This post is part of my series of posts on progressive rock which you can see here.
On Friday September 12, 2014 my friend Steve and I went to see King Crimson, that great pillar of progressive rock, live at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I have seen King Crimson or variations of it a few times over the years. Specifically, I saw King Crimson live in 2003 at the Tower Theater in support of their then new album The Power to Believe. That concert was amazing, albeit ear piercingly loud, but, as has been Crimson’s practice for many years, the set list consisted of only very recent material (relative to the date of the show) and group improvisation (I would note that, as it relied only on very recent material, the show was disappointingly short too as it was not even 90 minutes in duration). Other than that, I have seen a Crimson subset (e.g.: a “FraKCtal”), ProjeKCt Six, and Robert Fripp as a solo performer, each open for Porcupine Tree at different times. Of course, relatedly, I have seen Tony Levin live a few times in other contexts, namely with Liquid Tension Experiment, California Guitar Trio, and his own band.
Although I am an enormous King Crimson fan (they are in my top three with Yes at number one and (old) Genesis vying with Crimson for number two), I have not made a point to see them a lot mainly because, as I stated above, their practice has been to generally ignore older material in favor of the album or two immediately prior to the concert being played. As much as I like new Crimson material, it is the old stuff that broke ground, made legions of devoted followers, and made me a fan, and it is that material I want to see and hear live.
When I heard that King Crimson was to go on the road with three drummers/percussionists, I thought that was interesting but not enough to go see them live as they have had two drummers/percussionists many times before (e.g.: 1972/’73, 1994/’95/’96, and 2007-present) and a third drummer did not seem to tip me in favor of paying the price of admission, especially if they would just play newer stuff. Then I heard that venerable woodwind player Mel Collins would be rejoining the band. Collins played with the band on their second, third, and fourth albums (1970 – 71), the classic Red, as well as their most recent offering A Scarcity of Miracles. Now, the addition of Collins is interesting because, by and large, King Crimson has left the material of the early 1970s behind and I hoped that his presence in the band would inspire Fripp to mine King Crimson’s very rich back catalog. Indeed, aside from a couple of tracks on Red, King Crimson has not had a woodwind player since 1971! So, needless to say, adding one again in 2014 sent a clear message to me as to what the band’s intentions were for this tour. Subsequent internet rumors confirmed that Crimson would be playing a generous swath of old material on this tour that has basically gone unplayed for four decades, so that sealed it for me: between the three drummers, Collins, and the material to be played, I now had to go see this show! Indeed, I am happy to say that at this show, King Crimson played material from all eras of their history except the 1980’s and their lone album of the 1990’s (Thrak), which is fine by me as that material is my least favorite anyway (save for their latest album). To make this happen, Crimson also featured players from all throughout their history and a new guy (Bill Rieflin) to boot! As of this writing I am thirty-seven years old and I never thought I would ever hear some of this material played live by King Crimson and for that I will always be thankful I had the opportunity to see this show!
The venue was absolutely beautiful. It usually is the theater for the Philadelphia Orchestra but I guess they also allow other artists to use it as well. It is large with interesting curved walls, is made almost entirely of nice wood, and has a large pipe organ in the back wall. A great setting for a great band.
As you will see below, after some basic information I will give an overview of the show, make comments on some individual pieces, and post some photographs of the show.
