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King Crimson at Budweiser Stage & Théâtre St-Denis

John Kelman By

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King Crimson
2019 Celebration Tour
Budweiser Stage, Toronto, Canada
Théâtre St-Denis, Montréal, Canada
September 14 & 17, 2019

After covering six shows including two 2014 dates in San Francisco, another two 2015 shows in Montréal, and single, back-to-back 2017 performances in Montréal and Toronto, perhaps the biggest question is:

Why return to Toronto and Montréal in 2019 for two live concerts during King Crimson's 50th Anniversary, globe-trotting, 2019 Celebration Tour that will, when all is said and done, cover 48 dates in 34 cities across three continents?

Why Keep Going to Crimson Shows?

There's a simple answer...and a far more complicated one.

First, the simple response: this is a rare, truly legendary, genre-defying and constantly evolving band that, in its infancy, helped spawn a new musical genre (progressive rock) but has since gone on to transcend that limited and more restrictive definition. By developing a repertoire which, spanning almost its entire studio discography and including an increasing number of new compositions, King Crimson has truly reinvented itself for the second decade of the 21st century.

But the fuller, more complex answer?

King Crimson's seven-piece configuration first came together in 2013, subsequently testing the waters with a brief 19-date, nine-city, 2014 US tour. The group expanded to eight when original drummer/keyboardist Bill Rieflin was repositioned, following a brief absence for truly unfortunate personal reasons, as King Crimson's first full-time keyboardist in order to retain replacement drummer/keyboardist Jeremy Stacey. The 2019 lineup is back to seven, sadly due to another Rieflin absence, the result of an even more tragic personal circumstance. But whether seven or eight, this expanded Crimson has been the first lineup ever capable of bringing music from across the band's entire career into the 21st century in a most innovative and refreshed fashion, in addition to penning an ever-growing repertoire of newly minted material, some featuring the full band, others scored solely to feature the group's three-drummer front line percussion section.

Amidst its 2019 lineup is the only remaining original and ever-present band co-founder, guitarist/keyboardist Robert Fripp, who, following the dissolution of the quintet responsible for a debut that changed the shape of music forever, In the Court of the Crimson King (Island, 1969), always remained the band's de facto leader (despite asserting otherwise), but has now more decidedly assumed the role. That said, Fripp's egalitarian nature when it comes to writing, arranging and performing King Crimson's music has always been an important factor in how it's various incarnations have functioned.

Alongside Fripp, five sometimes on-again/off-again, largely long-standing Crimson contributors (now dating as far back as 49 to just a decade) have proven themselves essential to the current group's creative successes: saxophonist/flautist (and, now, very occasional keyboardist) Mel Collins, who first appeared with the group in 1970; bassist/stick player Tony Levin, joining King Crimson in 1980 for its game-changing '80s incarnation; electro/acoustic drummer Pat Mastelotto, who commenced his Crimson tenure with its mid-'90s, Double Trio configuration; drummer (also electro-acoustic) Gavin Harrison, first teaming with Mastelotto in the band's extremely short-lived, 2008 twin-drummer/twin guitarist quintet lineup; and, most recently, guitarist/vocalist (and occasional flautist/keyboardist) Jakko M. Jakszyk, first sharing the bill with Fripp and Collins on the "King Crimson ProjeKct" studio date A Scarcity of Miracles (Panegyric, 2011), but who first became Crimson-affiliated as a member of the 21st Century Schizoid Band, a tribute band otherwise featuring a number of past, '70s-era Crimson members (barring Fripp, but with his acknowledgement and support).

Drummer/keyboardist Jeremy Stacey is, in fact, the only King Crimson member completely new to its post-2013 lineup, currently wrapping up his third year with the band.

The current Crimson, now in its seventh official incarnation (though there have been other lineups featured on studio albums or during brief tours), sports a massive repertoire of roughly 60 songs, including nearly twenty new compositions or regular improvisational features, with five scored pieces solely shining a spotlight on the group's three-drummer front line. The remaining forty are culled from across the group's entire (largely studio) discography, barring, at the moment at least, just one album, Three of a Perfect Pair (Editions E.G., 1984). A small number of songs are drawn from other sources, including Fripp's (first) post-Crim solo album, Exposure (Editions E.G., 1979); A Scarcity of Miracles; even a song that first appeared on David Bowie's "Heroes" (RCA, 1977), and which featured one of Fripp's most memorable extracurricular guitar solos.

But there's an unfortunate truth that began with the current incarnation's first tour, back in 2014: catching just one of King Crimson's 2014 performances means coming nowhere close to catching its entire repertoire. In 2014, attending two shows generally assured hearing everything in the current repertoire. With Fripp putting each night's set list together around six hours before the band hits the stage, by the time the group returned to North America in 2015, even two shows wasn't necessarily enough to hear everything, but it was still possible to experience the lion's share of what the group had in its repertoire.

