38

King Crimson at Theatre St-Denis

John Kelman By

Sign in to view read count
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."

One of the most impressive—and surprising, for some—aspects of the new Crim is how well the three-drummer frontline worked; this was a truly orchestrated percussion section, where parts were sometimes handed off like members of a tag team, other times diverse parts that built gradually to a thundering unison. And while Harrison may have written the drum arrangements, the collective with Reiflin and Mastelotto leveraged the strengths of three very different drummers and lifted the music off the "written" page to give it even greater life: the more overtly virtuosic (but never for the sake of it alone) Harrison, with the largest kit that seemed to have an endless array of tom toms and cymbals; Reiflin's small kit and a generally sparer approach—when the three drummers each took brief solo fills in the intro to each verse of "One More Red Nightmare," it was invariably Refilin who played next to nothing, which was both effective in and of itself and in contrast to his fellow drummers; and Mastelotto—who, after the first evening's show, referred to himself as the "wild card" drummer.

Indeed, between some of his samples, electronics (which every drummer had to varying extents) and his vast collection of metal percussion, Mastelotto—the second longest- standing drummer in Crimson's career next to Bill Bruford—has evolved into the closest thing Crimson has had, since 1972, to Jamie Muir, the maniacal, für-vested and blood cap-biting percussionist who played on Larks Tongues' in Aspic and toured briefly with the group before departing to pursue a monastic life more in line with his increasing devotion to Buddhism.

But what may be the biggest surprise about Crimson > 2014 is that Harrison had not really heard King Crimson before he was first invited to join the brief two-drummer incarnation for a brief, eleven-date/eight-city 2008 tour, documented on the download-only Park West, Chicago, Illinois August 7, 2008 (DGM Live/Panegyric, 2008), before the band became dormant once again.

"With some of the older songs we had to find a new way to do them, otherwise it would just be one drummer on each of them," said Harrison. "I was never a fan of King Crimson; I think I only had one of the records, Discipline (DGM Live/Panegyric, 1981). I had it on vinyl. so when I heard 'In the Court of the Crimson King,' for instance, about eight months ago, it was the first time I'd ever heard it. Robert was quite keen on the idea that we should approach it as a new piece, the way a band comes up with a new song and this is it...rather than faithfully trying to recreate every note that Michael Giles [the drummer on Crimson's first two albums] or Bill Bruford [an active Crimson member from 1972-1997] played. In that case it would be two drummers resting and one drummer faithfully reproducing the original part, and I think there's more fun to be had with three drummers starting from scratch.

"We are three very different drummers with three very different sounding drum sets," Harrison continued. "Plus Bill plays keyboards, and there were a lot of songs that required keyboards. We've all got a lot of electronic stuff; Pat has a lot more of it, as well as the metallic industrial stuff, from the Jamie Muir kind of approach, which is very interesting.

"So, if and when I try to compose something for three drums," Harrison continued, "I just record myself three times, obviously being mindful of how large or small a drum set each of them has: Bill has a quite small drum set. so I obviously can't write something that requires a whole lot of toms for example, or a lot of cymbals. What's happened in the past with the drum pieces is I actually filmed myself performing all the parts and then sent them to Pat and Bill. I know Pat is not a traditionally schooled musician who can read music, but even if I'd written out the parts it's actually easier to watch someone playing them...and the same for Bill.

"So I would send out these little films of ideas that I've got and they would come to my house," concluded Harrison. "We had three drum kits and we just tried things—things on the record, but where we would try moving parts or changing things. It's not the kind of rehearsal that any other musician or any other kind of person wants to be in the same room with [laughs], so there's always a rehearsal periods with just the drummers. There are other rehearsal periods: Jakko and Robert working out very detailed guitar parts; sometimes they're worked out better with Mel, Tony and Robert at Jakko's house and the three drummers at my house because we can multitrack record as well."

