Saturday, September 20, 2014
The fleeting snarl: King Crimson live in 2014
This past Thursday, I saw King Crimson perform (as part of a four-show NYC run that continues tonight and tomorrow). I wasn't sure I'd ever type that. The band had toured as recently as 2008, but I was a relatively late-blooming fan, and after I heard that bandleader Robert Fripp, pictured, announced his retirement from music in 2012, I figured I'd never have the chance to see them.
The concert was frequently fascinating, but it kept me at arm's length, and I've been trying to figure out why. By way of context, I should mention that I have a complex relationship with the idea of progressive rock. (I delved into that in my math-rock mixtape a couple years back, and in various other posts.) I distrust all genres, pretty much as a rule, and prog is no different. My view is always, show me the music, not its traits or trappings. Is it worthy? Is it great? Cool, then—I'm on board.
With King Crimson, the music frequently is great. Partially by following my own nose, and partially with help from KC expert/completist/megafan Steve Smith (who put together a great preview of the Crimson show in Boston), I made my way to the classic early-’70s band featuring Fripp, John Wetton and Bill Bruford, and dove pretty deep into their ever-expanding (thanks to the indefatigable DGM Live) archive. Where to start with this monster group? I doubt I'll be able to express my love for them more deeply than I did here, when I was first in the throes of my ’70s-Crimson obsession. This period of Crimson speaks to me so clearly, pushes so many of my musical pleasure buttons through its combination of virtuosity and fierceness. I don't care about prog; I care about music that lights me up, and when this incarnation of King Crimson (or, say, Rush…) gets going, such as on this ungodly-great 1974 Pittsburgh show (if you don't own this, please, for the love of God, remedy that), I'm straight-up glowing.
When it comes to the rest of the Crimson oeuvre, I'm no expert. I know and like 1981's Discipline, as well as the live material I've heard featuring that version of the band; I've got a special fondness for the poppier Adrien Belew–driven material such as the outstanding "Frame by Frame." But in my consumption of proggish rock/metal, I'm always looking for the edge, the bite, and King Crimson was at this later point a much cleaner, more streamlined band. From the bits and pieces I've heard of ’90s and 2000s–era Crimson, my sense is that some of that visceral quality returned, but in a more "state of the art," high-tech guise—not in the ratty, ugly form you hear all over the Bruford/Wetton material.
So going into the show, I understood that I would be encountering a completely different band than any of the Crimsons that I knew. The current edition is a hodgepodge of various eras: bassist / Chapman Stick dude Tony Levin, a member on and off since the Discipline era; saxist-flutist Mel Collins, who worked with the band during the strange transitional period between 1969's In the Court of the Crimson King and 1973's Larks' Tongues in Aspic (the recorded debut of the Bruford/Wetton band); ’90s and 2000s drumming mainstay Pat Mastelotto; drummers Bill Rieflin and Gavin Harrison, a new and newish recruit, respectively; and new singer-guitarist Jakko Jakszyk—all joining Robert Fripp, of course. I'd heard rumblings about how the band would be playing a lot of vintage material, but as is my custom, I didn't do a whole lot of set-list research beforehand.
The production was pretty stagy. Long clips of recorded voiceovers, both before the set and between songs. Beforehand, we got, over the PA, a long rambling message from Fripp and various other members about the virtues of turning of your phones and other devices and experiencing the show in real time. Fair enough. Then, between songs, there were frequent, humorously edited clips of conversations between Fripp and various stereotypically "clueless" (though maybe they were, God forbid, merely curious, or simply doing their jobs?) journalists. I remember one exchange when a writer asked something to the effect of "What's the main difference between this and that version of King Crimson?" In that inimitable dry, British way of his, Fripp deadpanned something like, "Well, I think the main difference is that there are different men in the group." That definitely got a laugh, probably because that attitude—the visionary's arch impatience with the follies of the sticklers and record keepers—seems to prevail among the Crimson fan base. I don't mean to generalize; only to say that it's my impression that in the Crimson universe, fans fetishize Fripp's eccentricity, his difficult-ness, and the notion that they, as devotees, are somehow in on a joke that fans of, God forbid, less willfully esoteric music, have no way of understanding or even accessing.
(If it's not already clear, this attitude turns me off. I love plenty of obscure music, but I'm not really into the idea of fixating on its obscurity or eccentricity. I love it because I like the way it sounds, period. I also love the way plenty of way more "straightforward" music sounds. In both cases, it's gut reaction, and nothing more.)
These contextual elements, the recorded dialogue and such, set a certain tone that ran through the show as a whole. I mentioned "stagy" above, and the other aspect of what I was getting at was that the band appeared onstage as participants in a sort of pageant: the three drummers in front, and the other four in back, standing side-by-side on a riser (except for the perpetually seated Fripp), with a backdrop made to look like a forest, and little identifying signs in front of each man that represented his name in the style of the periodic table. As a spectacle, it almost suggested an Epcot Center rendering of a prog concert.
The set list was surprisingly crowd-pleasing. The band drew heavily on the Bruford/Wetton repertoire (all the jams you know and love: "One More Red Nightmare," "Starless," the first two installments in the "Larks' Tongues" saga, "Red," etc.), as well as on the early Mel Collins years (I don't know those records well, but I did recognize the stately and eerie "The Letters" from ’71's Islands). My friend and TONY colleague Josh Rothkopf pointed out a Thrak track in the set, and there were a couple songs I didn't recognize that I'm guessing were from other ’90s or aughts-era releases. Interestingly, I'm pretty sure that the Discipline era was barely touched on. (Spoiler alert, in case you have plans to see another show on this tour: The encore was, yes, a long, flashy, drum-heavy version of "21st Century Schizoid Man.")
