King Crimson – September 5th, 2016,  Friar’s / Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury, UK

Monday night, and it is the last of three (in a row, no less!) King Crimson concerts for us, and for the band, the last show on British soil for a while, after tonight; it’s off to Europe for the rest of the tour. But before they go, there is the remaining matter of the last of the three Aylesbury gigs, on a cool, cloudy Monday night at the Riverside Theatre.

Being the third show in as many nights, the kinks in the performances are starting to work out now, and the band is settling in to the routine of playing, the dealing with of cues and counts and stops and starts, pedals and programs, guitars and basses; allowing the players to relax just that little bit more, which made it possible for some interesting improvements and a bit more improvisation when compared to the previous two concerts.

Speaking of basses, we observed something last night that was interesting: Tony Levin has too many instruments! Mel Collins has no choice but to bring several instruments, for example, he plays baritone, tenor and soprano saxophones, so that’s three right there that he has no choice over – he has to have those, to be able to replicate all those very different sax parts from those early albums in particular. A selection of flutes is inevitable too, and I would not say a word if Mel turned up wth seventeen instruments…because each one would have a specific purpose for a specific song or songs.

Tony I think, could actually get by with fewer instruments, because his function nominally, is bass player. Robert has one or possibly two, guitars. Jakko gets by with just one guitar, his beautifully painted PRS electric. But Tony has a veritable arsenal of bass-related weaponry:

Stand-up fretless

Chapman Stick

Yellow Three Of A Perfect Pair 5-String Bass

Pink 6-String Bass

…and maybe a fifth bass

Note too that except for the fretless,they all have more than four strings!! This makes me believe that over time, Tony has become more of a frustrated guitarist to some degree (as you would do in the company of Jakko and Robert) than an ordinary “bassist”. He’s now graduated from 5-string to 6-string basses, which sound great, but aren’t actually “basses” by strict definition.

It may be more a matter of orchestrating the changes to minimise the number of changes required, but sometimes it seems like every time I look towards the centre of the stage, I see Tony Levin changing basses yet again, and again. It’s a tiny bit distracting if I am honest. OK, to be fair, Mel is changing instruments multiple times during many songs, but he has no choice, he can’t play a flute line with a baritone sax. And when he changes instruments, it’s subtle, quiet, you barely notice that he is doing it.

Tony, being Very Tall and also, standing basically at Centre Stage – cannot in any way disguise or downplay the swapping of one bass for another….over and over again.

Tony however, can get bass notes out of any of the basses in my slightly incomplete list of his basses, so why all the fuss and constant back and forth from Stick to Fretless to Yellow to Pink and back to Stick again? I get that songs that require Stick, require Stick, but songs that require bass, do they require 5- and 6- string basses? Not really, in my humble opinion. I love Tony and the way he plays, I just wonder if he can minimise the visually distracting bass changeovers by reducing the number of instruments. If he has any spare basses, I could sure use a good bass 🙂

But that is just an observation made over three days and an observation that first started really gelling on night two, last night, and tonight I’m happy to report that the bass-changing has settled down a bit, thanks in part to changes in the set list, but overall, I didn’t seem to notice it as much – so that is a win.

Also noted on the previous two nights, were instances where it appeared that Robert was playing something, but zero sound came out, so we could see him playing but not hear it, and in one case we got complete silence for a moment before the sound kicked back in and the audio then supported the visual, instead of RF strumming away with no sound emerging until he got things under control.

But these observations really just prove that this band of superhuman players, are really human after all, and in the main, the sound you hear from those seven instruments, whatever combination they are in, is 99.8 percent perfect if you compare it to just about any other band.  

Each player knows their space, knows what has to be played, while still leaving open what might be played…and it’s in those moments, when one or more of the players just grab the bull by the horns and move out into previously uncharted territory, that’s when the live “Crimson magic” begins.  

It happens with Mel in almost every song, sure, he plays his parts, but then, he loses himself in the moment and is soon soaring on a high-flying improv that proves that he was and still is, the most innovative horn player in rock music (and you can’t forget his history either, of working with the Stones and being in Camel and of course, being in King Crimson for albums two, three, four and five), if you count “Earthbound” as the fifth album (I do). Mel has been around the block in terms of playing experience.