One of the other impressive aspects to watching the new Crim is how the two guitarists divvy up their parts. Like the drummers, there are times when Jakszyk and Fripp pass parts off to one another; other times they play in full unison; and still other times where they engage in the kind of staggered, interlocking and at-times Gamelan-like approach that defined '80s Crim and, to a certain extent, the Crimson of 2000's The ConstruKction of Light, from which the first part of the title track has been adapted to include Collins' otherworldly flute and more grounded saxophone work.

Some of the guitar arrangements were predicated on Fripp's unconventional New Standard Tuning—which approximates all-fifths tuning (beginning with a low C on the sixth string, with the exception of the first string, tuned a minor third above the second string that's tuned to an E)—and which intrinsically makes certain standard tuning parts impossible to play. "That's particularly true with some of the classic Crimson material," explained Jakszyk. "For example, with 'In the Court of the Crimson King,' there's the need to play harmonics and then two notes a semitone part, and Robert just can't do that with his tuning. In the middle of 'Starless,' we pass that one [a lengthy, relentlessly building solo with a remarkably simple concept] off between us because it's the same note played on two consecutive strings, so there's only so many places on the neck that you can actually access them. So I have to start playing them and when it gets higher up the neck Robert can take over. But also, there are parts where we recreate overdubs. And there are parts where I really think, 'I should play this like me,' and then there are other places where I think I have to be truer to the original song, so perhaps I double a line with Robert or harmonize with him..."

While there were plenty of arranged parts, it was not necessarily obvious just how open-ended some of the music was with the new Crim. "Easy Money," for example, may have had defined opening and closing sections, but in the middle, there was absolutely no idea where it would go; night to night, everything was up for grabs. While Collins suggested that "when you play the same material night after night it can start to cement itself, which means that some nights tend to be similar," he also clarified that on "other nights it goes off in a completely different direction." Certainly the middle section in the first of Montréal's two nights went places neither the original nor any of the versions heard on the various box sets collecting live shows from 1972-74 ever went: 2012's Larks Tongues in Aspic, 2013's The Road to Red and 2014's Starless boxes, not to mention the one that started it all, 1992's four-disc The Great Deceiver box set. The second evening it was a little truer to form, but still far from the same.

To further demonstrate just how flexible this improvising Crim was, during the first night of its 2014 San Francisco show, Collins took a solo that built to such a frenzied peak that, rather than leading back to the closing verses of Islands' "The Letters" when the dynamics dropped to near-silence, the saxophonist picked it up again, driving the group through a second solo segment that pushed things to even greater stratospheric heights before Jakszyk came in with his final sung verses. Collins said that "It's become a bit staid lately, but it comes down to how I hear everything. You do get locked into certain phrases that work and certain phrases that don't, and it's difficult to get away from that sometimes. But the last thing I want to do to play the same thing twice."

And he doesn't, which is no small challenge. Harrison jumped in: "It's hard to deliberately not repeat what you've done before; it's almost impossible. To some degree there's really no such thing as improvisation; you're always playing something you've played before"; to which Collins added: "One night you might play something that you think is really great and the next night you'll want to try it and recreate it...but you can't. It is difficult when there is so much going on around you; sometimes the most fun I have is on playing flute all by myself in the middle of 'Larks' Tongues Part One.' In the original Crimson you have to consider that when it was an instrumental it was really just three of us playing...which was great fun for me. But I didn't listen to any of that music for years because I really didn't want to. I didn't want to play irregular meters; I just want to play funk and soul; but it's a different approach now. Speaking for myself, I've really been enjoying working with people like Gavin; the standard is so high."

Still, irrespective of what Harrison and Collins suggested, to even the most seasoned listener there was more than enough variation, night-to-night—and now, year-to-year- -to suggest that this version of King Crimson has managed to do what many groups placed in the general rock category could not: make each night a truly unique experience. "I don't think there's ever been a Crimson where it has been this high a standard," said Collins, who first played in the group on three recordings, from In the Wake of Poseidon through Islands before leaving the band, only to be invited back for a guest appearance on Red, where he contributed a soaring soprano saxophone solo on the album-closing "Starless."

