Overlooked & Under Appreciated: Master Works by Oft-Overlooked Artists – Sam Phillips

In today’s edition of this as-yet-non-existent series – this being the first in the series (ahhhh – now it exists)  – we are looking at 2001’s “Fan Dance” by Sam Phillips.

 

I could easily see myself writing any number of blogs with this title – and it may well transpire that over the coming time, I do just that, because I am listening more, and I am listening more often – and I am going back and listening to records that I loved ten, twenty, thirty years ago – and finding that in some cases, they are so much better than even I thought – hindsight, and the passage of time, reveals them to be absolute works of genius.  Which more often than not, comes as quite a surprise to me – OK, I knew it was good…but I had NO IDEA it was that good….

 

Maybe at the time I knew that it was something very special – or thought that – or maybe not – obviously, when music is new, you form an impression of it – you listen to it – maybe a little, maybe a lot, maybe obsessively – then time passes, you listen to other music – but eventually, you find yourself coming back to certain artists, to certain albums, to certain songs – to certain lyrics – to works of what are now, with the benefit of hindsight – clearly, far beyond other contemporary works by other artists – and these realisations just keep hitting you and hitting you and hitting you – oh my God, you wonder, how on EARTH did I NOT SEE (or more accurately, how on EARTH did I NOT HEAR) that this record is an absolute impossible musical miracle – like nothing before and like nothing since.

You can’t easily or readily see that or hear that when a record is new – and sure, some records instantly reveal themselves as having qualities that we love, that we know in time will just be more and more appreciated – but it’s still difficult – the work is NEW.

But this strange thing that human beings experience – the passage of time – well, for me at least, the passage of time changes my perception of music – and sometimes the changes are slow, gradual, and orderly, but in other instances – the new or changed perception LEAPS out at you and it’s almost a shock – here is a record I’ve heard dozens of times – maybe hundreds of times – that I’ve always loved, respected – but today, today, because of “the passage of time” – today that record is revealed in an entirely new light.

You see and hear it for what it actually is – and you probably unconsciously “knew” all along that it was significant or important or meaningful or all of the above – but it takes that additional trigger – time passing – usually, a LOT OF TIME passing…to bring the sudden realisation – that “oh my God, this is genius” moment – a moment that could be 30, 40 years in the making.

 

This morning, I sat quietly, doing absolutely nothing else, and listened to Sam Phillips’ mostly acoustic offering from 2001, “Fan Dance” – which, at the time, I liked it very much, it is clearly one of her best and most enduring works and it stands up really well now, some 18 years later – really, really well – it sounds like it could have been made yesterday – and in fact,  just after I listened to the entire “Fan Dance” album, I then put on a somewhat later work – 2013’s “Push Any Button” and while the music has changed – the messages – and the feeling of hope I get from the lyrics – remains – these are songs of hope.

 

A SLIGHT DIGRESSION – TRENDS IN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY

Some artists who don’t have really sweet worldwide distribution deals, have no choice but to operate at the periphery of the “music industry” – which actually, I think is the better  place to be – because of the well-documented and really oppressive ways that companies control and manipulate their artists – time and time again we hear the stories of how artists were robbed of their royalties, given the worst deals imaginable, and the view over time of “record companies” and the “recording industry” has naturally, due to these depressing and oppressive facts, developed as a very negative view indeed – my personal view of record companies has undergone a massive transformation over the past 40 years – and my view now is that anyone who can operate OUTSIDE of the confines of the “music industry” – is the better for it.  Myself included.

 

When I was 16 – I wanted a record deal. By the time I was 25, 30 – I never ever wanted a record deal – because I saw how these “deals” negatively affected the musicians I loved and even some that are friends or acquaintances – it was heart-breaking to see what happened to them because of their “record deal” – but it was also a cautionary tale for me and for us all – be careful – be very careful – what you wish for.  An all-expenses paid trip to – being enslaved, being used or abused – and your music denigrated to the point of being a product and a product only – and when your music becomes a “product” – you know that trouble is with you.

