King Crimson, “Friends & Family” Event, Friar’s, Waterside Theatre
Aylesbury, UK – September 3rd, 2016
The first unofficial show by the “new” King Crimson ended just a few short hours ago, and with the sound of the final selection of the night, “21st Century Schizoid Man” (complete with the original introduction mind you!) still ringing in my ears, I want to very quickly give my impressions of the show.
First of all, it was a “secret” show, a warm-up gig to the warm-up gigs tomorrow and Monday night (both at the same venue, on the 4th and 5th of September respectively). Attendance was by invitation only.
Second, I would very briefly mention that it really *was* friends and families, while we were waiting for the show to begin; in the foyer, and then later, in our seats – I kept seeing familiar faces and I kept getting greeted by many Crafty friends who had travelled from far and wide to see this special concert. I spoke to a couple of Crafties that had flown from the United States, and I was told that one Crafty had even travelled from Australia to see the show- now that made our own 7 hour journey from Scotland, by train and taxi, seem pretty tame – but it was a lovely, low-key way to travel, I can tell you for free. So I must have known 20 or 30 people in the audience, and spoke with a handful of them, or shook hands as I went by…it was very unusual and very nice to see and speak with a lot of people you know – mostly fellow Crafty guitarists.
But I digress…I return now, to the performance itself.
When I said the “new” King Crimson, I did mean King Crimson, 2016 version as compared to King Crimson, 2015 – the difference being, a swap of drummers – Bill Rieflin departing the band in March, 2016 and then being promptly replaced by new member Jeremy Stacey. So this “warm-up” gig would have been his first ever live performance with the band.
I’ll take just a moment to say what a welcome and capable replacement Jeremy is: he sits in the same position (centre) of the three “front line” drummers, and like Rieflin before him, plays lots of piano, Mellotron and synthesizer parts as well as being an ace drummer. It’s a very, very seamless integration, and in fact, I would say that due to some excellent changes to the band’s repertoire, that Stacey actually played quite a bit more Mellotron especially, than Bill R. ever did. And he played it with complete confidence, as if he’d been doing it all along. He is a fully integrated member of the drum front line, and then by extension, since the drum front line works so well – of the band, too, the more string and horn oriented “back line”.
In short, Jeremy is an excellent, almost fit for fit / fit for purpose replacement for the departed Rieflin – and excellent choice, and his playing, both on the drums as well as on the keyboards, was basically flawless. A brilliant night for the front line, then.
In the back line – there were some opening night issues. Robert’s guitar was sometimes too low in the mix, as was Jakko’s, and there was a fairly disastrous tuning issue in the slow “relentless” section of “Starless” – which after about two minutes, was finally corrected by Jakko, which then put the song back on track. Mel’s soprano sax on this song was sublime, Beautiful playing.
Robert’s solo in “Easy Money” for me, was at first, so overly-reverbed, that I couldn’t distinguish the notes he was obviously playing, those notes, literally lost in space by a slightly too ambient patch on his effects unit. Then, as the solo progressed, he switched to the treble pickup, and finally I could start to hear the solo. It was almost inaudible for almost a minute – I could see him playing, but I couldn’t hear him playing. A few minor adjustments on the fly, and the solo finally took wing and flew – consummate professionalism every time.
Beyond those issues, there wasn’t much I could really find fault with, as we found with the 2015 band, the performances were well-rehearsed, well-polished, and the songs were filled with virtuoso moments from every player on the stage, from Tony Levin’s incredibly delicate fretless electric string bass solo on “Vrooom” to Robert Fripp’s impossible ascending / descending moving scales on “Fracture” (yes, I said “Fracture”!!!) this is a band of seasoned professionals, and the band’s collective ability to create virtually perfect renderings of material old or new is simply astonishing.
For me, having the incredibly capable Mel Collins back in the band, who then gets to re-create a series of basically impossible horn and flute solos, that he ad-libbed (probably) in the studio on albums made in 1970 (Lizard) and 1971 (Islands) and Red (1974)…
He also got to play horn parts originally performed by original King Crimson horn man Ian McDonald, and he got to replace Adrian Belew vocal parts with amazing flute solos or baritone saxes or soprano sax – and he is constantly switching between the flute and one of those saxes, and it’s fantastic, too, to hear him playing along with Fripp on pieces like “Starless”. The two sounded good together in 1970, 71 and 72, but they sound absolutely amazing together in King Crimson 2016.