"And we all get along," injected Jakszyk, to which everyone responded with laughter. But it's a point not lost on anyone who has followed the band closely over the years that virtually every incarnation of King Crimson has ultimately involved some degree of disagreement and even resentment—even when the groups were performing material that was nothing short of innovative and stellar.

"Sometimes it's hard to actually get Robert to play," Jakszyk said. "Like the traditional thing in "21st Century Schizoid Man" is a guitar solo and then a sax solo. We didn't plan on it being a different approach with Gavin [who takes an extended drum solo], but we talked about Robert taking a solo and he just didn't want to."

And so, what may be the group's most iconic, easily recognized song, "21st Century Schizoid Man"—a curious status, to some extent (or, perhaps, because of it), as it's the only track of that nature on In the Court of the Crimson King—has become an extended drum feature for Harrison...though this year, unlike the 2014 tour, Collins also took longer solos before things dissolved down to the drummer.

One night Harrison played a virtuosic display of more conventional kit work that was a wonder of in-the-moment construction, while the other night the drummer built a similarly motif-driven solo, but this time alternating a Gamelan-inspired set of tuned bells—or, perhaps, electronics (it was impossible to see as he was playing a part of the kit that was hidden by his body, towards the back of the set)—increasingly interspersed with the rest of his massive kit before building to a climactic peak that had the audience roaring. "Solos should be however long you want them to be; they're so mood-dependent, Harrison explained. "Some nights you are feeling on the game, some nights you are not; some nights you are feeling full of humor and jokes, and other nights you feel very serious. But solos should be however long they need to be, 'til you say you've had enough. I never know how long my solo's going to be; I couldn't tell you whether it's going to be one minute or ten."

While much of the material has required drum arrangements created from scratch, some were expansions of those Harrison created for the brief 2008 tour. "Some of the material, like 'ConstruKction of Light' and 'Level Five' I'd already worked out for two drummers when they were being played in 2008, so we played them pretty much as we did then, with Bill adding some more color."

One of the bigger revelations of the recently issued THRAK box was that a book written by Harrison at the time, Rhythmic Illusions (Alfred, 1996), was actually key to how Bill Bruford looked at the double trio of the time, and used it to help determine a methodology for working with a second drummer, the recently recruited Pat Mastelotto. "I don't think it was common knowledge that so much of that book was actually being used," Harrison explained. "I actually asked Bill Bruford, through a common friend, Dave Stewart [ex-Bruford, Hatfield & the North, Egg, National Health] to write an introduction for the book. I'd been writing a column for a few years for Drum Magazine, and wanted to put it all together.

"It's about manipulating the perception of a downbeat and the perception of tempo, either by displacing where you think the downbeat is, or by making the listener feel there's a different 'one'; or by using metric modulation to make it feel like you're playing faster or slower even though it's really just superimposed—it is an illusion," Harrison continued. "I went to Bill's house and I showed him the material and he was happy to write a forward and asked, 'Can you send me the final manuscript?'

"So, I sent it to Real World Studios, where they were just starting to work on THRAK," Harrison concluded. "And it just kind of landed in the right time in the right place for Bill, because he was trying to get ideas together to play with two drummers. The actual book is nothing about playing with two drummers, but you can use material in that way: one guy playing straight, the other guy playing displaced or modulated, and it sounds like two different guys are playing two different rhythms but somehow they're magically interwoven by the subdivisions. It just became part of their sound. But I didn't know Robert Fripp and I don't think he knew who I was. Then, in 2006, Robert did about fifty shows opening for Porcupine Tree, and so we got to know him and he got to hear our sound a lot, so he asked me to join Crimson in 2008, when there was a big gap in the Porcupine Tree schedule; he wasn't stealing me from Porcupine Tree; it was just 'I know you're not working between here and there, so do you fancy coming with us?'"

