Three years after my first double "hot dates" with King Crimson (reviews here), thanks to unexpected circumstances I ended up with another double dose in 2018. In brief, I booked to see the Manchester show in late November 2017 the day the tickets went on sale. Unfortunately and inexplicably, the ticket agency failed to deliver my ticket. Cue some emailing with less than 48 hours to go and King Crimson's company DGM Live intervened to ensure I would be able to see the show. In an astonishing gesture of goodwill - given the ticket situation was not their fault - they offered me tickets for the following night's show in Liverpool which I was happy to graciously accept.
There have been dramatic changes over the last three years though may not seem so on paper or in this case, a webpage. To put you in the picture : in 2015 I witnessed a seven headed band. In 2016, one of the drummers Bill Rieflin had to take a sabbatical. The tour was booked so Jeremy Stacey was brought in to dep for Bill. Stacey was instantly at home, adding an extra muscular edge to the triple drum section. Bill then returned for 2017 but as an extra surprise, Jeremy was retained and added to the band as the eight member whilst Bill opted to play keyboards. Stacey also plays keyboards and with Robert Fripp playing more keyboard parts of his own, the sound palette of the band changed to stunning effect. As a seven headed band they sounded wonderful but with eight heads, they became something else completely, now able to bring to life the band's most complex numbers in the process sounding more orchestral. A live album recorded in Vienna in late 2016 was slated for release but the release was postponed when a more recent gig from Chicago in June 2017 was deemed as a stunner and released instead as an official bootleg. A true scorcher of a release that sounded like a completely different band. That tour climaxed shortly after in Mexico for a set of dates that Robert Fripp and the rest of the band felt were extraordinary to the degree the band entered a new dimension and era. The Mexican dates are chronicled on their newest release "Meltdown" - a triple CD package complete with a BluRay of video highlights. It is well recommended!
I held off purchasing my copy of "Meltdown" and listening to any King Crimson music because I wanted to attend the show in Manchester with as fresh a pair of ears as possible to experience this eight headed beast in all their glory. It proved to be a very smart decision.
The Bridgewater Hall is a venue that was designed for classical concerts... not rock bands like King Crimson and this became immediately apparent when the band kicked in as the sound was horribly boomy and the sound mix unintelligible. It was also the first time I'd witnessed a band receive a standing ovation before they played a note. The sound mixer worked his balls off during the first two numbers and by the third, everybody was audible and one's ears adjusted to the hall's acoustics... away we went on an epic ride.
The band were in a very jovial mood - a lot of smiling and laughter amongst all eight members, yet they were playing some of the most complex rock music ever written with such ease it defied belief. The highlight of set one was a suite of newer numbers. Entitled the "Radical Action Suite" it comprises material written since 2014, climaxing with a gem from 2001, "Level Five" now retitled "Lark's Tongue In Aspic Pt 5" and I swear I have never witnessed anything so HEAVY in my life. This is heavy metal rock at it's very best and given the entire band were smartly attired in suits and ties made it all the more potent. It left me pinned to my seat gasping for breath as the heaviness and intensity of the music and playing knocked me senseless. It got an outstanding reception and that spoke volumes as I'm guessing most present were waiting to hear and enjoy the "oldies" from 1969 to 1974 so for them to respond to this newer music was great to witness. Set one was a real tour de force and I had to dive outside during the interval to try and clear my head as it felt like it had undergone a major pummelling. That is in no way a complaint! That's how King Crimson - when on form - "get" to you.
I have a confession to make. In 1970, the band released their third album "Lizard" during a period of turmoil. Side two was given over to a lengthy suite of songs that were pieced together in the studio using extensive overdubbing. It was as if Robert Fripp and producer Peter Sinfield were trying for a big sound, cramming in as much as possible, but... the results were patchy and a mess. It's always had a mixed following and for decades Fripp himself practically disowned the album. It was remixed afresh in 2010 by Steven Wilson. He did a wonderful job, but alas, to my ears the suite still sounded like a nightmarish mess and failed to change the fact that "Lizard" was my least favourite Crimson album.
