for us, the first of three 2015 King Crimson concerts from the UK / Europe leg of the tour, took place in the elegant Birmingham Symphony Hall, on Monday evening, September 14th, 2015. We travelled down to Birmingham on the train, and spent a couple of relaxing days pottering about the place, taking photographs, reading, and for me in any case, drinking far too many Starbucks soya Mochas….
curiously, just a few hours before show time on Monday afternoon, on the DGM site, we noticed an advert for booking a pre-show talk with David Singleton, so we were privileged to get an extra 45 minutes of Crim-related material, courtesy of the very knowledgeable Mr. Singleton.
David discussed some of the recording processes and the challenges therein, and played examples of “before” and “tracks” (of “Lament” among others), where the board recording was mostly drums and vocals, and the rest of the concert was pitch-matched bootlegs, and, with a lot of patience and sonic necromancy, these are careful remixed so you can actually hear the individual instruments. It was a very interesting talk indeed, and David even treated us to some unreleased fly on the wall recordings from the forthcoming “THRAK” box set, we heard a session where “One Time” was being developed, and that was very cool.
At the end of the talk, which touched on King Crimson, Robert Fripp solo, orchestral soundscapes, the Vicar, and everything DGM, David then took questions, most of which were about forthcoming or existing releases, but some interesting points were raised.
Then, quite suddenly, it was time, show time, so the forty or fifty of us who signed up for the talk, dispersed to our seats in anticipation of seeing the legendary “seven-headed Beast of Crimson” perform live, at last. I’d been anticipating this moment for many months, and could not quite believe that it had finally arrived, at long, long last.
And I have to applaud this venue, there was zero stress, no queuing, no waiting, we sat in Starbucks drinking coffee (which was located inside the Symphony Building, a few steps away from the venue’s doors) prior to the show, made the obligatory visit to the merchandise stand, and then into the venue and our seats…which afforded us of a great view of the band, at approximately the same vertical “level” as the Crimson back line – i.e. at eye level of Collins, Levin, Jakszyk, and Fripp, with the three drummers at the “level” just beneath us. The ideal place to see and hear from :-)
For me, this tour is like a dream version of the band, with Mel Collins back in the fold, and the opportunity then that this gives the band, to recreate a large number of archival Crimson songs requiring flute, soprano, alto, or tenor sax – along with the presence of Jakko Jakszyk, whose knowledge of and mastery of King Crimson material 1969 – 1974 is absolutely unparalleled, he knows these songs as well as or even, dare I say it, better than RF himself – due to his involvement with the 21st Century Schizoid Band (of which, Collins was also a member). I was fortunate enough to see the 21CSB live in San Juan Capistrano which was in itself, a remarkable experience, so I’ve seen, and heard, first hand just how well Jakko knows his Early Crimson :-)
So with the flutes and saxes more than ably handled by Collins; and lead vocals and the “other” lead guitar handled by Jakszyk, that’s a firm foundation to build on, especially when tackling the earliest Crimson material. The sparkle there though, comes from the fact that for a number of those pieces, it was Collins who originally played them, in the studio and live, so the horn and flute parts are very historically accurate but actually, better, because of course, Mel has grown as a player, he is better than ever and his contributions to this band, cannot be underestimated.
A lot of my excitement and anticipation for these songs was around having the impossibly ever-young looking Mel Collins back in the band with Robert, and watching them trade solos, with big smiles on their faces…it was almost as if the intervening time ( some 43 years since they last shared a stage!! ) had somehow magically disappeared, and we were back in 1972 – especially during something like the sonically raging “Sailor’s Tale” – the guitar / sax interplay and soloing was mind-bendingly good.