It was actually not just the beginning of Harrison's relationship with Fripp; it was also the cementing of the guitarist's relationship with Porcupine Tree guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Steven Wilson—after appearing on 1994's Flowermouth, from Wilson's duo project with Tim Bowness, No-Man; and having his soundscape work sampled on another of Wilson's alter-egos, the electronic-centric Bass Communion. Wilson had, by this time, been remixing his own music for surround sound and approached Fripp with the idea of doing the same for Crimson. The result was the 40th Anniversary Series that started with new 5.1 surround and stereo mixes of In the Court of the Crimson King, Red (new surround mix only) and Lizard (DGM Live/Panegyric)—the album that Wilson described, in a 2012 interview for All About Jazz, as "the album that stereo could not contain," and the first album that Wilson remixed because, when asked why by Fripp (who has traditionally not been fond of the record...until Wilson's work), answered: "I'm gonna change peoples' minds about it"; a belief that ultimately, as Wilson continued, was "one of the things that I'm most proud of [because] that I think we did it. For years, people dismissed Lizard as Crimson's 'problem child.' Robert was one of the people who also dismissed it."

Despite Fripp's revaluation and ultimately greater fondness for Lizard, it does beg the question: why is there nothing from that album being performed live by King Crimson > 2014? After all, while the Lizard band—in addition to Fripp and Collins, also including bassist/vocalist Gordon Haskell and drummer Andy McCulloch—didn't last long enough to tour, the Islands band, where Fripp and Collins were joined by drummer Ian Wallace and bassist/vocalist Boz Burrell, did regularly perform the album's nightmare-inducing opener, "Cirkus" and, on rare occasion, the more pastoral "Lady of the Dancing Water."

"We were actually going to take that band [the Lizard band] on the road," explained Collins. "We'd rehearsed with Andy and Gordon—we actually had one day's rehearsal and then Gordon said he couldn't do it anymore, and that was it."

Jakszyk continued, "It's my favorite [Crimson] record. And it's got my favourite guitar solo by anyone, 'Prince Rupert's Lament.' It's an extraordinary thing. What I love about it is Robert's playing over these changes that aren't there; you're hearing all this stuff with virtually no harmonic information, and yet you're hearing all the harmonies."

While there's still no sign of anything from Lizard making it into this Crimson's set list, the group continues to look back at the old repertoire for potential material to reinvent and bring back to active duty. "There are a few things we've started but won't come back, like 'Moonchild' [from In the Court of the Crimson King]," said Jakszyk, "but a couple, if we can just get the time....maybe next year. We are working on one very challenging piece from way back then."

Beyond the stellar performances of the group in Montréal, with the second night eclipsing the first, but only slightly—and Jakszyk's vocals on both nights far surpassing his already excellent work in San Francisco the previous year in range, power and sheer emotion— the very fact that Fripp is now prepared to look back at so much of the older material is something that has made many longstanding Crimson fans very happy. But how the band chooses material, and the things that have, in the past, prevented the band from doing what it's doing now, were both issues worth exploring.

"It's not like 'Oh, the crowd are gonna love this one,' Jakszyk said. "I don't think that's ever a consideration for Robert. If it's a good song, it's a good song. One of the things we've done—'cause this is the kind of stuff I do when I'm with Robert on my own—is that some of the older stuff that has been played has ultimately gone somewhere else and so you end up doing versions of it that are like a memory. Any memory of yours is from the last time you did it, rather than the original song. A lot of it has been about stripping away the stuff that's become part of it over the years, going back to the original and then kind of cleaning it up, maybe re- voicing it. We've done a lot of that, actually: we try various things and you end up, I think, with cleaner versions; you go back to the source material as your starting point rather than a hybrid that's developed over the years. You go back to the original and start again.

"And Robert's having to make changes anyway," Jakszyk continued, "because it's either me playing it or he's playing parts in the new tuning, so he's actually playing different inversions; slightly changing the way that he will play a part is dictated by that anyway."

That there's so little material from the period of 1981-2003 is, for some fans, a cause of concern; but, equally, the absence of much of the group's material from 1969-1975 in subsequent incarnations was problematic for fans of that era in the year that followed. "I think I'd be uncomfortable singing Adrian's tunes," responded Jakszyk, "and I don't think it's uncommon knowledge that Adrian didn't want to sing material that he didn't have a hand in writing."

