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King Crimson at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier / Massey Hall

John Kelman By

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An Evening with King Crimson
Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier / Massey Hall
Le Festival International de Jazz de Montréal / Non-Festival Event
Montréal, Canada / Toronto, Canada
July 3, 2017 / July 5, 2017

Having covered the reunited, refreshed and reinvigorated "seven-headed Beast of Crim" for two nights each in San Francisco in 2014 and, again, in Montréal in 2015, was there really a good reason to see the group again in 2017...and, to make it even more complicated, in order to catch two evenings, traveling 540Km from Montréal—where the performed as part of Le Festival International de Jazz de Montréal—to Toronto?

In a word: yes. In more words: for many very, very good reasons.

First, the original, highly unconventional three-drummer front-line septet—featuring drummers Pat Mastelotto, Bill Rieflin (who also doubled on keyboards) and Gavin Harrison—alongside a back-line including reed-woodwind multi-instrumentalist Mel Collins, bassist/stick player/vocalist Tony Levin, guitarist/lead vocalist/flautist Jakko M. Jakszyk and only remaining member of the original formation that released the album that truly shook the rock world, In the Court of the Crimson King (Island, 1969), guitarist/keyboardist Robert Fripp—has now been dubbed the Double Quartet Formation with the addition of drummer/keyboardist Jeremy Stacey. Stacey already possessed an impressive résumé—ranging from jazzers like Tim Garland, Wayne Krantz, Jason Rebello and Tommy Smith to rock/pop stars including Joe Cocker, Noel Gallagher, Sheryl Crow and Eric Clapton, not to mention progressive rock artists like the late Chris Squire, Steve Hackett and the Squire/Hackett collaboration, Squackett—when he was asked to sub for the (thankfully) temporarily ill Rieflen during the group's 2016 European dates.

Fripp was clear, when Rieflin was forced to step away for a period of time, that should the drummer/keyboardist recover, his membership in the band would remain open. Still, Stacey had so impressed the guitarist and group that the decision was made not to simply thank him and hand him his walking papers. Instead, rather than becoming a four drummer-led front-line, Stacey has remained as one of the band's three drummers (and, like Rieflin, when he was on drums, occasional keyboardist), returning with a considerably larger drum set than that used throughout the 2016 dates, where he mirrored Rieflin's more minimalist kit in order to maintain the percussion section's overall complexion and Harrison's existing but ever-evolving arrangements. With Stacey remaining, the returning Rieflin changed locales to the back-line, where he became the band's first-ever full-time keyboardist...but he also took, whether or not it was intentional, a central position, situated between Collins and Levin to his right, and Jakszyk and Fripp to his left.

Second, while it was already well-known that the group's repertoire was too big for any single performance to contain, the material available to Crimson's 2017 North American tour has become so large that not even two nights could include everything the band was capable of playing; and that's with the understanding that, barring occasional festival appearances where time was restricted (thankfully, not so in Montréal), its performances consistently approached the three-hour mark, including a twenty-minute intermission between its two sets and three encores.

Third, in addition to many of the compositions already being performed by the septet lineup on tours between 2014 and 2016—reaching as far back as In the Court of the Crimson King, as far forward as its (so far) 2003 studio swan song, The Power to Believe (Sanctuary), and with enough new material now (as Jakszyk explained at a FIJM press conference the day of its July 3 Montréal show) to fill a pre-CD length album of 40 minutes—Crimson's 2017 North American dates included a significant amount of older material made (as Fripp has often described of this band's interpretations) new again that has not been previously experienced by North American fans.

To be crystal clear: King Crimson 2014-2017 is unequivocally not a tribute band, a legacy band or any other of the epithets applied to so many bands from back in the day that have reformed in recent times to capitalize on the burgeoning progressive rock revival of the past couple of decades. In fact, Crimson sits alongside Van der Graaf Generator as, perhaps, one of but a few bands of such longevity to not only reinvigorate its older material with a fresh approach, but to add new material that, with its own distinctive personality, fits as comfortably and with as much strength as the music that made it famous in the first place. And while VdGG remains a thrilling live act that has, out of necessity, been forced to rearrange its material for the trio version that emerged following co-founder David Jackson's departure after its 2005 comeback album Present (Virgin/Charisma, 2005) and accompanying tour, Crimson's approach to much of its 40+ year-old material— barring those where the signatures are so prevalent as to demand greater literalism—is far, far freer.

Fourth, since 2014 the lineup has included a couple of Fripp-penned instrumentals from the three-decade "Adrian Belew" years—when the charismatic guitarist/vocalist was a key member of Crimson incarnations from Discipline (E.G., 1981) through to the brief 2008 swan song tour, with Gavin Harrison added to The Power to Believe quartet lineup, documented on the download-only Park West, Chicago, Illinois August 7, 2008 (DGM Live, 2008)—specifically the high octane "VROOOM/Coda: Marine 475," from the Double Trio's sole full-length studio album, THRAK (Virgin, 1995), and the Nuevo Metal of The Power to Believe's "Level Five" and lighter but far knottier title track to the same Double Duo's 1999 Virgin Records debut, The ConstruKction of Light.