In the Bridgewater Hall during set two, they charged into "Cirkus" the opening track from the album then crossfaded into "Bolero" which kicked off a lengthy performance of the remainder of the suite from side two. Something remarkable happened. In the hands of this line up, the music came to life in a way that was fresh and contemporary. For something that was written 48 years ago, I was surprised how well it stood up and actually sounded relevant. It was powerful and dramatic. The battle sequence was downright brain crushing and frightening. It concluded with the sombre "Prince Rupert's Lament" which for me was the only part I liked on the original album. Witnessing Fripp play that extraordinary mournful solo - with some fresh embellishments - brought a lump to my throat. For the first time in my life, the "Lizard" material made sense and sounded like a wonderful unique piece of music.
I could say the same about practically everything they played this night. Another major highlight was "Indiscipline" from 1981. This starts with a lengthy section underpinned by Tony Levin on top of which the three drummers indulge in crazy virtuosic playfulness that was hilarious as they bat back and forth, grinning and challenging one another to be more ridiculous. Then the entire band kick in with the main body of the song and though I knew it was coming, it still startled me to the degree I jumped in my seat! This is the beauty of King Crimson in concert - one might THINK we "know" these songs but in the moment, they become something else.
The encore was the inevitable classic "21st Century Schizoid Man" and there truly is no better way to climax a King Crimson show. This was another knockout version which had many of us - myself included - rocking out wildly and there was a moment of humour during Gavin Harrison's drum solo when all of a sudden, he produced a bucket and began bashing the base of it. That got quite a laugh from both band and audience. It wasn't until the following day we discovered the story behind the bucket... Harrison had come down with violent food poisoning shortly before the show and was close to having to cancel. Like a trouper, he chose to go ahead and had the bucket on standby to vomit in. Thankfully he didn't use it for it's intended purpose but made use of it anyway as a percussion instrument. Not that any of us could had guessed he was ill as his playing and conducting throughout was as immaculate as ever.
The show was a stormer. It ripped the 2015 shows to shreds on every level. Truly unbelievable. This was not a gig - it was a powerful experience and better still, I had another dose to look forward to the following night in Liverpool.
I lived in Liverpool for 11 years and in that time I never got round to seeing any shows at the Liverpool Empire Theatre. Nicer still, I had been begifted a "Royal Package" ticket which granted me early access to the venue for some pre-show uniqueness. To be sat within a small group of fans and be greeted by none other than Robert Fripp in person was something I never expected and an experience I will treasure for life. I have three major musical heroes and inspirations - John Lennon, Syd Barrett and Robert Fripp so to actually be in the presence of one of them... Fripp spoke for 10 minutes giving us a warm series of recollections that were both amusing and touching. A privilege to listen to him. King Crimson manager David Singleton then took over with an excellent informative chat, later joined by Crimson guitarist and singer Jakko who took questions and spoke in a laconic amusing manner, explaining the bucket antics of the previous night and that was pretty much the reason for the good humour on stage throughout the show.
The previous show had clocked in at three hours including a twenty minute intermission. Liverpool were subjected to an even longer blast containing 15 minutes extra music. Easily the longest and most epic gig of my life and this time, the sound was absolutely perfect. The band weren't as jovial but seemed more focussed. The opening number was "Lark's Tongue In Aspic Part 1" and Mel Collins' flute solo had a memorable quote from "Ferry 'Cross The Mersey" within it. Liverpool audiences are legendary throughout the world as they are very vocal. If you fall short, they will let you know under no uncertain terms. This was demonstrated in this very venue back in 1976 when Deep Purple played their final gig... guitarist Tommy Bolin went into his big solo spot, blew it and the audience responded with hostility - the band broke up immediately after the show. King Crimson had no such worries - the audience loved them so that gave the show a good feeling.