I can’t of course, not say something about the redoubtable trio of drummers, Pat Mastelotto, new man Jeremy Stacey, and now-veteran (almost) Gavin Harrison – who is the “leader” of the drum team. Their unique approach to re-arranging some of the Crimson repertoire, for example, the song “Red” gets a whole new treatment from the trio, with a strange but wonderful slipping / synchronised tribal beat, that takes the song to a completely new place – it’s brilliant.
They also take quite a few solos, and have a couple of their own pieces which I can never keep straight, which one is which, so Crimson-drum-aficionados must forgive me if I guess the name of one of their drum numbers wrong. I probably WILL get it wrong…
Now – before I forget, I want to give you the set list, and I might then say one or two things about some of my personal favourite moments. As the 2015 band brought back and re-vitalised two tracks from the fourth Crimson studio album, 1971’s “Islands” in the form of “The Letters” and “Sailor’s Tale”, the decision was apparently taken that the oft-maligned third Crimson album, 1970’s “Lizard, now deserved some air time as well, so as I sat there tonight, I got a couple of real shocks to my system in terms of, ‘oh my God, I know what THIS is…’ …in fact, that happened three times: twice for two tracks taken from 1970’s “Lizard” and probably the most surprising of all – a track from “Starless And Bible Black” (1974) entitled “Fracture”.
I was startled when Robert started playing this familiar riff, and his guitar was giving him a little bit of trouble during the first couple of bars, but he managed to straighten out whatever was wrong, and then dived into a nearly-faultless version of “Fracture” which of course contains long passages of his patented “perpetual vertical and horizontal picking” which to hear and see live, was absolutely amazing – he somehow managed to work out this entire, extremely complex piece of music in the New Standard Tuning, and with ace violin-emulation from Jakko Jakszyk – the band pulled off a pretty ripping version of the tune.
But I am getting ahead of myself here – here is the set list:
Hellhound Of Krim or Devil Dogs Of Tesselation Row (Drum Trio)
Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part 1
Pictures Of A City
The Battle Of Glass Tears
Devil Dogs Of Tesselation Row or Hellhounds Of Krim (Drum Trio)
The ConstruKction Of Light
Suitable Grounds For The Blues
Unknown / New Song (Instrumental – featuring two guitars)
Banshee Legs Bell Hassle
21st Century Schizoid Man
Finally, some very memorable moments for me…during the last section of “Pictures Of A City” Robert suddenly played an incredibly beautiful, long jazzy lick on his guitar that just shocked me – it was that good, and it just sounded so, so perfect in that moment, it really blew me away – brilliant!
When “Cirkus” started, I knew I was going to be bowled over by it, and it did not disappoint in any way. A powerful vocal from Jakko, and Mel had clearly spent many hours studying the original recording, has taken his already impossible, sleazy, beautiful, jazzy sax riffs and he’s gone and IMPROVED on them – meanwhile, new member Jeremy Stacey was playing the ominous Mellotron riff, as well as the piano introduction, switching between piano and Mellotron and drums effortlessly – an amazing performance, while Robert played the same riff on guitar, and would occasionally add additional Mellotrons to parts that required more than one – and in “Cirkus” you get this requirement.
Mel was absolutely spot on, and to hear this song performed live is a dream I never dared dream – and a few hours ago – I watched and listened to King Crimson playing one of my favourite tracks from “Lizard” – the dramatic and strange “Cirkus” with perfect Gordon Haskell bass lines from Tony Levin and a great Jakko vocal (not to mention, Jakko playing the famous very rapid classical sounding acoustic guitar parts that occur twice in the song – at an incredible tempo) – brilliant!
But strangely enough, what really, really blew my socks away, was a near perfect rendition of “The Battle Of Glass Tears” (which was originally the third section of the side long so-called “Lizard Suite” which originally ran as):
1. Prince Rupert Awakes
3. The Battle Of Glass Tears
4. Big Top
So removing it from the context of that, and playing it as a single, live piece of music, was an inspired move, the lyrics are absolutely beautiful, and Jakko did a fantastic job of rendering original singer Gordon Haskell’s somewhat strange melodic vocal – and in doing so, made it into an even better vocal performance than the original – and the band, were in complete jazz stealth mode, all playing super quietly while Jakko sang this strange tale of a sort of dream battle with it’s amazing Peter Sinfield lyrics – it was the most surprising of all – and I had just heard both “Cirkus” followed by “Fracture” – both of which had blown me away,,,but when new member Jeremy Stacey started playing the eerie, strange mellotrons from “The Battle Of Glass Tears” I knew what it was instantly, or rather, where it came from, I knew every word, and I actually sang along quietly because it’s such a beautiful lyric.
