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King Crimson: Official Bootleg: Live in Chicago, June 28th, 2017

John Kelman By

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As many King Crimson fans eagerly await the November release of its latest 40th Anniversary Series box set—this time spanning the years 1970 through 1972, when saxophonist/flautist Mel Collins was a constant alongside band co-founder/guitarist Robert Fripp for three studio albums (1970's In the Wake of Poseidon and Lizard, and 1971's Islands) and one live album (1972's Earthbound)—along comes Official Bootleg: Live in Chicago, June 28th, 2017, another "warts and all" live soundboard recording along the lines of Live In Toronto: Queen Elizabeth Theatre, November 20, 2015. Like that 2016 release—and unlike the more decidedly produced 2015 teaser, Live at the Orpheum, and then-repertoire spanning audio/video collection Radical Action (To Unseat The Hold Of Monkey Mind)Live in Chicago documents a complete performance, start to finish, about which Fripp has enthused, "If we are looking for a KC live [show], Chicago was exceptional."

Given how extraordinary the current lineup's shows in Montréal and Toronto, Canada were, just a few days after this Chicago performance, it's hard to imagine it actually being better.

But it is. As outstanding as both Montréal and Toronto dates were, Live in Chicago, June 28th, 2017 is, indeed, stronger—if only for it being slightly more consistent in its high level of performance, interaction and energy. What this means is, perhaps, a few less warts in a 160-minute set of music so challenging to play that a few minor gaffs would be expected. Indeed, if Crimson could deliver an absolutely perfect set with nary a minor flaw here and there, its now-eight-member lineup of extraordinary musicians would have to be inhuman. And, as complex as this music is, it is filled with the kind of humanity that makes Live in Chicago as thrilling a listen as it is a cerebral one.

Live in Chicago stands out amongst the (so far) four live recordings that the current King Crimson incarnation has released to date. Initially revived in 2013, following one of its many hiatuses over the decades, its unconventional septet lineup—featuring a three-drummer frontline and twin-guitar, bass and reed/woodwind backline—tested the waters with a Fall 2014 tour that, including two exhilarating nights at The Warfield in San Francisco, was so successful on so many levels that the band has continued touring ever since, with no sign of letting up.

But Crimson 2013+ has not gone without change, though change has always proven to be a strong motivator for a group all-too-often pegged as progressive or art rock, but transcending both definitions as a band that incorporates so many touchstones as to be truly unclassifiable.

When drummer/keyboardist Bill Rieflin, one of the 2014 lineup's original members, was forced to take an unexpected break for personal reasons in 2016, the band recruited drummer/keyboardist Jeremy Stacey. But the intention was not to replace Rieflin, but to fill his seat until he was ready to return. Stacey, a virtuosic yet eminently tasteful drummer whose reach runs far and wide—having played with everyone from Noel Gallagher, The Waterboys and Steve Hackett in the pop/prog/rock world to jazzers Iain Ballamy and Mark Wingfield, and classical superstar Andrea Bocelli—proved the perfect substitute for Rieflin, even though he has since moved from emulating Rieflin's smaller kit to one closer in size to fellow drummers Gavin Harrison and Pat Mastelotto. He was so good, in fact, that when Rieflin informed the band that he was ready to return, the decision was made to convert the "seven-headed beast of Crim" into a "double quartet," with Rieflin setting aside his drumsticks and joining the backline as King Crimson's first-ever full-time keyboardist.

Live in Chicago is the post-2013 Crimson's first release to document this double quartet, and that would be plenty good enough reason for its release; but beyond that, there have been some significant additions to a repertoire that, with the initial septet lineup, ran to 29 compositions old and new, spanning over three hours of music. King Crimson's many lineups, since releasing the debut that shook the rock world, 1969's In the Court of the Crimson King, have largely focused on the now and what's to come; following its first two touring lineups that performed in 1969 and 1971-'72, future incarnations have rarely looked back...and when they did, barring In the Court's epic jazz-meets-metal opener, "21st Century Schizoid Man," they almost never revisited music from the band's first four studio albums.

