Impressions, feelings, memories. a journey made by my favourite band of all time – King Crimson – across the USA and Canada – ending in some professionally recorded gigs and ultimately, to that final gig, on July 1, 1974, in New York’s Central Park – the end of an era – the end of the original King Crimson which had existed in one form or another since 1969.
Ten very diverse albums, embracing prog, jazz, rock and musics in between; countless tours, one of the most road-tested bands of all time – and in many cases, Fripp, the band leader, would work in reverse: instead of recording an album and then going out and playing it, he would “rehearse” the band by going on the road, and then once the songs were worked in, then it’s time to record them – a wonderful way of working, a method which gave us “Starless and Bible Black” – a studio album that is mostly live.
“The Road To Red” if you haven’t heard, is Fripp’s latest “attack on culture”: simply, it’s as many of the 1974 live shows, from the US/Canadian tour, that could be eked out of whatever tapes existed, brought together on 21 CDs for your listening pleasure (yes, I said 21) – if you have a few days free to listen! It’s an impressive feat, and actually, given that some of the source tapes are dodgy bootleg cassettes, the set as a whole is extremely listenable, because, the occasional lapse in sound quality aside, this band was on fire – they went out each night to try and change the world, just a little bit – and every night, they were rewarded with something memorable.
now, we are reaping that same reward, but with the added time, these performances seem even more extraordinary – this was a band with a particular musical vision, and they stuck to that vision – night after night.
It’s not all perfect – things happen, as Robert once said “a foot slips on a volume pedal…” but it’s pretty damn consistent, and given that they were using not one but two of that most temperamental of instruments, the mellotron, it’s amazing that things didn’t break down more than they do.
There are no surprises here in terms of musicianship, except perhaps how very effective David Cross could be with his extremely distorted electric piano, or in occasional quiet moments, on the violin, there is almost no need to describe just how incredibly well the rhythm section play on this set, it’s an object lesson in power and precision, the Bill Bruford / John Wetton team, topped with the amazing guitar histrionics of Mr. Robert Fripp himself – soloing with passion, power and even humour – there is one moment during “Easy Money” where Fripp tries to get Wetton to laugh, and it’s there in almost every take of the track, Wetton trying to sing but instead, listening to and laughing out loud at whatever silly riff Robert has inserted into “Easy Money” on this particular night.
I said there were no surprises here, but what I mean by that is that there are no surprises that these four players play so, so well, individually, and as a unit, but, there ARE surprises, sometimes, something will happen one night that doesn’t happen on any other night. Perhaps it’s the guitar solo in “Lament”, which may sound much the same from night to night until one night, when Fripp decides it’s time to try something completely different, and holds one note for ages as the start of his “solo” – and then plays a blinder that is nothing like previous “Lament” solos. The next night – back to the “normal” solo.
Or, Robert might decide that tonight, the guitar solo for “Easy Money” is going to be done double time, and when he comes in with said solo, the ferocity, the determination, is truly awe-inspiring – the band are very comfortable with these tracks, and they don’t mind deviating from the script – in fact, it’s positively encouraged – and from night to night, each of the four will change up their parts, just for the sheer joy of seeing what might happen…
And sometimes, what happens is remarkable. There are some truly beautiful renditions of King Crimson classics here, and it’s especially gratifying to have so many versions of “Fracture” and “Starless” to luxuriate in – personally, I can’t get enough of either track.
For me, too, often, it’s the “Improvs” that make these shows truly interesting, where the band goes completely off-script, and sometimes, the results are truly inspirational – stunning, loud, fast, amazing, slow, beautiful, peaceful – these improvs can be almost anything, and it’s fantastic that the band includes them in every show – they break up the sets beautifully, often providing a springboard in or out of one of the pieces in the set list.
Maybe the best anecdote that sums up the professionalism, the camaraderie, the teamwork, of King Crimson Mark 3, as Fripp calls this band – is the story of the “John Wetton Save”. This occurs early on in the set, near the end of one of the versions of “The Night Watch”. The piece is nearly done, Fripp is on his own, playing the short, repeating mellotron chordal section that leads up to the final violin melody, which then leads to the song’s end.
