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King Crimson at The Warfield

John Kelman By

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King Crimson
The Elements Tour
The Warfield
San Francisco, CA
October 3-4, 2014

It's been eleven years since King Crimson last toured extensively, barring a brief four-city, fourteen-date tour in 2008 that acted as the final nail in the coffin of its 28-year run with pyrotechnic guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew. Never a fan of the gruelling toll of the road, guitarist/keyboardist Robert Fripp—the group's only remaining founding member—seemed resolute in retiring from active touring after that 2008 jaunt, though he has continued to be active on other fronts, specifically his ongoing soundscapes series, last documented on the characteristically boundary-pushing orchestral collaboration with Andrew Keeling and David Singleton, The Wine of Silence (DGM Live, 2012); his ongoing duo with reed and woodwind multi-instrumentalist Theo Travis, which released Discretion (Panegyric, 2014) a couple of months back; occasional reunions with producer/sound artist Brian Eno, the pair's most recent album an archival find, Live in Paris 28.05.1975 (Opal/DGM Live, 2014); and a duo with guitarist/vocalist Jakko M. Jakszyk that gradually morphed into a quintet with Crimson alum reed and woodwind multi-instrumentalist Mel Collins, longtime Crimson bassist/stick player Tony Levin and then-Porcupine Tree drummer Gavin Harrison, who'd also made his first Crimson appearance during that short 2008 run.

That last group is significant because, while it didn't manage to acquire the Crimson moniker—its sole album, A Scarcity of Miracles (Panegyric, 2011), relegated to the status of "Crimson ProjeKct"—it was the seed for a revived King Crimson in 2014 that, in typical Fripp fashion, created plenty of advance buzz for an unorthodox configuration that flipped things completely around by placing three drummers (Harrison, Crimson alum Pat Mastelotto and R.E.M./Nine Inch Nails' Bill Rieflin) in the front line, with the guitarist, Jakszyk, Levin and Collins constituting the back line.

The group's ten-city, twenty-date tour was, in many ways, a test for Fripp, to determine if he could break the mould of touring in the unwieldy context of a large group in the rock world and turn what has traditionally been a difficult, unpleasant and stressful experience for the guitarist into an actually enjoyable one.

Based on the group's two-night run at San Francisco's legendary Warfield Theatre? Mission accomplished. Beyond being fully lit for the first time in decades, Fripp was clearly having a great time, making constant eye contact with not just the band, but the audience as well throughout both of King Crimson's two-plus hour shows.

The material was, for the most part, the same both nights, but by rearranging the order of events the group managed to create two utterly different experiences. And while the majority of the setlist consisted of a broad cross-section of material culled from albums dating back to Crimson's groundbreaking 1969 debut In the Court of the Crimson King (DGM Live) through to its most recent studio date The Power to Believe (Sanctuary, 2003)—with a couple of tracks Included from A Scarcity of Miracles- -this was absolutely not an exercise in retro. Instead, King Crimson 2014 was as modern as it gets, and if there weren't any of the lengthy extemporaneous explorations of its particularly lauded 1972-74 incarnation that began with 1973's Larks' Tongues in Aspic (DGM Live) and ended with the live swan song of USA (DGM Live, 1976), there was still plenty of room, beyond soloing, for spontaneous shifts in arrangement, instrumental interaction and role playing.

Often edgy, but also at times almost painfully beautiful, the ever-exhilarating King Crimson 2014 may well be Fripp's best incarnation yet because, while it certainly has a broad history upon which to draw, its collection of top-drawer players didn't treat the music as a museum piece. Instead, it looked at the music as context. Yes, all the signatures the many Crimson-shirted grey hairs and no hairs in the audience were hoping to hear were present, but beyond that there was an unrelenting sound of surprise as the group adapted to unexpected pushes and pulls, instigated by anyone in the band, that ranged from minute to massive. Even the technical problems that seemed to plague the second night were taken as opportunities to adopt, adapt...and, in some cases, improve. When one of his electric bass guitars failed, despite all onstage attempts by a band tech to fix it, Levin simply switched to his electric upright for "Sailors Tale," the by-now iconic instrumental from 1971's Islands (DGM Live)...and turned it into not just a workable alternative, but an even better one.

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