And…the inclusion, in this concert, for me, of two tracks from my personal favourite “early” King Crimson album, the much-maligned and misunderstood “Islands” (the fourth KC album from 1971) made my experience complete…I got to see Collins and Fripp play their way through both “The Letters” and the incredible “Sailor’s Tale” – two amazing tracks from a great album. But I am getting ahead of the story here…
When we entered the venue, the first thing that strikes you is the new front line: three drum sets, a DW Drums set (Mastelotto), a Gretsch set (Rieflin – who also doubled as the main mellotronist throughout) and a SONOR set (Harrison) set up in what is a first in rock music: a front line of three co-ordinated drummers. The drum arrangements ( as arranged by drum section leader Gavin Harrison ) were absolutely amazing: precise, powerful, and innovative.
I happen to know what the brief was from Robert, to the drum section – in just three words:
RF: “Re-invent Rock Drumming”
In my opinion, after seeing this concert, I feel that the three drummers have done exactly that, no less. A remarkable musical achievement – truly unusual and wonderfully creative and innovative. In a word – awesome!
The drum duties were spilt up in the most unusual ways, I remember for example, that for “Sailor’s Tale”, Pat and Gavin fell silent, leaving just Bill Rieflin to re-create Ian Wallace’s “flying cymbals” drum part, so that track had a unique sound: one drummer!
For most tracks, two or all three would be active, each taking different parts, maybe one would be on hi hat, another, on snare, another on low tom-toms, however it was arranged, it worked, and it worked really well. The drum section was extraordinary, and they sounded great being in the “front line”, really powerful and incredibly well organised in sound.
Bringing up the “back line” then, from left to right, were Mel Collins; the redoubtable and very tall Tony Levin on bass guitar, stick and harmony vocals; Jakko Jakszyk on guitar and lead vocals, and finally at far right, young Robert Fripp on lead guitar. The idea of having the bass guitar, and the three “soloists” in the back line is an extraordinary idea, and visually, it was a very striking arrangement. For the audience, it meant that you got the rhythm first, and the melodies and harmonies, second…very odd, but, it works.
The only slight sonic disappointment was that for some reason, the bass was sometimes quite inaudible ( very upsettingly, in particular, during the bass solo of “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part I” ), which, after a taped introduction, was the first number the band played.
Regarding that Introduction, first, we got the recording of the band asking us not to take photos during the show, followed by the “Islands Rehearsal” clip from the very end of the “Islands” album, which the band played live over, a short flute solo, a few guitar sounds….leading up to Robert Fripp’s voice, teleported from 1971, counting in the orchestra with a droned “1 2 3, 2 2 3” after which, the drum section launched into a brief drum performance which quickly mutated into the familiar Jamie Mui-led intro to “LTIA Part I”. This is the same intro as used on the official live album “Live At The Orpheum“.
I had never dared dream that I would ever see any version of King Crimson play “LTIA Part I”…I never saw the 70s or 60s Crimson play live, my first KC concert was 1981’s “Discipline” tour, I saw the band then in 1981, 1982, and 1984, and then again, in 1995, I saw the double trio, who did play “21st Century Schizoid Man”, “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part II”, but I really didn’t think there would ever BE a King Crimson that COULD play “LTIA Part I” – until now.
It was a real shock, and when the full force of three drum kits slammed in, with Jakko and Robert doubling the heavy metal power chords, well, I about jumped out of my seat – the sheer power and volume after the very quiet percussion beginning was great. And you can bet that I zoomed in with my brand new binoculars to watch Robert Fripp play those fantastical riffs…which he did, with aplomb…no problem. That impossible Fripp-riff from 1973, perfectly executed in New Standard Tuning in 2015!! Those guitar parts are just amazing, and both guitarists really shined on this piece, Robert playing the coda with real clarity…Jakko playing both violin melodies and guitar parts, it was a really good performance of a notoriously complex and difficult piece of music – amazing!!!
Next up, the band launched immediately into “Red”, which in its lifetime, has undergone a few different “live” iterations, first, the very wild Adrian Belew v Robert Fripp “guitars” version played by the 80s band, then again, in 1995, the double trio adding two basses and two drummers to the patented live “Red” formula; mutating it further still from the studio version…,until now, finally, in 2015, when it underwent it’s most radical transformation.