Fripp is playing away, the revolving mellotron part, when the band all seem to realise that there is no violin coming in (apparently, it had broken down completely) so what happens next is astonishing: Fripp decides to play the part a second time, so another few bars of music go by, when once again, the moment has come for when the violin solo should come in.
But what happens instead is, we hear John Wetton playing the violin melody as a bass solo, with feeling, playing it note perfect, slowly, deliberately, as if it were MEANT to be a bass solo (even though it’s NOT a part he is required to know – somehow, he knows it!) which then brought the band to the end of the piece perfectly – without missing a beat – and a successful conclusion, sans violin, to a beautiful piece of music.
And – it’s a bonus, it’s the ONLY time you will hear Wetton playing that particular melody anywhere on record – it was a demand of the moment, an equipment failure causing an unscheduled bass solo emulating a missing violin solo…brilliant !! It could only happen in King Crimson, and it’s to Wetton’s credit that he picked up that melody so quickly and perfectly – saving the day and rescuing our distressed violinist.
I could sit here and write about each disc of this set, exhaustively, pointing out certain gems and certain gaffes (not too many of those, actually) but I think it’s best if I just keep this concise and say, if you like King Crimson live, you could do a lot worse than to pick up this beautiful box set, which comes with all kinds of goodies, a huge booklet featuring the good Sid Smith; excerpts from Fripp’s diary, photographs, and various facsimile lyric sheets and so on – a really, really nice package, which also includes a treasure-trove of DVD and blu-ray material.
Another nice feature of this set is the fact that five of the shows were recorded professionally, multi-track, so that means those five shows can be presented in extra pristine sound quality versions. You even get two different mixes of one of those shows – the Asbury Park show – one mix from Robert Fripp, Tony Arnold and David Singleton, the other, from Ronan Chris Murphy.
The presence of the high quality recordings near the end of the set nicely balances out some of the less high fidelity moments earlier on, so you actually end up with increasingly better sound quality as the set goes along (with the exception of the final Central Park concert, where we sadly, must return to a cassette source).
That’s a bonus you don’t get in most live series, professionally recorded shows – but this was intentional, and all of the material for the official live King Crimson record of the day, “USA”, is culled from those shows. So really, this record might have been called “The Road To Red And USA” but I guess that doesn’t really have the same ring to it!
Disc 21 is the culmination of the “road” – a new 2013 mix of the studio album “Red” which followed this tour – mixed by the unstoppable Steven Wilson. So you get to hear the live shows that lead up to the recording of “Red”, so you can feel the energy that was in the band when they went to make that record. It’s no wonder that the studio version of “Starless” is so incredible, being built on the back of these live performances – that is proof that the rehearse-on-the-road method really works when it needs to.
For a fan like me, ordering this was an absolute no-brainer, yes, I did have a few of these shows already, but this brings them all together in perfect chronological order, so it’s nice to have them all in one set. Some of this material was released on the most excellent “Great Deceiver” set (but, only in part) and others were variously, DGM CDs or DGM downloads – but, to be fair, there is also a fair amount of previously unreleased material, which makes it an absolute “must have” for the voracious King Crimson fans – of which, I am admittedly one.
This set rocks, I’ve sat for the last two days, playing disc after disc, hearing the band get better and better at the tunes, and hearing the improvs develop – and I can tell you, the conclusion of “Starless” night after night, does not get ANY less beautiful or inspiring, it’s just incredibly beautiful, and Fripp’s final lead solo at the very end of the song, is soaring, searing and intensely, intensely beautiful – that one note just rings and rings…and then fades away as the mellotrons also fade. it’s starless…and bible black.
I am surprised, I would have thought that after about ten discs, I would be getting tired of hearing “Lament” or “The Talking Drum” over and over and over again, but I absolutely do not, because interesting things happen – different things happen from night to night, show to show, venue to venue, and it’s fabulous hearing the band experimenting, trying out new ideas, as they tour across North America.