By 2016, even three of the group's roughly three-hour concerts (including a twenty-minute intermission) weren't enough to ensure hearing everything in the group's expanding reserve of material. Now, in 2019, with set lists that usually include roughly twenty songs, but with repetition of a subset of pieces included virtually every night, it's now simply impossible to capture its full repertoire, period, unless possessing the time and money to catch an entire tour or, at the very least, a great many shows. And with songs regularly dropping off or back into a particular tour's repertoire, even that really isn't enough to hear all of the group's roughly 60-strong reservoir of material.

Still, two performances will usually ensure hearing most (but, still, not necessarily all) of the material that the band has added to its repertoire since the last tour in the vicinity, and the back-to-back shows at Toronto's Budweiser Stage (a 7,000-seat outdoor amphitheater (and which can, with additional seating and a large grass lawn, accommodate as many as 16,000 people) and Montréal's nearly 3,000-seat Théâtre St-Denis were no exception.

Between the two shows, a whopping seven songs from the group's back catalog were performed for the first time in Canada (ten, really, if counting Levin, Fripp and Stacey's freely improvised "Cadenzas" following In the Court of the Crimson King's "Moonchild"). Add the 2013+ original, "Suitable Grounds for the Blues," returning to the set list after being dropped in 2017 but last heard in Toronto and Montréal (on only one night each) in 2015, before returning in 2018 with a new piano intro from Stacey, and there was certainly plenty of new material to appeal to even the most ardent King Crimson follower.

Changes for the 2019 Tour

There have been a number of changes with King Crimson 2019, all largely positive and intended to suit Fripp's objective, explained during a media day in London, England last April: "My primary interest is to introduce King Crimson to innocent ears, that is, to audiences who have never before seen King Crimson live." The band still travels in a most civilized fashion, its rare (certainly in the rock world) practice of not playing on travel days remaining intact and ensuring that the usual routine of travel, set up/sound check, play, tear down and catch a few hours sleep before beginning the starting the cycle once again (and with only occasional days off) does not define how this band tours. The group is still playing, but in relatively fewer instances, multiple shows in the same city/venue—largely in Europe, but also in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Oakland, Buenos Aires and Santiago. Still, its initial habit of always playing two or more nights in each city and venue, a defining philosophy for its 2014-2016 tours, was broken, at least in some cities, in 2017 when, for example, it performed for just one night at Toronto's 2,750-capacity Massey Hall, alongside its single evening at Montreal's 3,000-seat Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier.

Crimson may be playing largely one night in each city but, and even when playing multiple nights in the same town, it's more often than not at a considerably larger venue. In 2018, the group performed two nights at the 2,300-seat London Palladium, but a year later it not only set up in the same British city's Royal Albert Hall, but sold out all three nights in the 5,300-seat venue. The band sold out two nights at New York City's 2,900-seat Beacon Theatre, but this year it has sold out a single night at the 6,000+ Radio City Music Hall. And if Crimson sold out Toronto's Massey Hall in 2017, this year it came close to filling the 7,000 capacity configuration at the Budweiser Stage, a venue more than double the size.

As many "legacy" bands are fortunate enough to be able to maintain the same capacities for their "return" tours, King Crimson's audience is clearly growing, and significantly so. Perhaps the biggest reason is that, despite the assertion of some who are operating with misconceptions and misinterpretations of its touring lineups since 2014, King Crimson is greatly distanced from other bands with lengthy lifespans who, in the 21st century, are generally satisfying their audiences by replicating (as best as possible, since the lineups rarely feature more than a couple of original members) music from its glory days. These bands may occasionally record new studio albums, but their set lists are almost always dominated by music from their "classic" era, with occasional exceptions like Van der Graaf Generator, whose new music easily stands up with its best from the 1970s, and so its live sets are, not unlike King Crimson, a balanced cross-section of material old and new.

But groups like Van der Graaf Generator are the exception rather than the rule and, even so, still return to the recording studio to record and release new music. King Crimson, on the other hand, hasn't set foot in a studio since the sessions for The Power to Believe (Sanctuary, 2003)—recently collected in the 17-CD/2-DVD/4-Blu Ray, decade-spanning Heaven & Earth: Live And In The Studio 1997-2008 box set.

That hasn't, however, stopped the band from introducing new material on every live recording released (on Panegyric Recordings) since it returned to active touring duty in 2014, beginning with 2015's Live In Toronto: Queen Elizabeth Theatre, November 20, 2015 and audio/video box, Radical Action (To Unseat The Hold Of Monkey Mind), 2017's Official Bootleg: Live In Chicago, June 28th, 2017, through to 2018's Live In Vienna, December 1st, 2016 (UK Edition) and second audio/video box, Meltdown (Live In Mexico City).

With the current King Crimson incarnation demonstrating, even more than any that came before, how its studio albums are, in Fripp's words, "love letters" while its live performances are "hot dates," it raises an important question:

Why—other than the possibility of better separation, the ability to "punch in" and fix mistakes, and the capability of overdubbing additional layers of instruments and/or vocals—would anyone want a love letter when so many hot dates are being released on a regular basis?

Certainly on its live albums, ranging from more fully produced live albums like Live at the Orpheum to "warts and all" soundboards like Official Bootleg: Live In Chicago, June 28th, 2017, separation doesn't appear to be a problem; and truthfully, if anything, a little leakage can often actually fatten up the sound.
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