In many ways it would be easy to say this was "more of the same" as the level and power of the playing was equal to that of the previous night but... and it's a big BUT, King Crimson don't do things easily. One of the joys of a King Crimson show is the fact you genuinely have absolutely no idea what they're going to play next. The setlist gets shuffled every night, some subtractions, some additions and different orders every time. That adds a sense of tension and elements of surprise throughout. You can listen to a sequence one night and hear a familiar number in a certain way, but heard the following night in a different sequence, it can and does, take on a different character and feel.
Again, a truly powerful and enjoyable experience blessed with perfect sound and a great supportive audience lapping up everything that was thrown at them. It's perhaps the right moment to mention each member of the band and we'll go from left to right starting with the drum trio at the front of the stage. I was blown away by Pat Mastelotto in 2015 and yet again in 2018 as he runs riot with constant invention and a real ferocity in his playing. In the centre sits Jeremy Stacey, bowler hat atop his head. Stacey plays a large amount of keyboards throughout and it takes a brave man to dare take on parts originally played by Keith Tippett and do so with such casual ease. Furthermore his own improvised keyboard parts were an absolute pleasure making it clear the guy is a superb musician in his own right, absolutely perfect in King Crimson. Then there's the bucket man himself, Gavin Harrison. I swear he is a freak of nature. Never seen or heard a drummer quite like him and easy to see and understand why many drummers hold him in the highest regard.
To the "backline" and Mel Collins. Said it before and will say it again - an absolute master of his craft and in several numbers was quickly switching from different saxes to flute in no time at all, embellishing each number with constant invention. Tony Levin... sigh... is this guy the best bassist on the planet? Again, never playing the same way twice, ever exploring, adding so much to the unexpected factor of the band. In the middle sits Bill Rieflin behind his keyboards. Bill has a calm poker faced presence and persona. He's not at all animated save for occasional side glances and odd smiles but what he adds to the sound is hugely important and prone to playfulness as he'll toss in something unexpected which the rest of the band will respond to. Jakko Jakszyk has perhaps the hardest role in the band as he has to play complex guitar parts - sometimes duelling with the masterful Robert Fripp - and deliver lead vocals. He's transformed so much in the last three years, playing and singing beautifully and with ever more power and presence. Finally of course, Robert Fripp, one of THE masters of the electric guitar, playing as uniquely and precisely as ever, still turning in improvisations that sound like nobody else. Sometimes Fripp, Rieflin and Stacey will triple up on keyboards and three keyboardists should be a recipe for disaster... not in this band. It adds ever more power and muscle to the band and on the Mellotron heavy numbers, man, is it HEAVY.
The loudness and force of this band has to be commented on. Yes, they were loud but again, just below that pain threshold so one did not leave with a headache or ringing ears and trust me, my ears are very sensitive to the degree a brief squeal from a kid can trigger painful attacks of tinnitus. However you sure feel the power of the band through your chest and feet and there were times when I swear I felt my body vibrating to what they were doing which I'd never experienced before. It is why I seriously believe that King Crimson in this incarnation, in their 49th year of existence is the best band on the planet. This is not your typical band, playing a typical gig. It goes beyond that into mysterious realms one cannot fully explain nor would want to try to put into words. It is a complete experience. The live albums are wonderful, but fail to truly convey the actual feeling and sensation one feels as they rage away in front of your very eyes. I've loved Crimson's music for much of my life, yet even now, cannot give you any kind of an accurate reason as to why. Robert Fripp has been rather upset and annoyed about them being branded as a "prog-rock" or "progressive" band stating they actually belong in their own category of "King Crimson" since no other band sound or play like King Crimson and I'm inclined to agree with Fripp's view.
The Liverpool Empire show was as equally sensational as the Manchester show. Both experiences that stand supreme as the best live shows I have ever witnessed. The ridiculous thing is, King Crimson set themselves a very high standard yet manage to supercede it within a year every time which for a band of this standing and combined ages is downright astonishing. 2019 sees them celebrating their 50th anniversary and just announced a three night stint at the Royal Albert Hall in London. I am hoping to take in at least one of those shows as I'm sure they'll be extraordinary to witness, but if not, this double date in 2018 is gonna keep on resonating within me for a very very long time.
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