This was a journey deep into hard core prog territory and a little beyond. King Crimson have been on the go – give or take the odd hiatus – since 1968. However, our paths had not crossed until this steamy, rainy sodden late Summer evening in Aylesbury.
The venue was full for an invitation-only warm up gig before the band’s extensive European tour. Their only UK dates were scheduled here on the following two nights. Rumours abounded that Kate Bush and other luminaries were in the audience. Nick Beggs of Kajagoogoo was spotted, but whether he counts as a luminary or not is open to debate.
Right from the off, this was unlike any gig I had previously witnessed. From the placards stage-left and -right, bolstered by a PA announcement, kindly inviting people not to take photos during the performance (most acts have long given in on this) to the trio (count ‘em!) of sprawling drum kits front and centre, it was clear that Crimson would be doing things their own way.
To the strains of a backing track that seemed to capture informal moments in the studio, the seven musicians ambled onto stage. Robert Fripp took up a low key perch top right, sat on a bar stool with a guitar on his lap and keyboard in front. Vocalist and second guitarist Jakko Jakszyk came next and the high-rise back line was completed by Tony Levin in amongst a collection of impressive basses and the imperious Mel Collins with his sax and flute ensemble.
However, all eyes were immediately on the three drummers out front who kicked off the gig with a percussive piece of rare imagination and construction, each musician playing different elements that combined into a powerful and complex rhythm. This eventually gave way to one of only a handful of tracks that I knew on the night, ‘Larks Tongues’ in Aspic (Part 1)’.
The band’s performance was absorbing and intricate, rather than exuberant and scintillating. It’s rock ‘n’ roll, Jim, but not as we know it. Amongst the mini-movements and improvisations that constituted the songs, there were moments that were too whimsical, free form and avant-garde for my tastes. But every tortured and cacophonous jazz-inspired meltdown was easily matched by joyous moments of symphonic elation, powerful rhythms and, yes, hard rocking riffs as well.
This is the point, of course. Fripp refuses to have the band pinned down and compartmentalized: prog rock in the widest sense of the term. The sound, arrangements and performance have as much in common with classical music they do with Genesis and Yes.
‘Epitaph’ and ‘Red’ stood out in the first half. The latter driven by some gorgeous proper heavy riff-laden guitar and searing lead breaks. The crescendo guitar on ‘Larks’ Tongues…Part Two’, was electrifying; and in scope and tone foretold of the incredible sounds Fripp later contributed to Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ and ‘Scary Monsters’ albums.
After the interval the band again opened up with a drum set piece. Throughout the gig, Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison and Jeremy Stacey were the most active performers on stage, conjuring up polyrythmic, layered percussion with each drummer often going his own way with the vibe, before coming back together for the finale.
The second half clearly appealed to the more initiated amongst tonight’s crowd. Whilst I found myself involuntarily zoning out or struggling to access some of the pieces, many around me were lapping up the improvisation and experimentation.
Needless to say, the standard of the musicianship was top notch. The mesmeric Collins contributed an array of sax and flute breaks, frequently changing instruments during the same track. On one occasion, he had alto and tenor sax around his neck and flute poised on his lips. Multi-tasking par excellence. Similarly, Levin was whipping funkily-played basses on and off his shoulder with regularity, but it was the upright version that produced his meanest, deepest most striking rumble.
Jakko’s vocals had been assured and confident throughout the gig. On the ballad-like ‘Starless’, he was really able to shine. His soulful singing complemented the mellotron swell and the track steadily built around the drums before being ushered to a staggering climax by Jakko and Fripp in a sustained two-note repetitive harmony.
The first song of the encore was a real crowd-pleaser. ‘Heroes’, a touching tribute to Fripp’s former collaborator, was delivered in haunting style with his evocative, iconic guitar motif seeming to hang in the air above every other instrument. The evening was brought to a close with ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’, Jakko’s vocals again standing out.
The band then gave the cue for the audience to take a few snaps by producing cameras of their own to shoot the crowd. Save for some magnanimous bowing and waving of thanks as they left, this was the height of the band’s fan interaction.
Bombastic rock ‘n’ roll excess this could never be, but thankfully music is a broad church. The court of the Crimson King remains a populace and vital place of innovation, immersion and precision.
Review by Dave Atkinson
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