And so, while Belew-era Crimsons did play legacy instrumentals like "Red," "The Talking Drum" and "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part Two," the only time Belew sang anything from the group's first six years was a rare performance of "21st Century Schizoid Man," performed in Mexico City and first heard in the partial document of that show on the digital download-only Live in Mexico City (DGM Live, 1999) and two-CD collection of Mexico City and New York shows, VROOOM VROOOM (DGM Live, 2001), but finally heard in its entirety as AzteKc THRAK, part of the 16-disc THRAK Box.

"You're always looking forward to the newer stuff," said Harrison. "Going back and playing the older material probably didn't seem like much fun, that's probably the way Adrian felt about it. But now we've got something new with a sound that move's the music forward; to an extent, while we have come back to older material it is from a completely fresh perspective and, as Mel says, it's material that hasn't been played in a long time. Speaking personally, as someone who doesn't come from a traditional King Crimson background it all, it all feels kind of new to me, so it doesn't feel like retracing old steps at all. It's not meant to be in any way a tribute band; we're not a cover band of ourselves. The pattern with a lot of bands that have been around long time is that they do become tribute bands of themselves and I think that's the last thing we want to do."

"I remember growing up listen to Crimson, and when the new lineup came out with Discipline I loved it but, in my head it really wasn't a King Crimson," Jakszyk continued. "That was my personal perception. And I know there is a split camp [with respect to the Belew-era Crimson], but a comment we get a lot is, 'I never thought I'd hear this song played live.' I think, for Robert, it allows him to say: 'This band didn't start in 1981; it started in 1969. I think he's enjoyed going back and I know that Robert's opinions of certain records have traditionally been colored by his personal experiences in making them. I think that it's now possible for him to go, 'This is just a song we're doing with this band.' It allows him to re-experience the tune in a new way. Whereas before it could of been colored by some personal grievance he had with a member of the band, now it's song that he enjoys playing. It was a song so associated with a particular record that he couldn't help but feel it. So it's giving him the opportunity come back and evaluate it purely on musical terms."

That Jakszyk is able to sing material originally sung by Greg Lake, Gordon Haskell, Boz Burrell and John Wetton, referencing all of these singers with certain signatures while, at the same time, always bringing something fresh in his own distinctive interpretations—a voice that was heard to great effect on both A Scarcity of Miracles and his own The Bruised Romantic Glee Club (Iceni, 2006, reissued by Panegyric, 2009)—was something that he'd already begun years earlier, when he became part of 21st Century Schizoid Band in 2002.

A group of otherwise all-Crimson alumni, 21CSB largely culled its repertoire from the 1969-1975 Crimson catalog, along with a bit of new music. In addition, 21CSB performed material from McDonald and Giles (Island, 1971), the recording long considered as the brighter, more optimistic side to Crimson's largely dark complexion, featuring two original Crimson alum—saxophonist/flautist/keyboardist Ian McDonald and Michael Giles—along with the drummer's brother, bassist Peter Giles (never a full-fledged member, but who played on Crimson's In the Wake of Poseidon). The group became quite successful for the simple reason that longtime Crimson fans were enthralled with the idea of hearing their favorite older Crimson songs played live by many of the people who actually did so in the first place (or, at the very least, on record).

Still, that was, indeed, a tribute band as opposed to Crimson > 2014's more modernistic approach to reinventing the material. Jakszyk was both 21CSB's singer and, simultaneously, the guitarist tasked with playing Fripp's parts—for many, a role that would be considered insurmountable and yet, based on Pictures of a City: Live in New York (Iceni, 2006), one that the singer/guitarist/occasional flautist managed to pull off, seemingly effortlessly, to perfection. That band was, in many ways, the beginning of relationship-building and a healing that led, along with A Scarcity of Miracles, to the current King Crimson lineup. Certainly, it was the first time that Jakszyk showed up on Fripp's radar.

"When Boz, Ian and I left King Crimson in 1972," Collins explained, "Robert did ask me to stay on and form the new band [instead of violinist David Cross], but at the time I'd just had enough and didn't want to play in odd time signatures anymore [laughs]. I just wanted to play funk."