It happens to all the players in the band at some point, although the better the improviser they are, the better their ability to transcend an ordinary “part” and play something truly extraordinary instead. Mel and Robert do this almost constantly, while Tony and Jakko must stick to the script more, so opportunities to improvise are fewer, and for the drummers, probably only they themselves or the members of the band are aware when they do something amazing, although I feel that the drum section have produced both rehearsed and slightly improvised music each and every night – they are so well co-ordinated, but each also has his own style and their own series of wildly improvised and very astonishing percussion moments.  

What a trio they are, and when you combine that three-man percussive prowess with Mssrs. Fripp, Collins, Jakszyk and Levin…you get the “Crimson magic” – and every night, you will hear this, to a greater or lesser degree, if you listen with your ears open. Sure, they are “playing” the songs; but there is also opportunity for the occasional amazing riff or chord or entire solo or other Amazing Accidental Musical Moment In Time (AAMMIT).

By the way – in one of the silences someone shouted out “Happy Birthday Mel!!” which got an enormous cheer from the whole audience as well as a huge grin and sweeping wave of thanks from the man himself.

Before I go any further, here is the full set list:

Soundscapes

The Battle Of Glass Tears

Unknown / New Song (Instrumental – featuring two guitars) 

Pictures Of A City

Cirkus

Fracture

Hellhounds Of Krim or Devil Dogs Of Tesselation Row (Drum Trio)

Easy Money

Meltdown

Epitaph

Red

[INTERMISSION]

Devil Dogs Of Tesselation Row or Hellhounds Of Krim (Drum Trio) 

Level Five

Suitable Grounds For The Blues

The ConstruKction Of Light

Vrooom

The Letters

Sailor’s Tale

One More Red Nightmare

Starless

[ENCORE]

Banshee Legs Bell Hassle

Heroes

21st Century Schizoid Man

The only band I’ve seen recently that can even come close to King Crimson 2016, was King Crimson 2015 – who we were fortunate enough to see three times in three different cities last year – and those shows were brilliant.

This time around, after a little time, I would say that the first of the three shows was overall winner, because the band was more relaxed, and the setlist was amazing – and despite some technical teething problems, it was a superb performance that I will not soon forget.

The second night was sort of in the middle for me, it was nice to have “The Talking Drum / Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part 2” back in the set, but not really at the expense of “Sailor’s Tale” which made a very welcome return tonight.

Tonight, the band opened with the eerie and beautiful “Battle of Glass Tears” my personal favourite new / old track, which was just sublime, so atmospheric, and you could hear a pin drop at this point – followed immediately by that new song, minus it’s 2 chord intro, and of course, the audience had NO idea what was going on at this point…  That came to a slightly uncertain stop, and finally they launched into “Pictures Of A City” and all was well again.

While I have awarded the “Friends & Family” show as my personal favourite, there are of course, one or two exceptions I should note. Tonight’s show got off to a bit of a shaky start in that, the audience didn’t know whether to applaud or not after the second piece – so out of politeness, they didn’t applaud, so it wasn’t until the end of “Pictures Of A City” that they could let their hair down and scream and shout for the return of the Crimson King. The show only got better from there, and some particular highlights for me were, in no particular order:

“Fracture”, which was fantastic, and in my opinion, by far the best version over the three nights (so, as far as this song is concerned, THIS was the best version – even better than night one’s version). Robert and Mel were right on form, Jakko’s “mock violin” was incredible to watch and listen to – and the rhythm section simply smashed it along with Tony – a rocking version, and really tight – I loved it. Out of all of the new / old songs, I welcome “Fracture” back into the setlist with the most joy – it’s been a long time since KC tackled this twelve minute musical monstrosity – what a great tune, and the new arrangement is fantastical – really beautifully done.

It was great to hear “Cirkus” for the third time, it was consistently good each night, and in some ways, Mel’s solo in this is probably one of the best solos he has ever done, so to get to hear and see him play that beautiful, beautiful horn solo, for three nights running, is an incredible privilege – and, the saxes on “Cirkus” are amongst the most beautiful I have ever, ever heard, in any context or in any song – it’s an absolutely sublime, lovely solo – and I got to hear it three times in a row – so beautiful!