Led by a new sort of “lolloping wave” drum part, where the three drummers in turn played a riff across the toms, one after the other, while the back line valiantly worked to keep the bass, chords and other melodic parts of ‘Red” in sync, it was a wonderful new way to experience “Red”, and I for one liked the new almost anti-Bruford drum part….the drum section’s new interpretation of what “Red” requires in the percussion department was radical and inspired – excellent. Visually it was quite unique too, because it formed a real “wave” as the drummers each took a turn, from one end of the drum section through to the other, it looked and sounded amazing.
After this initial opening salvo of a track from “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” and the title track of “Red”, it was time for new 2015 King Crimson material, with which I was, and still largely am, utterly unfamiliar with. The first of a number of “new” King Crimson songs followed “Red”, which was also the first song of the evening to feature vocals from Jakko, “Suitable Grounds For The Blues” caught me off guard, I wasn’t really ready, but there it was.
Jakko was in fine voice, I know he is not considered to be an incredible vocalist by some, but I think he accounts for himself quite well, especially given that basically, he is playing lead guitar and singing lead vocals at the same time, as well as on some of the earliest material, playing Fripp’s original acoustic guitar parts using an ‘acoustic guitar” simulator effect of some kind. So he has a lot on his plate, a lot of responsibility, but he has the quiet confidence to pull this kind of musical multitasking off without incident.
“Suitable Grounds For The Blues” was no exception to this, Jakko delivering a flawless vocal while playing complex guitar lines, interlocking lead guitars with Robert Fripp while singing is a talent, and Jakko sounded great on this track. For me, I was a bit underwhelmed by it, there was no super memorable guitar parts or vocals to bring it up to above average, and I remember thinking that despite the fact that they played the piece very well, that for me, it seemed like one of the more or even most non-descript pieces of music that Crimson has ever done…nothing really remarkable or unique about it, nothing that really sticks in memory. I hope that in time, I discover more that is unique and good about the new material – it takes time sometimes with newer, unfamiliar songs.
This was followed immediately with another new vocal number, “Meltdown”, which again, the band played well, but myself being unfamiliar with the piece, I found it, once again, slightly underwhelming as a song, although the performance was excellent. Another good vocal from Jakko, very professional and very well done.
Following these two new tracks, the concert’s chronometer switched from 2015 Crimson to 2000s King Crimson, where we were treated to two of the best and most recognisable of tracks fromI A that time period: “The Construction Of Light” followed immediately by the powerful, ominous drive of “Level Five”.
I love the new arrangement of “The Construction Of Light”, featuring new parts for Mel, mostly on flute, have been integrated into the song perfectly; Jakko demonstrating that he can not only imitate Robert Fripp really well, but also, Adrian Belew, and he made short work of the interlocking Belew / Fripp melodic interwoven guitars that dominate “The Construction Of Light”, while other important changes were made: the vocals are entirely removed, and as the track nears the end, where normally Adrian Belew sang the tune out, suddenly, his missing vocal is replaced by a small blinder of a Mel Collins flute solo, and then the song is over,..but, after a very shirt silence, the awesome Tony Levin bass line that powers “Level Five” is underway, and this gives the shared lead guitar team of Jakszyk and Fripp, an even more complicated and serious lead guitar workout than the very intricate, complex “The Construction Of Light”.
So, from the very, very difficult to the very nearly impossible they go, with the lone bass line of Tony Levin beautifully and easily underpinning the twin lead-guitar attack for the duration of “Level Five” – a song rumoured to possible actually be, “Larks Tongues In Aspic Part V” but this is unconfirmed at press time. I always think I don’t particularly care for this song, until I see them play it, and I realise that it has become a modern Crimson “classic” – “Level Five” live, in 2015 – was simply brilliant!!