"Now he can't get enough of it," Jakszyk interjected dryly, to laughter around the table.

"Well, it's not as simple as that," Collins continued, "but I didn't really want to continue. I think my head had been destroyed. Then it all came back with the Schizoid Band, where Robert called Jakko, and that was actually the turning point. And then Robert called me up—this was after 30 years—and said he supported the whole project and wished us all the best. This is bearing in mind that I hadn't spoken to him in years and years—and he said 'I must say I do apologize for all the mean things i said to you back in 1972,' which was actually very nice; so OK, it's history now."

As a side-note, finding parts for Collins was no small challenge with material on which there were originally no reed or wind parts. "I didn't know the material either," Collins explained. "Dec [Declan Colgan, president of Panegyric] would send me some songs and I'd have an idea what I might play, but with a lot of it I didn't...'The ConstruKction of Light,' in particular. It had already evolved in Robert's mind where I could play, and the flute thing seemed to work out. But then we tried adding a sax solo. The set parts, the baritone things, double the bass and allow Tony to not have to play those lines if he doesn't want to. Plus it's freeing to take what was, for awhile, a signature Crimson sound and apply it to some of the newer pieces and bring it back full circle...and I think it's working."

And indeed it is. But the genesis of Crimson > 2014 was the confluence of many factors. First came the 21st Century Schizoid Band; then, while it's not often considered as such, came Jakszyk's Bruised Romantic Glee Club, on which a number of past and future Crimson members played. And then, finally, came A Scarcity of Miracles, which seemed to be the final piece of the puzzle. "I think it was a combination of things," Jakszyk said. "Mel played on my solo record, Robert played on my solo record and Gavin played on my solo record. And Robert said he really loved Mel's playing on it. I don't think it was any one thing. I think it's one of those things where you look back at it now and think, 'Life is strange.'"

As it is, because beyond his involvement in Crimson's latest incarnation, Jakszyk has ultimately joined Steven Wilson as a new stereo and surround sound mixer for the group's ongoing 40th Anniversary Series. Jakszyk's first Crimson remix—his superb and revelatory look at THRAK—will be augmented, as the series nears its conclusion, with his stereo and surround mixes of The Power to Believe, along with Wilson's still-outstanding remixes of 1982's Beat and 1984's Three of a Perfect Pair (the jury is still out as to whether a 40th Anniversary reissue of The ConstruKction of Light is, as the album Fripp seems to look upon even less favourably than he did Lizard, in the cards).

But then another event occurred which further led down the inevitable road towards the Crimson > 2014 lineup. "Ian [Wallace] died," Jakszyk explained. "Mel and I did a version of 'Islands' at his memorial, and Robert was, again, very impressed; he'd heard Mel on the 21CSB recordings and my solo record and then he saw him play live. He invited me up to his house and we chatted, and we talked a lot about Gavin. And then there was this thing where he called me up and asked if I wanted to do this album for DGM where we would just improvise some stuff. And that's what ended up turning into Scarcity. When we started, I didn't have any idea that it was going to be anything more than two geezers in a room with a couple of guitars...and it became what it became out of that. There were fake drums that I'd put on it, and I asked can we use Gavin; and there was fake bass and I asked could we could get rid of it and get a bassist and Tony came in. That was quite early on."

And, of course, the story has already been well-told that Scarcity's six songs were really built on the improvisations that the two guitarists recorded, with Jakszyk then taking the material home and, shaping them into songs with lyrics, where it became evident that another voice was necessary. Before Harrison and before Levin: enter Collins, whose playing elevated an already strong record—truly one of the most flat-out beautiful recordings of actual songs with which Fripp has been involved outside of instrumental Soundscapes recordings like Love Cannot Bear (DGM Live, 2005).

"There's been a mutual respect right from the beginning," said Collins.

"He's never been shy about that," Jakszyk continued. "Even with the thirty-year gap, Mel's one of the one or two guys that Robert has always spoken highly of."