All that changed with the Crimson that has toured the world since those first 2014 American dates. With looking ahead always a fundamental, this version of the group has slowly been amassing a book of new material, ranging from staggering percussion trios and gentle bass/guitar/twin-flute interludes to knotty, rock-centric full-band material, with lyrics by current guitarist and lead vocalist, Jakko M. Jakszyk. But equally important, with the decision not to include American guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew—a significant contributor to the group from 1981's Discipline through to the very brief 2008 US tour that yielded only one downloadable live document, released the same year, Park West, Chicago, Illinois August 7, 2008—Fripp brought Jakszyk on board with an eye towards creating a more British-centric incarnation that could take material from the group's '70s recordings, but in particular those first four releases, and reimagine them for the 21st century.

Throughout its 2014-2015 tours, King Crimson has made good on that intention, performing, in addition to its growing repertoire of new music, a terrific cross-section of material from In the Court of the Crimson King, In the Wake of Poseidon and Islands, along with plenty of music from the subsequent, slightly fluid lineup responsible for 1973's Larks' Tongues in Aspic, 1974's Starless and Bible Black and, later that year, its '70s studio swan song, the particularly influential Red. The group has also included a limited selection of music from latter-period Crim albums Thrak (1995), The ConstruKction of Light (2000) and, so far, the group's last full-length studio set, The Power to Believe (2003), in addition to two songs from 2011's A Scarcity of Miracles—a recording that, under the moniker Jakszyk, Fripp & Collins and with the added participation of Harrison and bassist Tony Levin, was the initial seed that ultimately led to King Crimson's return to active duty two years later, with five of its seven members in place.

But, even as every subsequent tour brought more music from those six '70s studio albums, there was one album noticeably missing until the 2016 European tour: the sometimes maligned, nightmare-inducing Lizard. It's an album that divided fans at the time of its release—and was (curiously) never highly regarded by Fripp himself, until Steven Wilson's 2009 stereo and surround mixes made a believer of him by bringing greater clarity and delineation to its dense, multifarious layers of sound.

By Lizard, with only Fripp remaining from the original quintet of In the Court, and with its revised lineup—featuring new bassist/singer (Gordon Haskell) and drummer (Andy McCulloch) alongside Collins, who joined the band for Poseidon—providing no compositional input, Lizard was as close as it could be to a Fripp solo album. It was certainly his most ambitious and expansive confluence of rock energy, pastoral themes and classical touchstones to date, combined with a broader jazz vernacular that leaned effortlessly into some of its most challenging, chaotic music to date, thanks to the participation of some of Britain's best free jazz players of the time.

And so, it's in some ways understandable that Lizard is the only Crimson album whose songs have rarely, if ever, been played live; even the Islands band, which toured from 1971 through early 1972, only played the opening "Cirkus" regularly, with the gentle "Lady of the Dancing Waters" showing up on just a few early set lists. But not even that band—or even Lizard's lineup, had it stayed together long enough to tour—could bring the full, multilayered power of Crimson's third album to proper life. As strong as both early incarnations were, they were simply too small to completely capture the full symphonic power, grand majesty, profound beauty and improv-rich music of Lizard, let alone In the Court, In the Wake and Islands.

Never before has there been an incarnation as sizable as Crimson 2013+, with the potential of up to three simultaneous keyboardists (Rieflin, Stacey and Fripp); Collins' expansive set of reeds and flutes; Levin's array of fretted, fretless and electric upright basses plus his twin-hand tapped stick; up to three drummer; and two guitarists. With this group's broad sonic array, it's not just capable of bringing music from the band's back catalog to live performance in a way no other lineup could; it's made it possible for pieces to be included that have never—could never—be played live.

Bringing "Cirkus" into the current repertoire was an inspired choice, and the performance on Live in Chicago is as good a version as has been heard from this lineup to date. As piano and mellotrons come together to turn it into a modern nightmare as frightening as the original, Jakszyk not only delivers the vocals with power that Haskell lacked; he simultaneously adds some of Fripp's acoustic guitar parts from the studio version for the first time. It's a skill not to be underestimated; first honed in the otherwise Crimson alum-populated 21st Century Schizoid Band from 2002-2004, it's one of many reasons that Fripp recruited him for the current lineup (along with their Jakszyk, Fripp & Collins collaboration).

