King Crimson returned to active service in 2013 when leader Robert Fripp came out of retirement and announced that Crimson would be returning in a new form... as a seven piece complete with no less than three drummers. This news was greeted with much excitement by fans, especially when the line up was revealed. In essence this new line up of the band almost reads like a definitive Crimson with members from across the entire span of the band's history which began in 1969.
They toured the United States late last year to rapturous acclaim as they presented shows featuring a whole load of vintage material that hadn't been played onstage for 40 years or more. Fripp dismissed any claims that this was an exercise in nostalgia by stating that "the music is new whenever it was written" and all evidence that emerged revealed that this was indeed the case as this 7 headed monster revisited, upgraded and breathed fresh new life into the older numbers to sublime effect. The big question was, would we in the UK be given the chance to catch this band in action live on stage? The band last toured the UK back in 1982 and since then there had been a handful of almost random dates based in London.
Very early this year, our wish came true as a UK tour was announced. Better still, Robert Fripp was keen on playing across the country, giving fans a good chance of catching them. A date at Salford was on the tour list and it was an instant must book for me since Salford was the venue closest by. Better still, a month later, a second night was added and this ageing diehard fan jumped at the unique opportunity of seeing the band two nights in a row. I was in for two very different experiences - the first night I would be up in the rafters with a birds eye view of the stage (it's striking how high the Lowry Theatre is) and on the second I would be sat in the stalls, third row from the stage. Each time I was more or less smack in the middle, so a good view of the entire band was guaranteed. I'm not going to waste time with a potted history of the band - there are countless places online where you can read such things, complete with inaccuracies, but I will take this moment to introduce you to each member of this line up. The set up onstage is rather unique - split into two tiers, in the front are the three drummers and behind them on a raised platform is the "backline" consisting of the remaining four members. As previously mentioned, in essence, this is a super-definitive Crimson as will be better explained as I deal with each member. First, the drum trio from left to right.
PAT MASTELOTTO joined Crimson in 1994 when he was paired with the legendary Bill Bruford creating a drum duo. After Bruford left in 1997, Pat became the sole drummer for the next decade. His role in the band now is akin to that of a mad professor. In between playing standard drums - with a power and ferocity that is truly remarkable - Pat prowls around his zone bashing away on various odd looking devices as well as triggering and playing digital samples. Pat keeps alive the manic invention that was introduced to the band in 1972 during the short era Jamie Muir was in the band, at the same time adding his own delightful sense of humour.
BILL RIEFLIN is one of two "new" members of King Crimson though he and Robert Fripp began working together on odd "projekcts" in the late 1990's. He also is a member of The Humans led by Toyah Willcox, Robert's wife so Rieflin is well connected. Some of you will remember him as the drummer in Ministry and then R.E.M. He is situated at the centre of the stage and of the drum trio appears to be the straight man - the link between the wilder elements of the drum trio. Rieflin also takes care of all the Mellotron parts using a digital version of the instrument.
GAVIN HARRISON is the drummer from Porcupine Tree who are currently on a hiatus. He joined Crimson as second drummer for a short tour in 2008 alongside Pat Mastelotto. Harrison is at home playing tricky time signatures and is genuinely virtuosic playing not only with high intensity but constant invention. He is hugely respected and regarded as one of the very best drummers in the industry and it's not hard to see or hear why.
Then we take in the "backline"
MEL COLLINS joined the band back in 1970 and stayed for almost two and a half years. As saxophonist and flautist even as a young man in his early twenties, his musicianship and skill was astonishing as he constantly turned in inventive explorative solos as well as adding beautifully to the overall fabric of the band. Fripp has constantly praised Collins stating he's a far better musician than himself! Crimson had no sax or flute elements onstage between 1972 and 2013 and Collins' return to the band was perhaps the biggest and most welcome surprise of all. His CV is exhaustive as he's played sessions on so many records that he himself can't even remember all that he's played on. And blow me... 40 odd years on, his playing is better than ever.
