King Crimson at Theatre St-Denis

John Kelman By

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King Crimson
Théâtre St-Denis
Montréal, Canada
November 16-17, 2015

When King Crimson's only original member and co-founder, guitarist Robert Fripp, announced unexpectedly that the band was coming out of retirement in 2013, other than the unconventional lineup nobody had any idea what to expect other than the brief snippets being released at the band's DGM Live site, which suggested that this "seven-headed Beast of Crim," in addition to new material, would be revisiting songs not played live in over forty years...or, in some cases, ever at all.

It was also, in some ways, Fripp's last kick at the can to turn the band that has occupied so much of his professional life, and yet was rarely an enjoyable experience, into something in which he could, indeed, be a happy participant. And so, some rules were formed, included in the 24-page booklet of the two-disc The Elements of King Crimson 2015 tour box, one of many items that would be sold at the group's well-attended merchandise table at every show:

May King Crimson bring joy to us all, including me;
If you don't want to play a part, that's fine! Give it to someone else—there's enough of us;
All the music is new, whenever it was written;
If you don't know your note, hit C#;
If you don't know the time, play in 5. Or in 7;
If you don't know what to play, get more gear;
If you still don't know what to play, play nothing.

Now, some of these rules may appear to be tongue in cheek, but add a couple more rules and you've got the modus operandi that drove Crimson in its critically acclaimed and well-attended tour in the fall of 2014—one which has continued into subsequent tours of the UK, continental Europe, and now, Canada:

Do not play two different cities and/or venues on two consecutive nights; instead have a travel day in-between, so that everyone from the band to its support crew can be as rested as possible and able to do their jobs to the absolute best of their abilities, rather than following the current reality for most touring bands: that is, more time is spent getting to gigs, setting up and tearing down than actually performing;
If possible, play in the same city and venue for two or three nights, making touring an even more pleasant experience because every gig does not require full set-up and tear-down;
Play, as often as possible, in good-sounding theatre-style venues so that the band, road crew and audience will be as comfortable as possible during the group's roughly two-hour performances.

And so, while the group's seventeen-date/nine-city 2014 US jaunt missed a lot of locations that would have easily supported a visit, the tour—which included a stunning two-night run at San Francisco's heralded Warfield—was an equally stellar success on a number of fronts. Rolling Stone's David Fricke called it the best show of 2014—as, indeed, did All About Jazz cite it as one of the year's best live performances.

But more importantly, this seven-piece incarnation—the largest Crimson ever, featuring an unconventional lineup with three drummers (Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison and Bill Rieflin) as the group's frontline, with Fripp, fellow guitarist/lead vocalist Jakko M. Jakszyk, bassist/stick player Tony Levin and, back in the fold as a full-time member after more than forty years, saxophonist/flautist Mel Collins—was the first in thirty years where the entire band (Fripp included) was fully lit, and also the first time in that time where the ever-seated Crimson co-founder could be seen actively engaged visually with both the band and the audience. It was also the first time in decades that the 69 year-old guitarist could actually be seen smiling; clearly he was having a good time...and so, consequently, did audiences across the United States, who had the opportunity to witness a Crimson that looked back on its impressive 45-year catalog, while avoiding the self- caricaturing "tribute band" syndrome that defines far too many aging rock bands still on the road.

And so, a little more than 13 months after those two wonderful San Francisco shows—and with tours of the U.K. and continental Europe now under its collective belt—King Crimson landed in Montréal's Théâtre St-Denis in mid-November, 2015—the second of six cities making up the band's Canadian tour. What was surprising—or, perhaps, not—was the number of people in the audience over those two nights that had made the trek from the United States to hear just how far the group had come in the past year.

And the group has, indeed, come a long way. Beyond the obvious tightening up of the group's overall concept, there was new material—both old and new—added to the repertoire. Last year's new material largely consisted of percussion pieces used to lead into other, older material, with one exception: Fripp's brief trio piece, "Interlude," where Levin (on electric upright bass) was joined by Collins and Jakszyk (both on flute).

This year, however, there were actually three brand new pieces added to the repertoire, in addition to more significantly reinvented material from the group's back catalog. A knotty instrumental, cryptically titled "Radical Action (To Unseat The Hold of Monkey Mind)," was the lead-in to the similarly idiosyncratic vocal tune "Meltdown." Those two tunes were performed both nights, but the other new song—an aptly titled 7/4 blues, "Suitable Grounds For The Blues," albeit one done as only King Crimson could or would—was only played on the second evening. All of the new material was not just a confluence of everything that Crimson has been since it first emerged in 1969 with the world-shifting In the Court of the Crimson King (DGM Live/Panegyric), it also reflected the instrumental difference of a larger band with far more textural possibilities and concurrent playing at its disposal—but also of a band that, like all previous Crimsons that came before it, has developed its own sound...its own unique way of doing things.