“One More Red Nightmare” – “Red” was great, every night, but this was better, and another “welcome return” to the setlist. A brilliant vocal from Jakko, indescribable ensemble work from the drum team, and just a blast of fun, all about a cool riff, with sinister saxophones and Jakko’s distorted auto-Wah sounded absolutely astonishing at the end – a great guitar sound! This track totally rocked tonight…in fact, the whole second half of the show was really exciting, and the section containing “Vrooom”, “The Letters”, “Sailor’s Tale” and finally “One More Red Nightmare” very nearly changed my mind about which concert was my favourite. Very nearly, but not quite 🙂

A stunningly beautiful “Starless” followed, which did bring the temperature down quite a bit – but then, we get to that amazing end section, with the fabulous guitars sliding up and down and the bass ripping a la John Wetton (Tony did really well on this version of “Starless”, I have to say – and it’s not an easy bass part to play!).

“Heroes” was pretty much a carbon copy each of the three nights, I still think night one has the edge, although tonight’s version got a very very good reaction from the audience, as did the final number, “21st Century Schizoid Man” including the aforementioned New Standard Tuning tasty jazz chords from Mr. Robert Fripp.

I noticed that sometimes during one of Mel’s longer tenor or soprano sax solos (and since we are talking about this song already, one prime example of this tonight was the final encore, “21st Century Schizoid Man”, which is possibly Mel’s longest solo of the night); that as soon as Mel settling into his solo, wherein he will absolutely be screaming away at speed – that Robert starts comping along to the solo, playing what he might call “particularly tasty inversions” of jazz chords, and that’s been an interesting thing to hear – Mel is soloing his heart out, and Robert starts slipping these fantastically lovely “jazz chords” into the tiny spaces that Mel leaves open in his solo – and how RF can select and play a series of interesting, jazzy chords to comp along to Mel’s insanely good sax solos is actually, beyond my musical understanding.

I wish I even knew those chords, and then I would worry about when to play them. And of course, they are all now in the new standard tuning, so over time Robert has relearned his 11th and 13th and 9th/b5th chords, and knows them well enough in NST now, to confidently insert them into the spaces left by one of rock’s master musicians, the extraordinary Mel Collins.  

The resulting sound, with the whole band in full on jazz swing mode, is nothing short of extraordinary. Mel is the not-so-secret weapon, who can be called upon almost on demand to produce a honking or screaming or deadly smooth slinky sleazy sax solo, with Rock’s best jazz guitarist Robert Fripp comping along with the tastiest of chords. What a sound that is. He may also have been doing this during Mel’s soloing in “Pictures Of A City” – but I am not sure about that, I can’t actually remember if “Schizoid Man” was the only time Fripp did this astonishing, clean jazz chord work – it blew me away.

Prior to Mel’s selfsame long solo in “Schizoid Man”, Robert took his solo, but it was different this time, to any of the previous shows – including the three shows we saw last year – I’ve only seen / heard this happen one time out of six shows, and that was during this guitar solo – he started it out with one of those impossible high-speed three-note trills (a la “St. Elmo’s Fire” by Brian Eno, where Fripp plays impossibly fast three-note trills over and over again) and also, the solo was quite a bit longer than on the other nights, and it included some more brief “exhibitions of reckless speed” in the lead guitar arena – he was really going at it, and it was a great little solo – and then, he handed it over to Mel as he always does – who then proceeded to attempt to out-do what Robert did – and that is when Robert changed over to a lovely clean sounding guitar, and did the chord comping I described previously.  

What a great, great version of “Schizoid Man” – I loved it, if only just for the little extra bits of stunning Fripp guitar – that really added a lot to the experience for me – so again, of the three nights, that’s my favourite version of this particular song – but overall, I still think I preferred the first show out of the three – except for “Fracture” and “21st Century Schizoid Man” which were both definitely better tonight – they were absolutely brilliant, and along with the two tracks from “Islands” plus the two tracks from “Red” – there was a lot of very hot music going on this evening!

Here and now, in September 2016, for us, having the absolutely unique experience of seeing King Crimson play three gigs over three nights in the same elegant, beautiful theatre – and, each of those shows had its own individual “feel”, while at the same time, the three taken as a whole, gets you a really good overview of just exactly what this band is capable of…all I can say about that, is:

Europe, be ready – the great Crimson Beast is lumbering towards you (in an odd time signature, of course) so I hope you are ready, this band is going to change the way you see (and hear) live music forever, with its amazing “front line” of three incredible drummers, and it’s impossibly talented and experienced “back line” full of virtuoso strings and horns – and just 30 seconds worth of “Level Five” will melt you right into your seat! 🙂

Thanks for listening!

Dave

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