But there are plenty more carrots to make even those who think they've heard enough 2013+ Crimson shows and live releases stand up and take notice. First, there's the first-ever live performance by any Crimson lineup of "The Lizard Suite." Constituting about half of the multi-part suite that took up the entire second side of Lizard's original vinyl issue, this continuous trifecta—the dark-hued "Dawn Song"; symphonically potent, riff-driven and improv-heavy "Last Skirmish"; and elegiac, pedal tone and malleted tom ostinato feature for Fripp's silkily sustaining, melancholic yet soaring guitar lines, "Prince Rupert's Lament"—is reason enough, especially for those who've not yet experienced it in concert, to hear Live in Chicago.

Add to that a gorgeously rendered version of Islands' title track. Another rarely performed song by the original album's lineup, Jakszyk's renders Peter Sinfield's still-relevant lyrics as sublimely as original vocalist Boz Burrell, while Collins' flute and saxophone take the place of the studio version's cornetist, Mark Charig, with equal parts haunting lyricism and thematic invention.

Another draw for Crimson 2013+ is its culling material from Red that has never before been performed in concert. While the nuevo metal of its instrumental title track has been a mainstay of the band since the '80s, while the epic closer, "Starless," was a highlight of the '72-'74 band (and remains one for the current lineup), longtime fans were thrilled to find "One More Red Nightmare" on the 2014 tour set list. With the current band adding "Fallen Angel" to the repertoire, it's now possible to hear Red in its entirety (barring "Providence," edited from a completely free improv, culled from a '74 Rhode Island date).

But if these additions to the current Crimson's set list expand upon its '70s repertoire, the surprising addition of two Belew-era tunes—one each, from Discipline and its 1982 follow-up, Beat, are even further evidence of how this band totally reinvents material from a nearly fifty year-old repertoire. Just as Belew would have been challenged to credibly deliver many of the Brit-centric songs from Crimson's '70s albums, it would have felt somehow odd for Jakszyk to emulate Belew's largely spoken word lyrics to Discipline's jaggedly idiosyncratic "Indiscipline," just as it would have been for him to bring the same kind of fast-paced, beat poetry-inspired spoken word delivery to Beat's even more frenetic "Neurotica."

For "Indiscipline"—whose lengthy instrumental feature for original drummer Bill Bruford becomes a trade-off amongst Harrison, Mastelotto and Stacey—Jakszyk opts for oblique melodies, doubled on guitar and with occasional vocal harmonies from Levin, to deliver Belew's words. On the even more chaotic "Neurotica," Jakszyk focuses exclusively on guitar, with no vocals at all barring its brief chorus:

"Arrive in neurotica
Through neon heat disease
I swear at the swarming herds
I sweat the foul terrain
I rove the moving scenery."


Other than that—and beyond the swinging drums and rapidly walking bass lines of its intro—"Neurotica" becomes a scorching feature for Collins, on baritone saxophone. An unfortunate consequence of Belew not being invited to participate in Crimson 2013+ has been an apparent disagreement regarding the use of music that the departed guitarist/vocalist believes to be "his," despite the full band receiving credit for the music. Irrespective, Fripp (and Jakszyk)'s ability to take these two '80s era songs and, with the rest of the octet's input, turn them into something utterly different is just one more reason why this incarnation stands amongst its best; a lineup truly capable of performing anything from King Crimson's entire back catalog with respect...and a healthy dose of irreverence.

And there's still more new material to be found. Of all the artists covering the title track from "Heroes" (1977) since David Bowie's untimely passing in early 2016, it's Fripp who, perhaps, holds the greatest legitimacy in performing it with Crimson, his searing, soaring guitar lines so fundamental to the departed singer/songwriter's original. Despite Crimson 2000-2003 also including "Heroes" in some of its set lists, Jakszyk is a more suitable vocalist, with a reverent yet personal approach that combines with the rest of the rest of the band to make it a terrific first encore.