King Crimson has featured two guitarists through all of its incarnations since 1980, though with Jakszyk replacing the longstanding (and undeniably talented and charismatic) Adrian Belew, Crimson > 2014 has assumed a more British vibe (despite three of its members being American)...and gone from a group with a clear frontman to a more truly egalitarian septet where nobody shines and everybody shines. But in addition to three drummers, who managed to blend the form of Harrison's drum arrangements with an improvisational freedom that has been, to larger or lesser extents, an earmark of the band since inception—and beyond Collins' reeds and flutes—King Crimson of the second decade of the new millennium was also augmented with two keyboardists already onboard in other capacities: on rare occasion Fripp and, far more regularly, Rieflin, who, in addition to plenty of drum and percussion duties, added a variety of keyboard colors but, most importantly, the prerequisite sound of the mellotron that was such a definitive texture in Crimson from 1969-1974.

In an interview with Jakszyk, Collins and Harrison over lunch on the day of the group's second Montréal show, there was plenty of revealing information about the group's process of writing both new material and creating 21st Century versions of older material that, this year, added classics including the haunting "Epitaph" and more dramatic title track from In the Court of the Crimson King, along with the return of the more groove-laden but improvisation-rich "Easy Money," from the group's similarly game-changing Larks' Tongues in Aspic (DGM Live/Panegyric, 1973).

Of the other older material revived, refreshed and reinvented during its 2014 tour, over the course of two nights Montréal audiences were treated to: the powerfully horn-driven and jazzified "Pictures of a City" from In the Wake of Poseidon (DGM Live/Panegyric, 1970); the episodic "Sailor's Tale," with its near-iconic guitar solo from Fripp, and the bolder whisper-to-a-scream of "The Letters" (a feature for both vocalist Jakszyk and Collins), two tracks from Islands (DGM Live/Panegyric, 1971); both very different parts of the Larks' Tongues in Aspic title track that bookends the album, as well as the relentlessly building "The Talking Drum," which segues into "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part Two" (and thus only leaving "Book of Saturdays" and "Exiles" out of the current repertoire); the never-before-played, "One More Red Nightmare," the epic "Starless," that is the consistent set- closer, and the vastly influential instrumental title track from Red (DGM Live/Panegyric, 1975); the lengthy, idiosyncratic instrumental first part of the title track to The ConstruKction of Light (Virgin, 2000); the thundering, mind-boggling nuevo metal of "Level Five," from the group's (so far) most recent studio album, The Power to Believe (Sanctuary, 2003); and, from the only album not officially by Crimson—but subtitled "A King Crimson ProjeKct" and featuring five of the current Crim's seven members—the title track to A Scarcity of Miracles (DGM Live/Panegyric, 2011).

And, while the set lists for the group's first Canadian stop, Quebec City, were largely similar, with only the order of events changed (though all shows now seem to begin with "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part One" and "Pictures of a City," and finish with "Starless" and encores of "In the Court of the Crimson King" and "21st Century Schizoid Man," with the new percussion interlude, "Devil Dogs of Tessellation Row," beginning the encore more often than not), Montréal's two set lists were significantly different, resulting in a collective performance of almost everything in the group's current repertoire from 2014, with the exception of "Interlude"; "VROOOM" and "Coda: Marine 475," both from 1995's THRAK (recently given the deluxe box set treatment on DGM Live/Panegyric); and A Scarcity of Miracles' "The Light of Day." For those fortunate enough to have attended both performances, this was about as strong a two-nighter as anyone could hope for.

"I think there's a lot more experimentation than there was last year but, as a result, there are certain tunes that always start and end the show. So it's what happens in the middle that varies," said Jakszyk in the hour-long lunchtime interview.

What's particularly refreshing about this Crimson lineup is that the three new pieces were truly group collaborations. "For 'Suitable Grounds,' Robert had this idea of a blues in seven, so he came around to my house and we recorded it to a click," Jakszyk explained. "Then I think we must have sent it to Gavin for a drum arrangement and then sent it over to Tony for the bass; I wrote the melody and the lyrics and we brought it to rehearsal, where Mel wrote an instrumental part.

"I guess it generally starts with me and Robert," Jakszyk continued. "There's another piece that we haven't rehearsed where sections were pieced together over a long period of time; Robert would come around and he would have sections. Then we would record them to a click, assemble them together and send them out to the rest of the band."
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