The band fielded the following line-up for this show:
- Robert Fripp (electric guitar, keyboards, effects)
- Jakko Jakszyk (electric guitar, lead vocals, flute)
- Tony Levin (electric bass guitar, Chapman Stick, electric upright bass, funk fingers, background vocals)
- Mel Collins (various saxophones and flutes)
- Gavin Harrison (drums, acoustic and electric percussion)
- Pat Mastelotto (drums, acoustic and electric percussion)
- Bill Rieflin (drums, keyboards)
Set List (the albums from which the songs are drawn are in parenthesis):
The only word I can think of for this show is “face-melting.” This was one of the best concerts I have ever seen, bar none. It was amazingly tight, intense, and relentless. I thought the three drummers might create a noisy cacophony that would overtake the rest of the band, but thankfully that turned out not to be the case. There were times when the drums became a little strong, but they never crossed the line and were generally tasteful and well arranged. They did, however, take an already intense band to a level they had not yet achieved before. There was clearly a pecking order among the drummers. As one may expect, they tried a lot of different variations, but, generally speaking, Harrison was the “lead” drummer with Mastelotto supporting him and Rieflin providing a lot of color. Rieflin also doubled as a keyboard player, especially for the older stuff. I think the very expanded line up and multi-instrumentalists allowed the band to really flesh out their sound and capture many of the overdubs found on the albums. Collins’ role was interesting. Obviously he played the role he carved for himself on the pieces he played on originally. When it came to the other material on which there was not originally a woodwind instrument in the music, Collins would often play in place of David Cross‘ violin or viola (King Crimson featured a violin and viola in its middle-1970’s period) or harmonize with the guitars or improvise a solo or melody over the rhythm created by the band (e.g.: during “Red” he would play a saxophone over some of it). Although Fripp seems like an imposing and inflexible figure, I have to say that he is surprisingly (to me) an extremely unselfish lead guitar player. He very often allowed Jakszyk to play his own lead parts (or shared them with him) or solos and, when Collins did not, Fripp would duplicate some of Cross’ violin/viola parts on his guitar. I have to say that one of the best parts about seeing a concert, especially of a talented band playing challenging music, is seeing how the band can “pull it off,” and this show, with its three drummers and woodwind player to boot, was no exception! The only thing missing from this show that has always been a feature of a King Crimson concert was improvisation. There was no group improvisation, as has been so typical of Crimson for decades and even many of the solos did not vary much from the albums at times.
As usual, Fripp entered the stage from the opposite side from rest of the band. Once he got situated on his stool and behind his wall of electronics, the show began in earnest. They all wore some variation on a three piece suit. The stage presentation was interesting: all the drummers lined up front while the other four stood on risers behind the drummers. There was virtually no stage presence or visual show at all. The stage was brightly lit and equally lit on all parts of it. There were no spotlights or changing light colors or any sort of visual element to the lights at all. It was lit just as the orchestra would be lit, for the utilitarian purpose of allowing the band to see one another and allowing the audience to see them. Also, the band did not appear to have any amplifiers of their own on stage. They used the venue’s public address system to play their music. I am not sure if the lights and sound set ups as described above were due to the venue’s rules or the band’s choice, but neither adversely affected the music. Consistent with having very little stage presence, all players stood in their place (or sat in the case of Fripp) rather stoically and played their music, and rarely engaged personally with the audience. Indeed, as common for him, Fripp sat facing the band instead of the audience. Their lack of audience engagement even extended to them not having any inter-song banter. They just began their show, played one song after another, and finished. In fact, as my friend Steve noticed, they never (at least not as we noticed) even counted off the tempo to begin a piece of music. Each piece began as if the band were of one mind.
The sound mix was challenging with the three drummers pounding away. I can say that only on a couple of occasions did the sound get a little muddy which, unfortunately, almost always caused Collins’ saxophone to get lost in the mix. In saying that, I have been to enough concerts to know that a good mix for my section of the theater is not necessarily good for another, and vice versa, so one cannot be too critical of the mix. I do have to say that Levin’s playing very often got buried by the two guitars and the woodwinds. Granted, he is the bass player and is supposed to lay down the bottom, but I would have liked to hear him a little better throughout the show. Luckily, the band was tasteful in that the seven players did not all insist on playing something at all times if the music did not warrant it. Interestingly, I have been to many many many concerts and this is one of the only shows I can think of where no one in the band ever gestured to one another or to a sound man off stage to adjust his volume levels. I am not exaggerating when I say that they all entered the stage, played their songs one after another without fanfare, and then concluded. The only light moments were, on occasion, between some of the songs where they would play goofy and spliced clips of interviews with the band and a sometimes inarticulate interviewer.
Some of the songs had some interesting highlights which I note below:
- Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part 1
As much as I looked forward to this show, I was a little skeptical as to how they would pull it off, and opening with this piece is a bold statement. After the drummers played the tuned percussion opening and Fripp’s guitar played Cross’ violin part to introduce the piece, all of my concerns washed away when Jakszyk played the opening guitar line (which was originally played by Fripp on the album) in literally (to my ears) the exactly same tone and sound as the album. I knew then this was the real deal and this was going to be a fantastic show. This piece was as it should be: complex percussion, loud and crunchy riffs, and a foreboding quiet sections (where Collins’ flute replaced Cross’ violin).