Next, we were treated to the very short but very excellent, “Banshee Legs Bell Hassle” which is a fascinating drum / percussion / electronics solo piece from Gavin Harrison ( who is also the track’s writer ). I was familiar with this new piece of Crimson music because it appears on the official “Live At The Orpheum” live CD, and it’s actually a really nice little tune – performed both effortlessly and flawlessly by Harrison, who showed no trace of nervousness at any point in the proceedings.
After the gamelan-like sounds of Gavin’s solo piece, the introduction of the astonishing “Pictures Of A City” just frosted my socks, with Mel honking away furiously and joyously on his tenor sax, playing the fabulous “spy’ melodic lines in perfect unison, harmony or counterpoint with Robert Fripp, who reprised his original contributions on guitar. Jakko had the pure joy task of singing yet another brilliant Peter Sinfield lyric, and for me, this track, this performance, was a true musical highlight of the night, another song that I never dreamed I would experience “live” in my lifetime, but, there it was: a great vocal and guitar from Jakko, fantastic bass, guitar and sax precision “spy” parts, excellent new three drummer drum part – a sprawling, complex and very musical arrangement of the song, from 1970, that tried to top 1969’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” for complexity – and very nearly succeeded in doing so.
This was a really powerful performance, with both Fripp and Collins on absolute top form, playing with precision and grace – a fantastic moment in time, an unforgettable version of “Pictures Of A City” sung with passion by Jakko, and played with so much power by the whole band – an ensemble performance, perfectly co-ordinated between the seven players – a true team effort, a huge win in my book – a real highlight for me. Beautiful work.
Then the time machine dialled us ever further back, back from 1970 to 1969, and for me, the first of two tracks from “In The Court Of The Crimson King” that I simply was not expecting at all – the first of which, was “Epitaph”. This one featured Jakko’s encyclopaedic knowledge of early Crimson, where he simultaneously played Robert Fripp’s acoustic guitar parts, while doing a very credible imitation of Greg Lake’s classic, mournful vocal. Fripp played beautifully on this one, recreating his fast strummed parts perfectly, while Jakko handled all of the “acoustic” picking duties. But then, the band’s secret weapon was revealed, Bill Reiflin, his back now to us as he turned away from his drum kit towards his mellotron, loaded with all of the authentic “Streetly” mellotron samples, very, very precisely and carefully reproducing the original parts as played by Fripp and Ian MacDonald.
The historical accuracy of both the samples used (making the strings, flutes, horns or choir voices sound exactly like the 1969 album, and, the accuracy with which Rieflin plays the mellotron parts, perfectly copying the parts on the original album)…the addition of this super accurate and authentic mellotron part, coupled with Jakko’s impassioned vocal performance, really brought an amazing sparkle to a song with such a serious lyric. I never, ever dreamed, in a billion, billion, years, that I would see and hear King Crimson play “Epitaph” – but I just did, last night. I still can’t quite believe it, I’m pinching myself…”Epitaph” live. I really heard and saw that! Last night.
Now this is where things get a bit hazy. There were quite a number of “drum solos” during this performance, some of which I understand, are actual songs with titles, and the next piece, as far as I was able to ascertain, was called “Hell Hounds Of Krim”. Now you know just about as much as I do about this song, every time this trio of drummers played, it sounded amazing, and these “all drums” songs were no exception – they sounded great! Three of the most inventive players around, each with their own style and sound, working together on a three part drum performance – it was simply magic. Another top notch performance of new material.
I know I keep saying “I never dreamed in a million years that I would see and hear King Crimson play THIS SONG”…well. I can tell you…and I will, over and over again…I never dreamed in a million, trillion years, that I would witness them playing “Easy Money”, but there it was. Again. Jakko did a very credible imitation of John Wetton’s vocal, while Fripp took on the difficult guitar parts. When it got to the first guitar solo, Robert got an amazing guitar tone out of his Axe-FXII, a very accurate 70s cracked-Wah liquid sustained “Frippy’ solo sound, and he played a vintage style “solo” using that amazing sound. It was phenomenal, and I was absolutely flabbergasted by the quality of that solo, and of all the parts – Fripp absolutely nailing the high speed violin riffs near the very end, with perfect timing and expert intent, absolutely on the mark…”just making easy money”…this is where Pat then fires off the “laughing box” at the end, just like on the original record. but Robert was smoking hot and I won’t forget that amazing solo any time soon.