"And then I listened back to some of the older stuff and realized just what a great player Robert is," added Collins.

Fripp's place in the history books has already been assured by a career now in its sixth decade, but his playing with this Crimson incarnation is notable not just for reviving material that's not been played in decades (if at all), or for his unique approach to improvisation that's even further distinguished by his alternate tuning. What has also been satisfying about watching Crimson > 2014 perform material from 1969-1974 is that Fripp has returned to some of the textures that made his playing so wonderful back in the day, and which he seems to have steadfastly avoided in the ensuing years. "I think Robert has enjoyed that," said Jakszyk. "I think he's found it a challenge to try and recreate them. He sits there and fiddles about with that complicate rack he has...and the next thing, he's found a kind of replicant of the solo in 'Sailor's Tale.'..and, again, as a fanboy..."

But in addition to the banjo-on-steroids solo he plays in the middle of Islands' "Sailor's Tale," it's great to hear Fripp employ a warm, clean tone on tracks like In the Court of the Crimson King's "Epitaph" and encore title track. Throughout the Montréal performance, however, Fripp was featured no more frequently than anyone else in the group; in fact, while there were solos aplenty, there was an overriding sense that the group as a collective was the thing.

And make no mistake about it: this was a playing band. It may live under the veneer of rock, but when it came to some of the "expecteds" of today's rock shows, in particular, lighting and other visuals, Crimson > 2014 was, as it was the year before, almost completely devoid of any special lighting. No spotlights, no flashing lights, no constant color shifts; just one basic light setting that stayed the same for the entire two-hour set with one bold, dramatic exception: when, during the set-closing "Starless," the entire stage was suddenly drenched in a rich, warm red, which remained until the end of the song. Sometimes less is, indeed, more. Both nights were also defined by superb sound from Front of House engineer, IN Bond,

And while the new material was welcome, especially for those fortunate enough to have seen the group's US tour, it was encouraging, in many ways, to see the audience respond to this lineup's reworking of material that many would likely know note-for-note, drum hit-for- drum hit and vocal line-for-vocal line. There were, of course, always the signatures that defined the material, but beyond that the liberties that were taken by the group—especially the drum frontline, which was again as much a marvel to watch as it was to hear—were completely accepted by the audience. Of course, it must be remembered that when what has ultimately become known as progressive rock first emerged with groups like King Crimson, Genesis, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes and a multitude of others, it was in the province of Quebec and nearby Ottawa that these bands got their first foothold in North America. And what that meant, 40+ years later, was that not only were there the grey-hairs and no-hairs who likely saw Crimson back in the day, when the group played venues like Ottawa's Civic Centre Arena, Montréal's Forum and Quebec City's Convention Centre; there were younger fans, too, both on their own and accompanying their parents.

And if the massive standing ovation that met the band both nights in Montréal wasn't enough, ovations throughout the show, thundering applause and hoots and hollers were there throughout the set to let the group know it was great to be back in Montréal, where Fripp's new rules with respect to photography (something that has been an issue for decades) was handled with humor and a sense of community rather than with a harder line—informing the audience that when Levin (known for taking shots of the crowd) picked up his camera, the audience could too; and when he put it down, it would be appreciated if the audience would do the same. "Experience King Crimson through your eyes and your ears," suggested Fripp in a pre-recorded pre-show voiceover. That the audience cheered at the request was encouraging. That there were no hands raised with point-and-shoot cameras or cell-phones (other than when Levin had his camera in hand) was also beyond encouraging, as the audience ignored today's increasingly normal way of watching a show through a camera lens and listening to a performance through whatever recording device is being used and, instead, focused its complete attention on the band.

The rewards were many, and if King Crimson continues into 2016 and beyond with this lineup, the only hope is that audiences will continue to follow these simple requests and respect the artists they profess to love so much—Toronto's first night notwithstanding, where persistent photographers caused a frustrated Fripp to leave the stage before the second encore of "21st Century Schizoid Man"—the result, as per a message from Fripp at DGM Live, "of ongoing photographic abuse." That audiences across the United States, the United Kingdom, Continental Europe and the province of Quebec seemed to embrace Fripp's simple request only makes the behavior in Toronto all the more curious.