TONY LEVIN is in many ways, the musician's musician - like Mel Collins, Levin seems to have played with a ton of talents over his long career. He joined Crimson in 1981 playing the Chapman Stick, a peculiar type of bass guitar. He took time out from Crimson in the early noughties but was back for the 2008 tour. Quite simply, he's one of the finest bass players in the world and what makes his role so interesting in King Crimson is that he rarely ever plays the same parts twice and whatever he plays is superb. He also adds occasional backing vocals.
JAKKO JAKSZYK is alongside Bill Rieflin, one of the two newer members in the role of singer and guitarist. A well seasoned pro with a long CV, Jakszyk has been playing Crimson music for the last 15 years as he was a member of the 21st Century Schizoid Band which featured a variety of former Crimson musicians playing the older songs. In 2010, Jakko and Fripp worked together on a new album along with Mel Collins... Tony Levin and Gavin Harrison also contributed to the resulting album "A Scarcity Of Miracles" - in King Crimson, Jakko combines with Robert Fripp sharing and complementing the guitar parts to stunning effect.
Last, but not least - ROBERT FRIPP : the sole original member from 1969, the man who most regard as being the Crimson King who ripped up the rule books with his very own unique style of playing. His collaborations with Brian Eno and David Bowie resulted in some extraordinary work. A lot has been written about him which I won't go into but regardless to say, he is one of the most inventive guitarists in rock history though he'd disagree with such a sentiment.
The tour is subtitled "The Elements of King Crimson" and that's a very accurate description as we have elements from across the bands entire history - from the 60's - Fripp. 70's - Collins. 80's - Levin. 90's - Mastelotto. 2000's - Harrison. Rieflin and Jakko add the newer elements to complement the elder ones. Seven outstanding musicians - a King Crimson to beat all Crimsons.
So... that brings us to The Lowry Theatre in Salford Quays for the first of two performances.
Friday September 11th 2015
My view was good - could see the whole band and a great overview of the drummers. The sound balance was good from where I was sat... the drums didn't overpower the mix though Levin sometimes seemed low in the mix but generally it was well balanced.
They got a good reception from this audience... a lot of love and respect for them. The show kicked off with an amusing spoken word recording of them asking not to film and record and it seemed the audience actually did comply... another three minutes passed before Pat strolled onstage followed by the rest of the band all smartly attired in suits and ties. Playing throughout were some maudlin freshly composed soundscapes (Fripp creates fresh 'scapes before each show) Mel picked up his flute and began improvising a delightful part to them... the soundscapes faded out, in came the Song Of The Gulls session tape from 1971 and in a lovely touch, where the musicians on the tape tune up, the whole band onstage did likewise then silenced for Robert's taped count in... straight into "Larks Tongue In Aspic Part 1" and the show got underway.
The drum trio seemed a bit clunky for the first 2 or 3 numbers, but once they kicked into the groove, it was a wonderful sight and sound. They made me laugh 2 or 3 times - they're playful and theatrical. Interesting seeing them at work. It seemed such an absurd idea and potentially, a disaster but these three have worked bloody hard to pull it off so they function as one.
The setlist is 70's heavy with 2 or 3 numbers from the 90's and Noughties along with a trio from 1969. Some new songs come early on and I really enjoyed them. "Meltdown" is catchy and nice to hear Tony and Jakko harmonising. What's interesting is seeing how each member is constantly busy doing something... even when it's nothing! A couple of songs where Gavin barely played and same for Robert. Levin? He never ceases to astonish me as yet again, he was constantly adding different touches... he chose not to play on the first verse of "Epitaph" which gave it an interesting almost skeletal feel.
I loved Jakko - a fine singer and guitarist. Of course, I was intrigued to see what Fripp played and didn't play... weird actually seeing him playing some of those incisive peculiar parts we know and love. Seeing Fripp playing those crazy parts on "Sailors Tale" was a treat and that brings us to "The Letters" - I personally never liked the song on the 1971 album "Islands" but in the hands of this lot, it suddenly explodes into a masterclass in dynamics as the quiet softly sung verses suddenly explode into a ferocious almost free-jazz section leading into a great solo from Mel. Mel Collins as ever was superb throughout and was fun watching him switch between instruments regularly and no matter what he played, it felt right and spot on so was hugely enjoyable watching this master at work... and clearly enjoying it too.