I was surprised to have heard this piece as it has not been played since 1970! This is the first song off their second album and when this was played I knew the band was going to be going deep into the back catalog! Unfortunately, Collins’ saxophone was little buried in the mix at times. Jakszyk’s voice was not quite as clear, pure and choir boy like as Greg Lake‘s voice (who originally sung on this song and is my favorite singer) but it got the job done.
- The ConstruKction of Light
Collins played a saxophone over some of the more complex guitar lines which was an interesting addition. On the album, this track segues seamlessly into a second part of this song (tracked separately) which includes vocals in order to conclude it. At this concert, however, the band elected to conclude it differently by merely allowing the music to gradually slow into a gentle pastoral section led by flute, in a way very similar to how the Genesis song “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” concludes.
This is one of my favorite Crimson songs. Collins was really able to wail away during the instrumental sections. Interestingly, between each main guitar riff, each drummer took his turn playing the drum breaks. Jakszyk tried his voice on this John Wetton (the original singer of this song) tune, but, like his attempt to sing Lake’s material, his voice just is not quite right. This time, Wetton’s voice is a little too soulful and harsh for Jakszyk to duplicate effectively. As expected, this piece was loud and intense and aggressive. Fantastic.
- HooDoo (new for this show)
This was a mellow, quiet, and pastoral instrumental piece for electric upright bass and two flutes. Jakszyk unexpectedly played the second flute. This piece was composed for the tour.
As expected, this piece was aggressive and meaty. Levin played his electric upright bass during the quieter parts which effectively reproduced the bass cello played by Mark Charig on the original recording. Moreover, at times Collins improvised a saxophone solo over the rhythmic parts to this piece. The three sets of drums added an interesting dimension to this piece by making it somewhat march like.
- Sailor’s Tale and The Letters
I was so surprised to see these tracks from the very obscure and mostly ignored album Islands. What a delightful surprise! The enlarged band line up was able to fully play all of the parts on the album and really flesh out the sound; the keyboards and Levin’s electric upright bass did well to capture the music as found on the album. The cymbal work by the three drummers was very tastefully done; at one point they were playing light taps in sequence one after the other. Jakszyk, now reproducing Boz Burrell‘s voice, did a really good job presenting his vocal parts. He really captured the tone and sound of Burrell’s voice.
This is another song where Collins, having no role when the song was recorded, took the opportunity to play some improvised saxophone lines over some rhythmic parts.
This was a drum trio piece written for this tour.
This is one of my favorite Crimson pieces, and the three drummers really took it to the next level. I just wish Levin’s bass was not so buried in the mix on this. Collins and Jakszyk added interesting dimensions as well, sometimes covering Cross’ parts and sometimes not.
What a classic King Crimson piece; some consider it the best ever. I have seen this track played live once before by the band U.K. which features John Wetton who sung on this song originally with Crimson. King Crimson played this song live before it was recorded for the Red album (as can be heard on The Great Deceiver) and the band used a violin in the piece and no woodwinds. When it was eventually recorded on Red, Cross and his violin were out and Collins and his saxophone was in, as that is as it was in at this concert as well. I am not sure which performance I liked better. U.K. had Wetton’s soulful voice and authentic bass playing along with Eddie Jobson‘s amazing keyboard and violin playing. At this show, Fripp played the mournful guitar lines as only he can play them, Rieflin played the keyboard lines, and Collins played the saxophone parts he recorded forty-years ago. All I can say is that this piece of music is simply amazing and this concert was no exception.
- Encore: Hell-Hounds of Krim
This was another drum trio piece written for this tour, this time very reminiscent of “B’Boom” from Thrak (which was originally a drum duo piece).
- Encore: Twenty-First Century Schizoid Man
The band closed with the very first song from their very first album which, as it happens, may be their most famous. The blasting saxophones and searing guitar were vintage Crimson excitement. Levin’s bass was buried again, but it did not really matter. Although the band played it a little slower than the album, the fast runs and abrupt starts and stops were impressive nonetheless.
And now for some photographs!
Tony Levin takes photos from his perspective of the show and blogs about his concerts, and this one was no different. You can find his blog entry on this show here. In the photos from the stage that Levin took, you can see me five people to the right of the big guy in the red shirt on the third balcony; below is a photo from Levin’s page and you can barely see my head.
Finally, Steve and I took some photos at the show as well and they are posted below. Steve took the first two and I took the rest and Levin’s photo is posted last.