I could not really believe that I’d just heard and seen “Easy Money” live. Perhaps to give me time to recover, they then played “Interlude” which was just about one minute of tape, of an audience clapping and talking. Now at this point, based on previous set lists, one of two things could have happened, the next two tracks, might be, “The Talking Drum” followed by “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part II”, in other words, following “Easy Money” that would be the whole of side two of the original vinyl “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” album, or, they could divert back from 1973 to 1971, and “go Islands”…
I said aloud, during the last few seconds of Interlude ‘please be ‘The Letters”‘ and an instant later, “The Letters” started up. For me, this was it, the high point of the concert. Jakko’s voice is most similar to Boz’s voice, and I think he sings this song really well, which really adds to the historical accuracy. Both Fripp and Jakszyk play really delicate picked guitar chords during the verses, and the whole band played this piece with such delicacy…until the super loud fuzz guitar and honking tenor sax part that is…which is really sudden, and really powerful yet another awesome demonstration of dynamics, from the whisper to the scream…
The song then moves on until it reaches its remarkable vocal climax, where Jakko is “impaled on nails of ice…and wait for emerald fire”…this song is so intense, and so strange, but the band gave it everything, took it seriously, and delivered it well, in a beautiful, unforgettable (for me, anyway) rendition.
and then I held my breath one more time, according to previous set lists, the next track should be “Sailor’s Tale” – so as the Bill Rieflin-powered, perfectly reproduced mystery mellotrons of “The Letters” faded out, I had a long moment of fear…until suddenly, Tony Levin and Bill Rieflinh » started up the fabulous bass and drum backing of “Sailor’s Tale” – which then gave the three back line soloists the chance to truly shine…first, the awesome sax riff, with dual long sustained guitar notes from our two guitar heroes…after a few precision reiterations of that, it then gets to the truly exciting bit, where both Collins and Fripp solo wildly, trade solos, play together, play crazily…it’s a truly wonderful instrumental jam. So here is my “broken record” speech again: I never dreamed in a million years that I would see and hear not one, but two amazing tracks from “Islands” my personal favourite of the early King Crimson albums.
so the double whammy shock of “The Letters / Sailor’s Tale” left me reeling, Mel’s screaming saxes and Robert’s wild lead guitar playing, including bends…it was very odd to see RF bending strings again in tracks like “Sailor’s Tale” or “Epitaph” – these two “Islands” songs, brought back in 2015 from 1971, probably at the suggestion of Jakko, who like myself, is also very fond of “Islands”, just made my evening complete, I was so pleased that this was an “Islands” night rather than a “Larks’ Tongues” night…although I do also hope to see the set list with “The Talking Drum / LTIA Part II”, but after tonight, now I can die happy!! because I saw and heard both “The Letters” AND “Sailor’s Tale” live – something I literally would have thought impossible until THIS King Crimson formed.
Then the time travel machine jumped forward again, to the beautiful, exquisite piece that is 1974’s “Starless” – more perfect mellotron parts, Mel Collins effortlessly re-creating both his own horn parts but also, Ian McDonald’s horn parts, creating a perfect amalgam of both…Jakko, tackling another difficult-to-imitate John Wetton vocal.
When the song reaches the slow buildup section, with the long, long picked guitar notes with bass figure, there was a slight problem with tuning at the start of that section, which eventually sorted itself out by the time we got to the very exciting conclusion of the song…Fripp playing that amazing, liquid, distorted lead guitar melody, again, with string bending, sharing the melody with the horns, a beautiful song, great vocal by Jakko, great bass from Tony, and beautiful soloing from Robert and Mel. Now, I had previously seen a version of “Starless” live, when I saw the 21st Century Schizoid Band play it, with the late ian Wallace on drums….but now, it’s “Starless” with Robert Fripp AND Mel Collins, it was just wonderful as performed by the new “Seven-headed Beast Of Crim”, a truly lovely performance, nicely done.