As was a rather uninformed and uneducated review of one of Toronto's shows for Exclaim.ca, from a writer who clearly had no idea of what King Crimson was in general, or was about for this tour in particular. The reviewer referred to the show as being part of a "best of" tour, based on the Elements of King Crimson Tour Box (2014 or 2015, take your pick)—which, in its inclusion of some new material and a pile of previously unreleased snippets and live tracks, was a wonderful souvenir to take home, but was far from a "greatest hits" package—if anything could be considered as such (and even that is doubtful as "hits" and King Crimson are words that don't really belong in a sentence), there are The 21st Century Guide to King Crimson: Volume One 1969-1974 (DGM Live, 2004) and Volume Two: 1981-2003 (DGM Live, 2005). The reviewer also managed to include one of the brand new tunes, "Meltdown" in his list of "hits" being performed (or, perhaps, it was enthusiastic optimism), and suggested that the band was both "flattened and featureless" and that "well-executed and intrinsically composed music needs more than technical mastery to make it sing."

Clearly this reviewer was at a different show—perhaps a different planet or dimension—than the fans who have raved about the Toronto performances...and completely missed what the band made clear in its two superb nights at Montréal's Théâtre St-Denis. Yes, King Crimson's music was, indeed, well-executed and intrinsically composed. And yes, the band possessed plenty of technical mastery. But sing it did (and not just with Jakszyk's voice), throughout two two-hour performances that actually managed to surpass its San Francisco shows and demonstrate that King Crimson > 2014 is not only a force with which to be reckoned when it comes to inventive reworking of classic material, but now a band with its own compositional voice that, along with the reinventions, has turned it into one of the best—if not the best—Crimsons to date.

Will there be a live album documenting a complete show? Possibly. Will there be a new album of studio material? Who knows? But if all King Crimson were to do was to continue touring, bringing its material to more and more audiences, and if this turned out to be King Crimson's swan song as Fripp enters his seventies in May, 2016, it will most certainly go down as the tour where King Crimson brought its entire history together; the tour where King Crimson proved that you can put three drummers in the frontline and give the audience an experience like no other; and the tour where, for the first time in decades, the band has clearly enjoyed itself as much as the people to whom it played. And if that were all there was it would certainly have been enough. But there was plenty more and, as a consequence, hope continues to spring eternal that this group will, in some way, shape or form, continue to be documented (either live or in the studio), following the taster of Live at the Orpheum (Panegyric, 2015).

Bring it on. Please.

Tags

Related Video

comments powered by Disqus

More Articles

Read Redwood City Salsa Festival 2017 Live Reviews Redwood City Salsa Festival 2017
by Walter Atkins
Published: October 17, 2017
Read AJAZZGO Festival in Cali, Colombia Live Reviews AJAZZGO Festival in Cali, Colombia
by Mark Holston
Published: October 13, 2017
Read CEO Experiment With Kurt Rosenwinkel at The Sugar Club Live Reviews CEO Experiment With Kurt Rosenwinkel at The Sugar Club
by Ian Patterson
Published: October 11, 2017
Read "Buenos Aires Jazz Festival 2016" Live Reviews Buenos Aires Jazz Festival 2016
by Mark Holston
Published: January 9, 2017
Read "Enjoy Jazz 2016" Live Reviews Enjoy Jazz 2016
by John Kelman
Published: November 7, 2016
Read "CEO Experiment With Kurt Rosenwinkel at The Sugar Club" Live Reviews CEO Experiment With Kurt Rosenwinkel at The Sugar Club
by Ian Patterson
Published: October 11, 2017
Read "Gary Clark, Jr. and Jimmie Vaughan at the Iridium" Live Reviews Gary Clark, Jr. and Jimmie Vaughan at the Iridium
by Mike Perciaccante
Published: September 16, 2017

Join the staff. Writers Wanted!

Develop a column, write album reviews, cover live shows, or conduct interviews.