The whole band just excelled on this short, very odd piece of music, which was literally snatched out of the middle of a much larger work, but, for me, it draws attention to a single song that I always felt was one of the best moments on the whole album – it’s certainly my favourite lyric on the album, and it’s also the first time you hear singer Gordon Haskell’s voice after the sort of fairy-tale voice of guest singer Jon Anderson on the first part, “Prince Rupert Awakes”. Haskell’s voice is an acquired taste, but I absolutely love his bass playing (perfectly emulated thanks to the good Mr. Levin) and his singing on “Lizard” – I think he is top notch, especially at interpreting the rather tricky Peter Sinfield lyrics.
“Lizard” has taken a lot of abuse over the years, sort of the unwanted jazz child of “In The Court” and “In The Wake” but I love all four of those earliest records, each in their own way – the fourth one being “Islands” of course – and I was SO very happy that they have retained the two tracks from “Islands” in the setlist, the show wouldn’t have been the same without them!
I know this won’t be a popular opinion, but I really tend to enjoy the tracks from “Lizard” and “Islands” more than the tracks from “In The Court” or “In The Wake”. That’s just me. Don’t get me wrong; I love “Epitaph” and “Schizoid Man” and “Pictures Of A City” but I just prefer hearing the rarer (and somewhat more eccentric) tracks from “Lizard” and “Islands”.
They introduced then, new for this tour, three “old” King Crimson songs, that King Crimson 2015 did NOT play – and those three songs, two from “Lizard” and one from “Starless And Bible Black” we’re probably my favourite moments of this concert.
They also played what I believe was a new song, a sort of menacing two guitars piece that was quite short, but quite enjoyable, it had a slightly strange beginning featuring Robert Fripp playing a major chord up a half step, so something like F sharp major to G major, not unlike the beginning of “Jailhouse Rock” but then it immediately mutated into twin guitar Krimson territory – I don’t know what the name of it was, but it was pleasant enough.
Just prior to a roaring final encore of “21st Century Schizoid Man” (which was firing on all cylinders tonight my friends!) they did something else a bit unexpected – they played David Bowie’s song “Heroes”, with Jakko doing his best David Bowie vocal imitation, while Robert Fripp reprised his beautiful, soaring long guitar riff that has made the song so famous, that he originally recorded on the original version of the song from the David Bowie album of the same name, way back in 1980 – when it was Eno, Bowie and Fripp all working together in Berlin.
So that felt like a really nice send-off for David – Robert Fripp reminding us that it was his guitar on that song, but also offering up a really bright, poppy almost, version of the song with an excellent vocal and great supporting guitar from Jakko – while the rhythm section and Tony were just having the time of their lives – it sounded (and looked) really fun to play, and hearing Robert keeping that one note sustained for so long, over and over again, you forget that he is the absolute master of the long, sustained guitar note – and he doesn’t depend on a gadget (like the energy bows that I favour so much) – he just keeps that note going, somehow.
It was an impressive performance, when it ended, the familiar steam organ type sounds that are the recorded “prelude” or short intro piece that precedes “21st Century Schizoid Man” were playing through the speakers, and with a huge crashing chord sequence, we were off on the final track of the evening – it simply couldn’t be anything else, could it?
I loved every minute of this show, the skill and the musicianship and the professionalism on show, the virtuoso playing on show, is almost too much to take. I was alternately fascinated by the interplay between Jakko and Robert, and sometimes absolutely gobsmacked by riffs or ideas or techniques that both would employ, and some amazing guitar tones were also to be heard during this concert – great guitar sounds, including acoustic emulation from Jakko during Epitaph, the only other number we got tonight from the classic first album, “In the Court Of The Crimson King”.
But I am willing to give up the title track of that album, in exchange for “Cirkus”, “Fracture” and “The Battle Of Glass Tears” – especially the last one, whose lyrics are still rattling around my brain…
Burnt with dream and taut with fear
Dawn’s misty shawl upon them.
Three hills apart great armies stir
Spit oath and curse as day breaks.
Forming lines of horse and steel
By even yards, march forward.
I could not have dreamed in a billion years, that one day I would see and hear King Crimson play “The Battle Of Glass Tears” – It’s simply not possible. But – earlier this evening – I did just that – and it was gorgeous, too!
By all accounts, besides a very few technical issues, an excellent first foray for King Crimson 2016!
Now I can sleep happy!!
Peace and love
Somewhere near Aylesbury, waiting for night 2
Dave & Dawn