Now, however, two surprising vocal additions to the Double Quartet Formation's repertoire have been culled from Crimson's '80s re-emergence as a radically reinvented group, with three studio albums of a significantly altered complexion when compared to any of its late '60s/'early-to-mid-'70s incarnations. But, of course, beyond an eight-piece group expanding upon this material in ways Crimson's original quartet and sextet simply could not, Jakszyk's vocal interpretations of both songs also represented a radical departure...but more about that later.

Fifth—and by no means not just not least, but not even the final reason, but best to stop here for the moment—with Rieflin fulfilling the role of full-time keyboardist, and with Stacey and Fripp adding even more keyboards when required—the "seven-headed Beast of Crim" may have been the first live lineup ever capable of playing original studio material from across the decades without having to eliminate key compositional parts that were simply were impossible for its four, five and even six-piece incarnations. Now, however, this newly-minted Double Quartet Formation possesses even greater facility and latitude in bringing the multitude of original studio parts (or fresh interpretations of same) to the Crimson concert experience—as Fripp has always appropriately called them, "hot dates," in contrast to the "love letters" of its studio albums.

Between its Le Festival International de Jazz de Montréal show at Place des Arts' almost 3,000- seat Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier (a bump from the 2,200 capacity of 2015's Théâtre St-Denis) and performance, two nights later, at Toronto's legendary, 2,750-seat Massey Hall (a major leap from the Ontario capital's 1,250 capacity Queen Elizabeth Hall the same year)—in Montréal, Crimson included a full six tunes not heard previously during either its 2014 USA or 2015 Canadian tours (and one that has never been performed live prior to its 2016 dates); one brand new original; a David Bowie song (on which Fripp's silkily sustaining lines were an essential part of its fabric); a reworking of a song from 1970's In the Wake of Poseidon (Island, 1970), played on previous dates since 2015; and a new Fripp original introduced in 2014, but played just three times during its last Canadian tour. In Toronto, all of these pieces were also in the set list, barring the short track from Poseidon.

Two compositions from the often (and unfairly) overlooked Lizard (Island, 1970) were enough to engender eager anticipation from longtime Crimheads: the nightmare-inducing album-opener, "Cirkus," which was largely a consistent part of the Islands (Island, 1971) band's set lists back in the day, but which has never been performed live since; even more exciting, however, was the first-ever inclusion of the third movement from Lizard's side-long title suite: "The Battle of Glass Tears" (including "Dawn Song," "Last Skirmish" and the closing instrumental Fripp feature, the brooding "Prince Rupert's Lament"). Were these the only pieces added to the 2017 tour's potential set list (and both, so far, appear to be constants in every performance), North American fans would have been plenty satisfied. But that was not all; if fans had to deal with the absence of Islands' show-stopping "Sailor's Tale" in both cities, they could revel in the inclusion of another song that was played very occasionally during its original touring quartet's shows back in the day: the beautifully pastoral—and, in these turbulent times, particularly relevant—title track.

After a tacit understanding that there'd be no vocal tracks from the Belew years, it was especially surprising—and enticing—to discover what the Double Quartet Formation would do with two pieces culled from the '80s group recently collected on the 19-disc box set, On (and Off) The Road (Panegyric, 2016): Discipline's angular "Indiscipline" and, from the 1982 E.G. Records studio follow-up, Beat, the even more frenzied, beat poetry-inspired "Neurotica."

Finally, after performing three other songs from the '70s' final studio recording, Red (Island, 1974) and collected as part of the mammoth, 27-disc The Road to Red (Panegyric, 2013) box set on past tours beginning with its 2014 US return—the influential, instrumental title track; more song-based but still convention-busting "One More Red Nightmare"; and the lengthy piece that both closes the album and has wrapped most if not all Crimson main sets since 2014, "Starless"—the group has finally added the only other tune not previously played: the more balladic yet still powerful "Fallen Angel" (Red's only only other track, "Providence," was a completely free improv instrumental).

Performed on past tours but with Jakszyk singing Poseidon's "Peace: An End" in its entirety—on the live CD/DVD or CD/Blu Ray box set, Radical Action (To Unseat The Hold of Monkey Mind) (Panegyric, 2016), even singing the first verse in Japanese—Montréal fans were treated to a slightly reworked version where the first verse was played by Fripp with his appealingly smooth, seemingly infinitely sustaining tone, with Jakszyk playing the chordal accompaniment, before adding vocals from the second verse until the short song's end. Like "Islands," this is a song that maintains special relevance, again, in the unsettled political climate faced by so many.
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