Time now for more “drum solos” that are apparently songs, this time, it’s (apparently) “The Devil Dogs Of Desolation Row” again, this trio of ultra professionals could make any percussion piece sound great. So another high quality 2015 percussion workout from Pat, Bill and Gavin. Great stuff.
For the final number of the main set, another impossible track from the distant past – the title track from 1969’s “In The Court Of The Crimson King”, again, featuring the historically and musically accurate Jakko Jakzsyk on mock-acoustic guitar and lead vocals. Another standout vocal from Jakko, singing some of Peter Sinfield’s most famous and most amazing lyrics…perfect reproductions of the original flute parts from Mel…Robert reprising his original lead guitar parts in a really accurate and beautiful way…another classic Crimson number from the renowned first album.
And that was that, the end of the show, “In The Court Of The Crimson King” and I wanted to mention something interesting, planned into the drumming, for all of the tracks that originally featured Michael Giles on drums, I got the feeling that Pat Mastelotto felt it was his duty, his calling, to emulate sone of the incredibly powerful Giles drum rolls, and with real power…and he did just that. On several occasions, I was watching him play through the binoculars, when he would let loose an inhuman burst of speed, playing in the same uncanny, impossible way that Michael Giles used to. It was an astonishing thing to witness, and you could feel Pat’s desire to emulate what Michael played, because it was so much about the drums, in those classic pieces (I am thinking of “Epitaph” and “In The Court Of The Crimson King” here).
Often during the long outros of the songs, Giles would suddenly play something impossible…and Pat did exactly the same thing, on a few different occasions during the night. So it was awesome that Pat did this, a real, living tribute to the critical part that Michael Giles (who, by the way, is Jakko’s father-in-law) played in the original music from that first album, his long powerful rolls were critical to the early Crimson’s sound.
To be fair, there were moments when each of the drummers did things equivalent to this, channelling Ian Wallace, channelling Bill Bruford,and young Gavin Harrison very nearly equalled Pat’s power and majesty – nearly. I would say that ex-Ministry Bill Rieflin is the gentlest of the three, with the lightest touch maybe; but it’s unfair to compare, as he had to leave the drums and play mellotron for much of the set. So Gavin and Pat got the lion’s share of the power drumming :-), but when Bill was free to join them, he rocked just as hard…the three of them are really well matched in every way.
The band left the stage to standing ovations, and then returned for one final song: “21st Century Schizoid Man’ – which rocked the house. Tony was especially good on this one, doing his best to out-play Greg Lake on the bass…while everyone else took a turn at soloing, including the drummers…Mel took an amazing sax solo, and both Robert and Jakko played some great guitar. And then, there was the famous “precision part” near the end, where the band play a riff, stop, okay a riff, stop, and so on, and of course, the seven of them knocked that bit on the head…Jakko had a great time with the vocal on this one, I think he sounded really good on it.
All in all…a show full of surprises, full of unexpected joys, full of songs that I never dreamed in a billion, trillion, gazillion years I would ever get to see my favourite band in the world play – but last night, I did…I really did.
This remarkable group of seasoned musicians have worked together to create something truly unique, a group where the three drummers are out front, and those who normally solo or support, become the back line…and that strange strange configuration – works. Really, really works. The selection of songs, old and new, is remarkable, and the sense of history here is so strong, carried forward by musicians, old and new – this is also remarkable.
A really, really good show. Enjoyable on so many different levels, superb musicianship, passionate delivery, and a first ever look back across the entire King Crimson catalogue, this band with its front and back lines strangely swapped, really gives you a run for your money – and just about anything might happen – a flute replaces a voice; a guitar becomes a violin, and Robert Fripp bends his strings again, most beautifully, on “Starless” and “Epitaph” and “In The Court Of The Crimson King”.