-nut from way back. Yes started me down the road, but it wasn't long before I became almost as obsessed with ELP, and since Greg Lake had been in King Crimson prior to forming that band, it was inevitable that I'd find my way to In The Court Of The Crimson King (as if the cover art alone weren't enticing enough). Crimson is different from all the other 70s prog giants in that over the course of its nearly half-century of on-and-off existence, it has never become an utterly lame anachronism. Robert Fripp has always been mindful of the Crimson legacy. Still, each successive reformation of the project brings an increasing threat of tarnish. For the few of us who care about such things, anyway.

I managed to avoid finding out much about this new lineup prior to seeing it live on Friday at The Vic. All I knew was that they were likely to play "21st Century Schizoid Man", and that Adrian Belew, the voice of Crimson for the previous 30 years of its existence, would not be involved. I was admittedly a bit disappointed to learn this, but I am generally inclined to trust Fripp's instincts, and if he says Belew is "not right" for this new endeavor, so be it.

I'm here to tell you that Fripp's assertion was indeed correct. This new King Crimson is less a band than a clinic, and Adrian Belew is not clinical--he is visceral, unruly, soulful. You would not likely see him standing on a stage dressed in white, bathed in unblinking colorless light, immobile and expressionless, waiting for three drummers to finish dicking around so he can play the next song. Maybe he wasn't asked to join this lineup, but if he'd been invited to a rehearsal, I find it hard to believe he would've stuck around for long.

Confession: I hate drum solos. I also hate rock bands with two drummers. Yes, there are A FEW exceptions to both of these rules, but even though it's King Fucking Crimson and I was going in with the openest of possible minds, seeing those three full kits at the front of the stage was disheartening. I would say that there were some very innovative and ridiculously impressive things going on in the interactions between the drummers, particularly when they would alternate accents within the same beat, essentially as if they were different limbs of a single drummer. All three were impeccable; it wasn't like bunch of sloppy jam-band hacks flailing away. It was a clinic.

But seriously, fuck three drummers in a rock band. One guy is all you ever need. If Bruford refuses to do it, get Stewart Copeland or somebody else. Otherwise it's not possible to avoid instances of the percussion being so insanely cluttered that it obscures the music, and instances there were. And there were so many portions of the show that featured nothing but percussion--usually not too long, but sometimes definitely too long--that there was no way I could avoid putting my chin in my hand. Fripp would surely scoff at my lack of appreciation for the intricacies of the rhythmic interactions, but for every intriguing trinket of sound there was at least twice as much plastic tedium.

However, the tedium was dwarfed by what was very nearly a dream setlist. The most important thing for me was to keep my eyes closed; every time I found myself visually engaged with the stuffy dullness onstage, the spell would be broken, but with eyes closed, I was transported into the music, which these guys played impeccably. Minus a few fusion-ish bits that skewed a bit too smooth for my tastes (and the frequent percussion detours), the improv was pretty furious, highlighted by iconic Fripp wizardry and the horns and woodwinds of Mel Collins, who returned to the lineup for the first time since the 70s. There were fresh arrangements that made for a unique experience without sacrificing the mood and majesty of the original compositions. There was no doubt that these guys had rehearsed their asses off, and the result was profoundly impressive.

The bottom line is that I got my money's worth--$100 for the cheap seats, that is--when they tore into the full original "Larks' Tongues In Aspic" suite to start the show. To get to experience Fripp, Tony Levin and, to be honest, whomever else they feel like playing with, play that piece of music was a bucket-list item I frankly never believed I'd cross off. And they didn't stick with just the predictable oldies, either; I was anticipating maybe "Cat Food" (such a groaner) or some of the ballads from the first three records, but vocals were not at all the focus. We got "One More Red Nightmare" and "Pictures Of A City" (major highlight) and "Sailor's Tale", pure bliss for any fan of the band. And of course, "Red" and "Starless" closed the set, with the anticipation building for the monstrous "Schizoid Man" encore. There's really no room for complaint.

However, there's no chance I'll pay to see this configuration of King Crimson again. I was more than happy to twiddle my thumbs through the "Jakszyk, Fripp and Collins" material and whatnot to get to the good stuff, but my memory kept reaching back to when I saw Crimson in 2000, with Belew, and how much more moving it had been, even though the only pre-Discipline song they played was "Red". I've now had all my wishes fulfilled for songs I most craved (aside from "Fracture"...doggone it) that the Belew-fronted band wouldn't play, but I realized at the Vic that the heart and soul of Crimson was Belew, not Fripp, and by pretending that the Belew era didn't even exist I find downright insulting. Belew saved Crimson from becoming a relic, and now that he's not involved, a relic is exactly what Crimson is. I'm eternally grateful to Fripp for his lifetime of musical output, and for this tour especially, but King Crimson is now officially dead to me. What I saw was not a band; it was an assemblage of stiff virtuosos paying tribute to a band that no longer exists. But the legacy is still intact.