One thing that struck me throughout the show was that, despite the three-drummer lineup, the band lacked a certain oomph. The parts of King Crimson that, on record, move me the most—the dark, crunchy, clattering grooves, such as the classic 7/8 stomp in "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part I," which came right near the beginning of the set—were the parts that, at this show, moved me the least. With all due respect to the drummers, all clearly fine technical players (there was a lot of cool/complex interlocking drum arrangement going on, with Mastelotto, Rieflin and Harrison acting as cogs in a larger percussion section rather than simply as three adjacent trap-set players) and imaginative texturalists, I didn't feel a lot of fire from any of them. Precision, yes, and density and volume, some of the time, but not a lot of sweat or brutality. I understand here that I may be engaging in classic apples-to-orange-isms here, and unfairly stacking up this Crimson, an entirely different band, against the one I know and love the best. But given the fact that the focus was on repertoire from that earlier era, it was hard not to notice the contrast with Bruford—such a daring, crafty and surprising, not to mention straight-up nasty when he wants to be, player. When the grooves would kick in, I tended to feel that they "rocked" rather than rocked. With music like this, I want to be punished; at Thursday night's show, I often felt more like I was being addressed, in a sober, straightforward manner.
All the classic knocks against prog, yes? And that's what disheartened me a bit. I'm always the guy who's arguing against that kind of reductionist thinking, i.e., the absurd idea that virtuosity and passion are always mutually exclusive (or that a lack of virtuosity is somehow inherently, you know, virtuous). But watching this show, I often felt that a non-Crimson-sympathetic listener would have all the ammo he or she needed to dismiss it in the most clichéd and uninformed of ways. Given that, in my opinion, Bruford/Wetton Crimson flies in the face of all that tired anti-prog propaganda, I found this troubling.
There were plenty of moments and elements that flew in the face of my overall characterization, though. Jakszyk, in particular, deserves a lot of credit—he did an excellent job of inhabiting the Wetton role, in particular, belting with plenty of grain and poignancy. Levin, too, played with muscle and heart, especially when he traded the Stick for either acoustic or electric bass. In some ways, Mel Collins was the star of the group. He's got a really bluesy, soulful style, and he seemed to have clearance to blow pretty much whatever he wanted during a good 75 percent of the set. I'd never really felt like "Red," for example, was lacking an ongoing free-form sax commentary, but Collins won me over. His contributions went a long way toward humanizing and lightening a presentation that often felt sterile and plodding to me, getting the blood pumping through the heart of the music.
Robert Fripp was resolutely in the background for the majority of the set. But there was one tantalizingly brief moment where he stepped forward. I'm pretty sure the bit I'm talking about came in the middle or at the end of "Sailor's Tale," another track from Islands. What I remember is that the rest of the band cut out entirely, leaving the maestro to play solo for what couldn't have been longer than two or three minutes. This episode was technically a "guitar solo," but it was entirely free of bravado. It was halting, ugly and fractured. Tough, fuzzed-out chords that elicited and completely transcended all the usual clichés: "metallic," "angular," "jagged," "clanking." But none of those descriptors were adequate for what this was. It was only Fripp, being Fripp, serenading the chaos that at one point was a major component in this shapeshifting art-rock odyssey of his. You felt at that moment completely wired into the twisted heart of King Crimson, the mad eccentricity that has powered it for all these years. I felt here like I was witnessing what I'd had hoped to witness, which was the snarl behind the band's poker-faced facade. It was fleeting and it was glorious, and I wish I could hear it back right now.
Though I might not have fully connected with the show as a whole, I'm so glad I got to witness that ornery mini tantrum, delivered in classic undemonstrative Fripp style. With this tour, he's clearly taking King Crimson in a relatively cozy direction. Familiar repertoire, plenty of crowd-pleasing musical pyrotechnics, the prerecorded in-jokes between songs. It all felt like the KC version of a hug or a high-five to fans—a King Crimson revue, almost. Which is totally fine! We're talking about a nearly 50-year-old band here, led by a nearly 70-year-old man. If he's choosing to put on a good, long, retrospective-oriented show, a sort of digest version of all this band has been over the years, filled with tightness and looseness, riffing and texture, familiar faces and new ones—the whole bit—that is certainly his right.
But being the kind of listener I am, I'm always looking for the edge, the bite, the snarl. And following certain musicians into their elder years, it's always fascinating to see where you find it. (Scanning my brain for a shining example of the former case, I settle on Lindsey Buckingham, a Fripp contemporary, and, the more I learn about him, a musician whose core impulses, his prickliness and perversity—not to mention his caustic, almost sadistic virtuosity and stubborn originality as a guitarist—aren't all that far removed from Fripp's.) Having witnessed those glorious few minutes recounted above, I know that Fripp still has all this in him; the beast is there, should he choose to pay it a visit. And I'll be paying close attention to see if he does, not to mention digging back through the discography to find those isolated forays of pure mania. Forget "prog"; what I'm looking for is wildness, electricity. And, as he's demonstrated countless times in the past, Robert Fripp, captain of the weird, winding, unwieldy endeavor that is King Crimson, knows the way there.