The band's reading of "21st Century Schizoid Man," which closes the show, is one of its best yet...certainly the best on any of its live albums since 2014, again due to some changes in the arrangement. Unlike earlier versions from the 2014 and 2015 tour, which were primarily features for Harrison, the song has now opened up to include well-used solo space for both Fripp and Collins.

Rather than employing the signature sustaining tone that he first introduced in his solo on the studio version back in 1969, Fripp opts, at first, for a dark-hued, warm-toned chordal solo. It's a color the guitarist has rarely used in decades, for a surprising feature that clarifies his still-intact harmonic sophistication and familiarity with the jazz lexicon, before a sudden switch to light-speed strumming that brings it to a fierier close, similar to the conclusion of his career-defining solo on Islands' "Sailor's Tale." Collins' similarly heated alto solo furthers the jazz-centricity by quoting, in a very trad style, Duke Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train," just as he did at the July 5 Toronto show.

Harrison's solo is defined by seemingly unimaginable technical acumen, conceptual élan and his open-minded ability to shape completely different solos each and every night. On this evening, Harrison also augments his regular (massive) drum set, at times, with some triggered vibes samples that seem all the more mind-boggling, given how much else he has going on at the same time on his kit.

There is also one brand new song in the set: "The Errors," originally titled "Radical Action III" on the written set lists in Toronto and Montréal. Of a kind with other full-band songs from this lineup, it blends interlocking guitars with polyrhythmic complexities—and, with Jakszyk's approach to lyric-writing, a complexion both familiar and fresh. Whether Crimson 2013+ will ultimately release a studio effort or not almost seems irrelevant at this point. With Fripp's longstanding description of studio albums as "love letters" and live performances as "hot dates," even if live recordings do not fully capture the precise feeling of being there (though they do come very close), who needs a love letter when there's a date as hot as Live in Chicago, June 28th, 2017?

Of course, with so much new material added to a repertoire already too large for a single show (approaching three hours, with a 20-minute intermission between its two sets), it means there will be omissions from any set list by necessity. While the most noticeable absences are Islands' epic "Sailor's Tale," a highlight of Crimson 2013+ sets, and—performed only occasionally since last year and still awaiting live release by this band—Starless and Bible Black's knotty guitar workout "Fracture," it's a very small quibble. The arc of Live in Chicago's two sets and encore—spanning two chock-full CDs—is, in turns, as exciting, majestic, potent and beautiful as any the group has put together since 2014. For those who have been fortunate enough to attend multiple shows over the past few years, there may be some (welcome) songs repeated; but not only is each concert experience different...so, too, are those found on Crimson 2013+'s four live releases.

There's almost no point in getting into specific high points, like Collins' particularly fiery saxophone solo on a take of Islands' "The Letters" that also features some of Jakszyk's best vocals in the set; or one of the best, most open-ended middle solos and extended endings to Larks' Tongues in Aspic's "Easy Money" ever. Nor is there much reason to rave about the high level of playing and complete commitment from everyone involved; by this time, these are simply givens.

Still, it's important to single out Mastelotto's contribution to a three-drummer frontline that's so engaging—musically and visually—as to completely justify Fripp's original concept for Crimson 2013+. Slowly but surely, since the 2014 tour, Mastelotto has evolved into the closest thing Crimson has possessed since the "X factor" of Larks' Tongues in Aspic's maverick percussionist, Jamie Muir. While Harrison's detailed drum arrangements for the frontline still leave plenty of room for individual extrapolations (and have evolved since 2014), Mastelotto is the most recklessly unpredictable of the three, with oblique samples co-existing alongside his mad scientist's collection of all manner of found things to be struck, shook or slapped.

Rieflin, as the band's first full-time keyboardist, adds more than just the original parts from the studio albums—as can be said of Stacey, albeit to a lesser extent only because he also spends a good chunk of his time on drum kit. The keyboard work on "Cirkus," for example—where mellotrons provide the heft to be sure, but shimmering electric pianos provide the atmosphere—would be enough; but Rieflin's contributions throughout the show reflect original parts where necessary...and plenty of capriciousness where possible.

