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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.

In the months leading up to the tour, there was considerable controversy amongst fans as to how a three-drummer front line would actually work. Using two drummers is something that isn't particularly uncommon—besides groups like the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band, as well as Norwegian artists including guitarist Eivind Aarset and trumpeter Mathias Eick, Crimson itself has experimented with a twin-drum lineup in the mid-'90s double trio responsible for VROOM (DGM Live, 1994) and Thrak (DGM Live, 1995). But the concept of literally placing three drummers across the front of the stage, with Collins, Levin, Jakszyk and Fripp behind them on a riser—and creating music that, at least at times, didn't just position Mastelotto, Rieflin and Harrison visually in front, but musically as well—was a bold one that exceeded all expectations.

With Mastelotto's kit a mad scientist's electro-acoustic hybrid, the seemingly countless number of drums in Harrison's massive configuration, and Rieflin's more modest setup—augmented with a keyboard that he played surprisingly often, largely to add mellotron parts that were so essential to songs like "Sailor's Tale" and the dramatic "Starless," from Red (DGM Live, 1975), that closed both nights' main sets— there was plenty of color upon which to draw. And while, for the most part, the three drummers coordinated themselves like a small orchestra, there were brief moments when all three came together to play exactly the same part...and when that happened, it was positively massive.

There were a lot of "first time since" events throughout both sets. '72-'74 Crimson continued to play "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part One" after the departure of Jamie Muir but The Elements tour represented the first time that the song has been played in full since the percussionist left around the time Larks Tongues in Aspic was released in early '73, with its extended percussion intro and mid-section a cappella solo, originally from violinist David Cross, replaced here by a stellar Collins (on flute). The nearly three-minute intro on the studio version, defined by Muir's mbira, was replaced by electronics and hand drums that emulated but never copied the original; and when Fripp entered with the immediately recognizable chordal pulse, and Jakszyk and Levin (on electric upright bass) delivered the sustaining, long-toned theme that led to its irregularly metered, near-metal power chords, the crowd went wild—the piece opening the first night and coming second the next evening, after an absolutely searing version of The Power to Believe's "Level Five."

It might have been surprising to see Jakszyk play some of the complex, serpentine and technically staggering lines that were expected from Fripp, but it served to demonstrate both Fripp's egalitarian approach to making Crimson 2014 a true collection of equals, as well as for a purely practical reason, according to Jakszyk in discussion after the second show: with Fripp adopting his New Standard Tuning (NST) in 1985, certain parts of Crimson songs written before that time were simply impossible for him to play. Jakszyk has never been a slouch on guitar, in addition to a stint in Level 42, releasing solo albums like the superb The Bruised Romantic Glee Club (Iceni, 2006); but barring his tenure in the the 21st Century Schizoid Band around the turn of the millennium—where Crimson alum including Collins, Ian McDonald, Peter and Michael Giles and, later, Ian Wallace played material largely drawn from Crimson's first four records, with Jakszyk accomplishing the seemingly impossible task of not just playing Fripp's difficult parts but singing simultaneously—the guitarist/vocalist has rarely been afforded the opportunity to be as demonstrative in performance as he's been with Crimson 2014.

There was plenty of improvisational space, but it was never superfluous or excessive. As terrific as Belew was, he was always an unavoidably dominant presence; as Crimson's "other" guitarist, Jakszyk was far more in service of the music (as was the rest of the band), and across the two nights his playing and singing—in particular on A Scarcity of Miracles' title track and, on the second evening, a surprisingly open-ended version of "The Light of Day" from the same recording—were both impeccable and impressive. Clearly, Jakszyk is a name that deserves much greater visibility, and hopefully this tour will help; although he played the instrument on Bruised Romantic Glee Club, his contribution to the aptly titled "Interlude" likely came as a surprise to many, as Fripp's beautiful miniature began as an upright bass solo for Levin, turned into a duo with Collins (on flute) and, finally, became a trio when Jaksyzyk added a second flute to the mix. It was one of a handful of new pieces, the majority of them percussion miniatures that often acted as segues/introductions into known ones.

Being in San Francisco for both shows provided a rare opportunity to see just how much freedom there really was by comparing the performances back-to-back, despite that freedom being within the confines of structured constructs. Taking advantage of three drummers on Red's "One More Red Nightmare," for example—a tune that Crimson had never before performed live—the introduction to each verse alternated a crunching unison line from Levin, Fripp, Collins and Jakszyk with a brief a cappella drum fill. Mastelotto, Rieflin and Harrison each took a turn, demonstrating a fundamental that made this percussion trio so special: despite no shortage of outrageous virtuosity on display, the use of space, where what was intentionally not played was often just as significant as what was.

Throughout the two shows the drummers created arrangements where the sum total invariably exceeded the impressive individual components by splitting parts up, sometimes passing them from one to the other like a baton in a relay race—like the single, delicate cymbal pulse that elegantly accompanied Jakszyk's lone voice during the coda to Islands' "The Letters"—elsewhere creating coordinated, interlocking passages that seemed to flow like waves around the stage. Creating ever-intriguing contexts that combined irrepressible grooves with a broad palette of color, it was clear that each drummer possessed his own strengths and personality while sharing a surprisingly melodic approach—often breaking the time into multiple time signatures that magically coalesced at exactly the right moment—to collectively become an orchestral subset that contributed to the greater whole of this remarkably versatile seven- piece band.