"Easy Money" - for the first tour since 1974 - was stunning - the interplay between Jakko and Robert's guitar parts was fascinating. Jakko delivers it well, adding his very own vocal improvs and it was rather spaced out in feel. It's great to see and hear this number played by Crimson again... it works a treat given the seven headed treatment and it got an amazing reception. The audience in general were well behaved if a little polite... I spotted maybe 3 or 4 others who were in the same zone as me - rocking out throughout. Impossible not to... it engaged me deeper in the music. Another old favourite "Epitaph" from the iconic first album was another treat - it had last been played onstage back in December 1969!
"Starless" as always was a highlight and a simple lighting trick (the only one in the entire show) where the entire stage is gradually bathed in blood red light was perfect... really added to it. In many ways this song is THE definitive King Crimson number in that it fuses together all the elements that make them such a unique entity in a perfect manner.
The encore began with some drumming madness leading into the classic "The Court Of The Crimson King" newly revived for this tour having last been played onstage back in December 1971. Bill played all the Mellotron parts... how on earth Rieflin can play an entire 2 hours without removing his jacket, goodness knows but he's sure one cool guy! The finale of course was "21st Century Schizoid Man" and finally witnessing them playing that live in person... well... it's true - you do have to be THERE in person for the full on effect, especially the stop start section... those sudden silences really kick you! Gavin's solo was amazing...seriously. Best drum solo I've ever seen and it was great seeing every member all watching him rapturously and enjoying what he was playing.
Interesting too seeing them lapping up the standing ovations as Fripp scans the entire audience, shielding his eyes from the lights so he could scan all of us at the top of the building... Mel was waving and grinning away as was Pat... and that was my first King Crimson gig. As I was leaving I overheard nothing but praise from many an elder fan, gushing away - the drum trio definitely made an impact.
I took no photos but did find this one posted online showing the band returning for the encore...
Saturday September 12th 2015
There is a "theory" that goes around between diehard Crimson fans that Crimson second nighters are usually better than the first. Tonight more than proved the point.
This time I was in the third row and it was the PERFECT seat - I was facing Bill's kit so, was right in the sweet spot to hear the drum trio in all it's mad glory - in full stereo, bouncing back and forth. I could see every member's face perfectly... so unlike last night's birds eye view, I had plenty of choice on which to focus... and my head was constantly turning left and right to catch whatever grabbed me and the whole time, I was rocking out. A guy sat to my left had also seen last night's show so we chatted about that as we waited for the band to take to the stage and I told him about the second night theory. When the band finished their main set, the chap turned to me beaming and saying "You were absolutely right - that was even better than last night!"
The audience were much more enthusiastic and responsive... very tuned in to the degree that quite a few numbers would end and there would be a few seconds of total silence before we'd erupt into applause since we were with the band and the music all the way. Quite a few people around me were definitely well into it, rocking out, most notably a lady dressed in red in the front row - she was going NUTS to the old faves. It was great to see since Crimson are generally deemed a men's band, but this lady clearly LOVES them. She also made an impression on one member of the band... more later.
The sound was well balanced. I feared being closer to the drums, that they would drown the rest of the band out. That didn't happen though again, Tony Levin sometimes seemed to vanish in the mix.
The show again began with the potent "Larks Tongue In Aspic Pt 1" - Oh. My. God. You simply cannot get a more powerful opening number than that!
The drum trio were having fun as very often, Pat, Bill and Gavin could be spotted grinning and laughing at one another. And they played magnificently. Now, the triple drum set up exploded into life thanks to where I was sat... also, this time, the power of the drums, bass and Crimson was hitting me in the face and chest and vibrating through my feet.