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  • Cal's gravatar Cal said:
    10/4/2014 1:53 PM

    My only disagreement would be that Crimson's really going where Crimson has already gone before on this tour--aside from having three drummers. I'm really not upset with Fripp; I'm just coming to terms with the fact that my appreciation for Crimson is now as an entity of the past. It had to happen some time.

  • tarquin's gravatar tarquin said:
    10/4/2014 1:10 PM

    King Crimson's legacy has always been to "boldly go where no band has gone before", i.e. explore new or unfamiliar musical territory and execute it in different or unconventional ways. This history is a tough call for any new iteration of the band: audiences have expectations. In 1980, some people were complaining bitterly that the Levin, Belew, Fripp, and Bruford version didn't sound like the Larks' Tongues band. In 1973 some people were unhappy with all the free improv. Some people were that Belew shouldn't even be in King Crimson, which led him to write a song about it. In the current version, I've read people complaining about Belew's omission. With KC's modus operandi, "it is impossible to achieve the aim without (someone) suffering" because KC are a progressive (in the true sense of the word) band - unlike bands in the "prog" genre, which tend to stick to an industry-derived formula. So, if you to witness a "youth culture" or "attitude" band with lots of implied sexuality, phallus-grabbing and guitar masturbation go see any metal band. Similarly you can get the same deal from any punk or rap band, minus the Berklee schooled widely-widdly guitar solos. If you want to see a big budget show with all the spectacular lights, pyro and be one of 30,000 iPhone waving spectators, then go watch Lady Gaga, the Rolling Stones or whatever. If you want to see a costume change every other song, then go see Diana Ross. If you wanna see a "prog" band playing it safe, then go see Asia or Yes. It's funny reading reviews of the same concert one has just attended, but from a different perspective; it really shows how subjective the listening experience is. But my admiration for, and kudos to KC for dispensing with all the familiar crutches that pretty much all artists (outside the classical or jazz arena) fall back on and support their shows with, to both keep the audience on looking at the stage (rather than texting their friends) and perhaps even to compensate for lackluster musicianship and/or cookie-cutter material. King Crimson are one of a kind - and in today's conformist, led-by-the-nose world - they are true iconoclasts. And... nobody can ever complain about musicianship, because to qualify for membership in the good ship Crim - a player has to be at the top of his game. regarding skill.

  • Cal's gravatar Cal said:
    9/29/2014 9:10 PM

    Thanks for the comments, guys. Yes, John, it is possible to like some aspects of something and dislike other aspects, at least for me. I could've gone on and on about this stuff but I wanted to make it as concise as I could. I love Crimson, but this incarnation struck me as sterile. As an active creative force, I think the band is finished; this is merely Fripp basking in his own legacy, which he has every right to do. But to see those classics performed was a thrill nevertheless. I hadn't caught Fripp live since 2000, so I can't compare to those interim tours. But I don't see how this tour is forward-looking at all. When I think of the Belew era, I think of the Discipline era, and secondarily, THRAK. Beyond that I think the recorded music began to devolve into retreads, even though I do enjoy some of the ConstruKction material. Great points about Belew's style, though, Really?. I imagine we'll never know whether he could've somehow fit into this setlist. I just miss his passion, and I think the passion and ensemble feel of a vital BAND went with him. I really appreciate the discussion! Thanks again.

  • Really?'s gravatar Really? said:
    9/29/2014 7:51 PM

    I love Belew as a singer and songwriter, but never thought his clowning fit in with the heavier Crimson metal aggregations as well as it did with the '80s Crimson. As for the three drummers: I was wondering whether two would be enough, but I figured Fripp and the drummers must know better than I. Anyway, they didn't ignore the Belew era -- Construkction of Light and Level Five were from the Belew era. As was Vrooom, which was played on the first night. They didn't play any songs Belew actually sang, but that's probably as it should have been. His lyrics and singing style were very personal. I will agree that JF&C songs were slow points in the show -- they don't have Ade's touch with a ballad. If they wanted to slow the pace of the show, I would have preferred some kind ambient music. But, other than that minor quibble, I actually thought it was much better than the 2008 Crimson shows, which were enjoyable but didn't really seem forward-looking to me.

  • John Harris's gravatar John Harris said:
    9/29/2014 7:16 PM

    Talk about schizoid....You loved, you hated it. The drummers were sensational, yet you hate two drummers in a band, and three is worse. You got your money's worth, yet King Crimson is dead to you. Yes, the Belew era revived Crimson, but he's been gone for many years, and this was, as Fripp put it, the eighth incarnation of the band, and it was not the Belew Crimson. Why would Fripp play those songs?

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