The second night was the stronger of the two—perhaps because of far more vocal and energetic audience that drove the band to even greater heights—improving upon the first night's incendiary set by going positively nuclear on the second, filled with highlight after highlight. That said, the first night had no shortage of spontaneous milestones. On "The Letters," Collins built his baritone saxophone solo to such a heated climax—supported by a band playing with reckless abandon as Fripp transformed clean, warm voicings into jagged, overdriven chords vigorously strummed with relentless power—that when it finally broke, everyone spontaneously went for a second round that reached an even greater peak. According to Collins, after the show, it was the first—and, as it turns out, only—time that this occurred during the entire tour.

It was this kind of fluidity and allowance to let the music go where it may that made Crimson's two shows so exciting—the kind of performances where even those in the audience who knew this music note-for-note were constantly surprised by unexpected twists and turns. While more contemporary material like "VROOM" was fairly literal, the group's look at the complex title track to 2000's The ConstruKction of Light (Sanctuary)—its knottily intertwined guitars mirrored by similarly interlocking drum parts—replaced a second section, originally sung by Belew, with a brief, quieter coda, as Jakszyk's shimmering arpeggios supported Collins' particularly beautiful flute work.

Most in the hall were pretty certain that the encore would be one of Crimson's best-known—yet, in recent decades, least-played—songs, "21st Century Schizoid Man," but what they didn't know was that after very brief features from Fripp and Collins, it was Harrison who took the extended solo. The first night was defined by some remarkable double bass drum-pedal work; the second show introduced, amidst a relentless litany of thundering and near-light speed playing that signaled its way out by cueing the song's mid-section melody across the toms, a bit of snare work that even surprised those who'd seen him perform countless times.

It was a lineup that seemed to leverage the best of all Crimsons. A song like the jazz and blues-inflected "Pictures of a City," from 1970's In the Wake of Poseidon (DGM Live), could be delivered in a more complete way than ever before because no parts had to be sacrificed for lack of players onstage. At the same time, that same flexibility gave Fripp- -everyone in the group, for that matter—far more freedom than he's had in a long time. And for those who accuse the Crimson co-founder of being cold and robotic, his playing on tracks like "Starless" and "A Scarcity of Miracles"—both defined by his signature, silkily sustaining tone—laid waste to any such unfounded claims.

After decades of Crimson being a guitar-centric band, the addition of reeds, woodwinds and keyboards allowed songs like "Starless" to become far more epic than any previous incarnation could manage. And if Fripp's banjo-esque chord solo in the middle of "Sailor's Tale" was as welcome as any committed Crimhead could want, it didn't precisely replicate the original, either texturally or in what he actually played; instead, as throughout the sets, Fripp used original sounds as contextual baselines upon which to build more contemporary colors and ideas, so when he shifted into the post-chorus arpeggiated chords in "One More Red Nightmare," their pointillistic glimmer was far broader, far more expansive than the grittier tone heard on record.

Levin, effortlessly shifting from electric upright to electric bass guitars and stick, was his usual rock-solid anchor. Still, with three drummers and, at times, Collins doubling bass lines with his baritone, he was also able to play more freely than he ever has since joining the group that began life as Discipline in 1980 but became the first King Crimson in six years with the release of Discipline (DGM Live) the following year—the beginning, in fact, of a modus operandi that has seen Crimson reconvening numerous times over the years with different configurations, playing for a few years at a time only to disband again until the next time the stars were properly aligned or the group to emerge once again.

If Fripp has long been absolutely firm about no photography or recording taking place during Crimson performances, the lighthearted, pre-recorded discussion amongst band members about the subject, played to the audience a few minutes before showtime each night, placed emphasis on being in the moment and recording the show with the best possible devices—eyes, ears and memory. It was a far more welcoming and benign way to ensure that the crowd got the message and, for the most part, abided.

There was no light show, per se—no moving lights, no spotlights; just a stage evenly and clearly lit so that all seven players were equally visible. All the more dramatic, then, was a sudden shift, during "Starless," to a stage totally awash in red...but only for a minute or two, before the lights returned, once again, to the same balance as during the rest of the performance.

There may not have been any announcements or introductions either—the band members identified on this so-called The Elements tour with the periodic table symbol that was assigned to each of them hanging off their monitors or amplifiers—but there was no shortage of humor, largely from Mastelotto and his sampler, whether it was taking the recorded "ums" from an interviewer speaking with Fripp and pitch/tempo shifting them to weird and wonderful places; introducing "Level Five" on the second evening with the ending of Islands' closing hidden track, where Fripp's "one-two-three, two-two- three" count-off was in a completely different time signature and tempo; or, also at the second show, when Levin was having some technical issues, playing a sample of "Ladies and Gentlemen, we are experiencing technical difficulties," followed by some suitably cheesy lounge music.

Yes, it's been decades since much of this music has been performed, decades since the group last featured woodwinds, saxophones and keyboards, and decades since Fripp was so visible onstage. More importantly, however, it's been even longer since King Crimson has appeared to have this much fun—if ever. Yes, this is serious music being played by a group of serious musicians, but that needn't mean the group should have anything but a great time doing it. Based on the smiles and eye contact going on across the stage—most notably from Fripp himself—the Crimson co-founder's gambit with King Crimson 2014 has clearly been a complete success—as much a creative triumph as it has been in eliminating the stress, gruel and overall physical and emotional toll of being on the road.

While future plans have not been identified, as surprise-filled as its two shows at the Warfield were, it would be a bigger surprise still if—as Fripp called it when it first reconvened—this "Seven-Headed Beast of Crim" were not to continue. With every show on the tour recorded, a live album is almost a certainty and a concert video a distinct possibility. But for those of you who either didn't reside in these ten American cities—or didn't make the trek from some pretty significant distances—fear not; your chance to see what is quite possibly the best King Crimson ever may well become a reality.

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