"LTIA pt 1" ended and went straight into "Red". Wow! Talk about a potent punch! A nice surprise and one number they didn't play last night. Then came a new bluesy number... it's a great showcase for Mel. Again, hearing "Meltdown" a second time was a treat. I really REALLY like this song... nice fusion of the 80's style with 70's but sounding real fresh. The chorus is catchy. Jakko sang and played perfectly throughout. It's not easy to take on Greg Lake, Boz and John Wetton's vocals but he does so with such ease. For a "new" member Jakko never failed to deliver and impress.
The band were on FIRE tonight. A real intensity throughout which had me open mouthed for a good proportion. There was one amusing moment early on as the "blues" number ended - I heard a guy behind me exclaim "That sax players fucking brilliant isn't he?" as if he'd never experienced or heard Mel before and the fact he referred to him as "that sax player" made a strong case for being that guy's initiation into Mel Collins. The 2015 tour box has an excellent lengthy essay by Sid Smith based upon last years rehearsals and there's a great quote by Mel about being back in Crimson, making him up his game again... this guy is playing superbly. He's a true star, but there's also 6 others. He's in impressive company and it shows in his playing. He's back at home, where he truly belongs.
Fripp has stated that live recordings are like "love letters" not really conveying what it's actually like to be in the presence of King Crimson... a live date in Fripp's eyes is akin to "hot date" - well, if last night was a "hot date" tonight was explosively hot complete with coffee! "Easy Money" yet again was a major highlight... and that was the moment where I swear the Crimson beast was well and truly present. An extraordinary performance. In the moment. Edgy. Vibrant. Fresh.
The whole band were ON from the get go. It was interesting to observe facial expressions. Robert looked rather straight faced for the first half... odd smiles began to appear... I caught him smiling at one of Mel's flights of fancy. When he played THAT part on "Starless"... his face registered emotion. (Bizarrely, Mel was laughing at the start of that number - no idea what amused him!) Throughout you see the whole band constantly keeping strong eye contact with each other. They're two separate entities the back and front line that fuse perfectly as one.
"The Letters" and the "Sailors Tale" pairing was absent tonight but that's was fine... they can and do switch numbers around which again highlights why one should catch each show they do in each city they play so you get to hear different numbers each night. So tonight we were treated to "The Talking Drum" and "Lark's Tongue In Aspic Part 2" which thrilled the audience immensely!
The encore took me by surprise... they went straight into "One More Red Nightmare" which I wasn't expecting. That featured a wonderful moment of deadpan humour from Bill Rieflin as during one section, each of the drummers took a turn to play a fill. When it came to Bill's turn, he simply reached out to a cymbal in front of him and spun it! That was followed by "In The Court Of The Crimson King" and of course "21st Century Schizoid Man" which well... it all took my breath away. The aforementioned lady in red was WELL INTO ALL THIS. When the band soaked up the final applause (I swear Robert was smiling at all of us as he scanned the audience), Pat did a gentlemanly gesture by tossing his sticks in the direction of the lady and ensured she got them. That was a lovely touch. The band were all smiles as we kept hollering and cheering. They were a HIT and we loved every bloody moment. The moment they exited, the roadies swiftly began dismantling the gear.
This was a classic Crimson gig. For this ageing fan, it was perfect. Never sagged at all... it seemed to be over and done with very quickly though it lasted the full two hours. I was transported to another place. I forgot where I was and as I walked out the main hall, it felt like a rude awakening. Crimson had delivered. I feel bloody proud and privileged to have witnessed these two shows but this second one - as great as the first was - had that "extra" something that made it the best gig I've ever seen. Intense. Exciting. Extraordinary. The beast was live, present and kicking ass!
I was walking to catch the tram. Three older guys saw I had the King Crimson bag (I bought last years tour box and a set of 6 badges - the merchandise table is very impressive as were the queues) and asked me what I thought. The three of them were in agreement with me. One of them said "They're the best rock band on the planet" and another, "They're seven musicians at their peak!" I can't disagree with such sentiments.
So, two blinding shows by the same band that were two very different experiences I will never forget for the rest of my life. The chance to catch King Crimson in person doesn't come round very often but if you get the opportunity, they are simply a MUST SEE. Again, live recordings only capture part of the experience... and being there, "in the moment" with the band is a sensation you will never feel at any other show by any other band.
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