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King Crimson: Neal and Jack and Me

John Kelman By

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King Crimson
Neal and Jack and Me
Discipline Global Mobile
2004

More than any group that emerged from the so-called progressive rock era of the late '60s and early '70s, King Crimson has continued to reinvent itself. From orchestral bombast to faux-free jazz, from semi-fusion to nuevo metal, Crimson is one band that not only refuses to rest on its formidable laurels, but sometimes almost emphatically seems to deny its long history altogether, with live shows that emphasize new material and rarely go back to songs from earlier incarnations. Fortunately, with a series of outstanding remasters, live show releases and a series of concert DVDs, the history of the band is well-documented and readily available. Looking back at their thirty-five year history one finds a band that, no matter how it redefines itself, is always unique and manages to work within a space that, as different as the various incarnations of the group have been, maintains a distinct lineage. There may be a world of difference between the band that recorded In the Court of the Crimson King and The Power to Believe , but they clearly exist within the same universe.

The '80s version of King Crimson, which introduced the two-guitar salvo of Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp along with arguably their best rhythm section, bass/stick player Tony Levin and percussionist Bill Bruford, was always considered to be more of a live band than a studio affair. Robert Fripp has often written how King Crimson records are love letters, and their performances hot dates. Anyone who was fortunate enough to see this incarnation in performance knows that this was one passionate night out. Thankfully, for those who missed out, Discipline Global Mobile has finally issued two concert performances from that period, previously only available on VHS tape.

Neal and Jack and Me collects Three of a Perfect Pair: Live in Japan 1984 and The Noise: Live at Frejus 1982 on one DVD, and while some of the technologies date the band, they come off, for the most part, as fresh and timeless as they did twenty years ago.

This version of Crimson was clearly the most pop-oriented; with songs like "Sleepless," "Man With an Open Heart" and "Heartbeat" they were even a dance band. But that doesn't mean they sacrificed anything in the way of experimentation or challenge. More avante tunes like "Industry," "Dig Me" and "Indiscipline" were as obscure and arty as anything that had come before or would come after, and tracks including "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part III," "Sartori in Tangier" and "Thela Hun Ginjeet" demonstrated a band that could be as aggressive, edgy and shredding as any. But it is the combination of technology with heart, the lyrical with the abstruse, and the danceable with the rhythmically challenging that distinguishes this version of Crimson.

The Frejus show catches Crimson in the less-than-optimal position of opening act, nevertheless delivering a blistering fifty-minute set that must have made the top bill, Roxy Music, more than a little nervous. Opening with "Waiting Man," featuring Bruford and Belew sharing a set of electronic drums, the group quickly establishes themselves as modern texturalists and catchy rhythmists. As a singer Belew was often compared less-than-favourably with Talking Heads front-man David Byrne (and, in fact, during a particularly dissenting time in that band, Talking Heads band members Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth had even approached Belew to replace Byrne), but listening to the band for any length of time dismisses this view as superficial. Yes, Belew shares a certain penchant for beat poetry and spoken delivery, but his always been the more versatile voice, with a broader ability to growl and yell as much as deliver a lyrical melody.

The short show, with material mainly from '81's Discipline and the '82 follow-up Beat , shows a band that knows how to pace a set. Fripp has stated that each version of Crimson represents the introduction of new technologies, and this version is no exception. With Bruford's electronic drums supplementing the acoustic variety, Fripp and Belew utilizing early guitar synthesizers, and Levin adding Chapman Stick to his already impressive bass playing, the diversity of textures are broad indeed. And while Belew is clearly the front-man of the group, everyone gets ample air time. Fripp, seated off to the side as usual, may be a more introspective person, but he has always been paradoxically a surprisingly aggressive player. An abbreviated but crunching version of "Larks Tongues in Aspic Part II" closes the set, with Fripp delivering ear-shattering power chords while Belew coaxes completely uncharacteristic sounds out of his guitar.

Nearly two years later, and just a few short months before this version of Crimson would disband until reforming ten years later as the double trio that would record Thrak , Three of a Perfect Pair: Live in Japan 1984 finds the group at their absolute peak. With a full show at their disposal, the band takes more liberties with the dynamic flow of the set, ranging from Fripp's awe-inspiring arpeggios that signal the beginning of "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part III" (also notable for Fripp's solo, where he is about as visually animated as he's ever been) to the danceable pop of "Man With an Open Heart" and "Sleepless."

The group knows how to balance their experimental and approachable sides by surrounding the more obscure pieces "Indiscipline," "Industry" and "Dig Me" with the lyrical "Matte Kudesai" and more rhythm-friendly instrumental "Sartori in Tangier." Closing with "Elephant Talk," where Belew takes a solo that is the epitome of controlled chaos, and the more radio-friendly "Heartbeat," Crimson demonstrate that it is possible to be artistically pure, experimental and textural without losing one's accessibility.

There are precious few extras on the DVD—a promotional video of "Sleepless," a collage of tour photos from Levin's collection, and a discography of the '81-'84 band that includes the studio releases, the live release and the King Crimson Collector's Club releases —but with nearly two-and-a-half hours of vintage live footage between the two shows, extras are superfluous. Neal and Jack and Me , placed beside Crimson's other DVD releases, '99's Deja Vroom which documents the mid-'90s double trio, and '03's Eyes Wide Open , which documents the '00-'02 quartet (now no longer, with Trey Gunn gone and Tony Levin back), gives fans the opportunity to place this important incarnation in historical perspective. While each version of Crimson brings something new, and definitely looks forward rather than back, when placed in context one is able to see that the process of continuous change in the band, and the growth that has occurred, not only makes perfect sense, it is an absolutely logical evolution. Now, is it too much to hope that some archival footage of the '70s incarnations is found and released?

Tracks and Personnel

Three of a Perfect Pair: Live in Japan 1984
Tracks: Three of a Perfect Pair; No Warning; Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part III; Thela Hun Ginjeet; Frame by Frame; Matte Kudesai; Industry; Dig Me; Indiscipline; Sartori in Tangier; Man With an Open Heart; Waiting Man; Sleepless; Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part II; Elephant Talk; Heartbeat.

The Noise: Live in Frejus 1982
Tracks: Waiting Man; Matte Kudesai; The Sheltering Sky; Neal and Jack and Me; Indiscipline; Heartbeat; Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part II.

Personnel: Adrian Belew: guitar, vocals; Robert Fripp: guitar; Tony Levin: bass, stick, synth, background vocal; Bill Bruford: acoustic and electronic drums.
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