King Crimson at Theatre St-Denis

John Kelman By

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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, Ian 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.

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