Collins, a player who has gigged and/or recorded with a seemingly countless number of artists over the decades, continues to open up with Crimson 2013+ tour-to-tour, album-to-album, with there being no apparent ceiling to his capabilities and ears-driven taste. Levin has increasingly abandoned all but the most essential signature bass parts for a more fluid interpretive approach. Indeed, the bassist has found a way to balance groove, where needed, with becoming as much an interpretive melodic foil as anyone else on the rear riser.

Fripp, who continues to look happier onstage than he has, well, ever, has broken free of some of the shackles imposed by the more metal-tinged Crimsons from 1994 through 2008. Make no mistake: he can still create thundering riffs and ear-shattering power chords when necessary; but it's great to hear him dig back to some of the timbres, textures and harmonic approaches of Crimson's early albums, updated for a new millennium. It's a reminder that he's always been a player with monstrous chops and surprising chordal tendencies; but some of his playing with this incarnation also represents a return to the greater subtleties of his youth.

Jakszyk, who has been unfairly criticized and compared to other Crimson vocalists, seems to get better with each passing tour and live release. Not that he's ever been shabby, but he increasingly owns this music vocally. And while '70s singers like the late Greg Lake, John Wetton and Boz Burrell may be missed by some, it's hard to think of another singer who could cover everyone from those three to Gordon Haskell...and now, even finding a way to handle songs originally sung by Belew. Like his band mates, he's managed to avoid superficial comparisons while, at the same time, respecting what came before...even as he looks to rendering the music in a contemporary and deeply personal fashion.

As a guitarist—also no slouch, as demonstrated on solo albums like 2006's The Bruised Romantic Glee Club, and last year's overdue Dizrhythmia Too collaboration with Harrison, double bassist Danny Thompson and a host of guests—Jakszyk is also opening up more and more as a member of Crimson, one example being his increasingly fervid trade-offs with Fripp during the third section of "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part One." He may not be as vivacious or visual a player as Belew—and positioned where he is in the back line, coupled with the egalitarian "nobody shines while everybody shines" aesthetic of Crimson 2013+ eliminating any semblance of a front man, it's clearly a group intention. But as a guitarist who must play parts that Fripp cannot since changing tunings in the '90s, along with adding his own instrumental personality—especially to those spaces where two guitarists, engaged and interlocked, must come together as both foils and a single voice—he's as vital a guitarist for this band as he is a vocalist.

More than any version of King Crimson that has come before, Crimson 2013+ has fulfilled the idea of a fully cooperative band; even the personnel listing is in simple alphabetical order. Fripp may retain ultimate veto power, but the group's (seemingly effortless) combination of navigating mind-boggling material—that would leave many scratching their heads in wonder—with a reckless, unfettered approach to interpretation and improvisation, both individual and in tandem with others, makes this a Crimson collective like no other. With still more older material to be reimagined and new music hopefully to come, this is a group that perfectly balances both demands, with a strong future ahead.

From fiery reinventions of older material impossible for prior, smaller Crimsons to a slowly growing body of new material that also separates this incarnation from those that came before, Official Bootleg: Live in Chicago, June 28th, 2017 is not just another superb entry in a series of fine live recordings from this current—and soon to be longest-lasting—edition of King Crimson. It's also reason enough, even for those who've seen the band many times since 2014, to make catching King Crimson on its next return to their neck of the woods a most definite slam dunk.

Track Listing: CD1: Intro: Scape Bells; Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part One; Neurotica; The Errors; Cirkus; The Lizard Suite: a) Dawn Song, b) Last Skirmish, c) Prince Rupert’s Lament; Fallen Angel; Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part Two; Islands ; Pictures of a City. CD2: Indiscipline; The ConstruKction of Light; Easy Money; The Letters; Interlude; Meltdown; Radical Action II; Level Five; Starless; Heroes; 21st Century Schizoid Man.

Personnel: Mel Collins: saxophones, flute; Robert Fripp: guitar, keyboards; Gavin Harrison: drums; Jakko Jakszyk: guitar, voice; Tony Levin: basses, stick, voice; Pat Mastelotto: drums; Bill Rieflin: keyboards; Jeremy Stacey: drums, keyboards.

Title: Official Bootleg: Live in Chicago, June 28th, 2017 | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: DGM Live


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