Then, finally, July 1, 1974, live in Central Park – the great Crimson beast of 1969-1974 was finally laid to rest – the last live show ever by this line-up, and the continuous series of various “King Crimson’s” finally brought to an end – and at that time, of course, we didn’t know that Crimson would indeed re-emerge, re-built from the ground up, in 1981 – but for us, suddenly in 1974 to find that Crimson was no more! – this final line-up was probably the best line-up, it’s arguable either way, many cite the 1969 line-up that only existed for 11 months as the “best”, or, this final quartet that worked for about 18 months (from 1973 through half of 1974) – I am not counting the 1972 – 1973 period when they were a quintet with Jamie Muir.
I think that this band had a better chance to really work out their repertoire, and they actually had material that stretched from Larks’ Tongues through “Starless and Bible Black” – two full albums (and, two of their most adventurous, complex, mature works from which to draw on) – plus, they played old worlde Crimson pieces such as “Cat Food”, “Peace – A Theme” or “21st Century Schizoid Man” – and, also, odd unreleased tracks such as the illustrious “Doctor Diamond” which was never recorded in the studio (I think).
It was great fun, for example, hearing Wetton tackle the vocal to “Cat Food” – that is really something (not found on “The Road To Red”, but available on earlier live recordings) – and this band’s take on “Schizoid Man” is not to be taken lightly. “Schizoid Man” isn’t played at every gig on “The Road To Red” but when it is – you notice 🙂
I am staggered, though, just listening to a randomly selected version of Fracture, first, at the complexity and maturity of Fripp’s biggest challenge to himself (of the time) – and second, at the world class, incredible fuzz bass and loud distorted bass and beautiful soft bass that John Wetton plays during “Fracture”. Yes, what Bruford and Cross do in “Fracture” is very important, I am not downplaying that – but what Wetton does with this piece, you can hear him, hanging on for dear life, trying to follow Fripp on his cosmic guitar journey – and then that bass solo at the end – it’s fracking impossible – he rips it off like it’s nothing – and then right back into that climbing coda.
All four players have their moments, and all of them can solo like four houses on fire, but for me, this set gives you John Wetton, one of the most powerful bassists in rock music, in all his glory – loud, belligerent, confident, capable, subtle, and always, always present, always in the moment.
I don’t feel like I can really critique the guitar playing of Robert Fripp, occasionally, equipment gets the better of him, there’s one awkward silence where something goes wrong and he actually stops playing for a few seconds – but then, consummate professional, comes back in as if nothing had happened. Some guitarists have criticised his tone, his endless distortion through wah pedals and so on – but I really put any such problems down to the equipment of the time – and really, with Fripp, you aren’t there to hear a bitchin’ tone, you are there to hear him play. And play – he does. With blinding speed, with innovative ideas, with surprising and strange note selections – always questing, always pushing the limits, and it’s a joy to hear him work his way through this amazing catalogue of music on the live stage – absolute genius at work.
Not meaning to ignore the good drummer – to me, this tour just shows what an incredibly good decision it was to quit Yes and join King Crimson – to me, Bruford was BORN to play drums with John Wetton – and there has never, ever to my mind, been a better pairing. They just work perfectly together, and no need for more than that. The perfect rhythm section, which made things much easier for Cross and Fripp, the two soloists – because they know they can depend on the Wetton-Bruford powerhouse – which can also transform into the most delicate, beautiful sounding accompanying bass and percussionist imaginable, and on some of the very pastoral, violin-led improvs, where Wetton and Bruford are both playing so carefully and gently – you can’t really believe it’s the same band that had just been belting out “21st Century Schizoid Man” at full volume four minutes beforehand !
But there it is – a band capable of great dynamic range, from a whisper to a scream – and I love both of those bands – the quiet, gentle melodic King Crimson, and the hard rocking, jamming, improvising King Crimson.
You will find both aplenty on The Road To Red.
Available in fine music shops everywhere.