 

A very large cross section of extremely talented and capable musicians have been burned, and burned again, by the music industry – and the horror stories go on and on, from the earliest exploitation of artists being given a few pennies for their work, while music industry “executives” and management skim 98 percent “off the top” and put it straight into their own pockets…to the lapses in good judgement and other “business practices” perpetrated by the music industry onto both artists and the record-buying public, too – just too many bad stories that I really am not sure I want to hear too many more of – we know what happened – so now – how do we move beyond that into a better future for musicians and for music lovers?  How does it work, now?

So – musicians made music in good faith, trusted their “record label” to take care of them, to promote their music – and to pay them fairly and treat them fairly – and in practice – that happened so rarely, that everyone just assumed the worst – and rightfully so – about the behaviour of the “greedy leaders” of the “music industry” – sure, there were always a few exceptions who really cared about music – but not many.

Meanwhile – the good faith of musicians, who trusted their record labels. …was rewarded with exploitation, outright theft – and the bad, bad faith of record company and music industry executives – who, sadly, it turns out, are as uncaring about music as many oil companies are uncaring about the environment – it just demonstrates one of mankind’s ugliest traits – greed, greed, greed – and more greed, and it becomes all about taking and taking and taking – and never about giving anything back or supporting the musician who creates this “income” in the first place.

 

It’s no wonder then, that so many musicians and artists have taken back their music and their art – sometimes at huge personal expense – being forced to pay to recover the rights to their own musical creations – and then re-presenting them to their fans directly, via direct-to-artist purchase websites and online stores.

I applaud this approach – I feel much, MUCH happier, giving £40.00 pounds directly to the artist who created the work – making sure they get PAID for the work they have done – I feel very uncomfortable and very unhappy when I realise how much of the money I spent buying records, cassettes and CDs over this past half a century – I regret how much of that money went straight into the greedy pockets of executives who created nothing, and who exploited, used and harmed the musicians who music they stole.

OK – the above is probably really a separate topic for a separate blog – but much is known about this now, thanks to the stories told by the artists themselves – who basically come directly to the fans and say “look – I am not on a record label anymore.  You used to buy my records from the record company – but now, I am making my own records without a label – or, on my own personal label – and I want to deal DIRECTLY with you.  I produce a CD of music, a DVD of a concert, or other media that you want to hear and see – and instead of giving 90+ percent to a record company, and a few pennies to me (if I am lucky) – you can now pay me directly for the CD or DVD that I created for you to enjoy”.  This makes ME feel very, very happy indeed.

It’s sad the reasons for it – as alluded to above – but in the end, it’s such a good, good thing – because it means I can SUPPORT the artists I love, by putting my money into THEIR pockets (so they can make more records, create more art – share more of their art with us) for the first time – I know where my money is going – NOT into a black hole or the pockets of a greedy executive who cares nothing for music or the artists that I really love, and whose music means very much indeed to me.

So that all being said – nowadays, many artists who used to be wholly captured by and in thrall to  and who were horribly used by the music industry – have freed themselves from that corporate grip, and now are dealing directly with the fans – which is probably, the way it should have been all along!

 

And it’s not any particular type of artist – I like a fairly diverse array of music, from pop to the heaviest prog metal and everything in between – and seeing the creative ways in which these very creative people have walked away from the traditional models and found other ways and better ways to share their art with their fans – it’s an amazing and remarkable phenomena – and it’s odd to think that it came out of oppression, out of being under the thumb of a record company, it’s due to being robbed and used by purveyors of corporate greed – and the artists have totally turned this around – and made it be about the ART again – the music, the songs, the films, the performances – the things that made them start out to become a musician in the first place. We are back to the source, to the root – to the music.

The approaches to rebuilding and reconnecting to their audiences are as varied as the artists who have freed themselves – on the one hand, you have highly organised individuals like Robert Fripp – whose highest level projects such as King Crimson, operated on the world stage, through traditional record company and music industry practices – with all of the infrastructure and the bad deals that came with it – and after being betrayed by his long term business partners – Fripp took the time to think this through, and instead of just going to a “sell direct to the fans platform” – as many, many other excellent artists have done – he decided to create his own label, DGM which might be easily called the “world’s first ethical record company”.  They don’t have written contracts – they work on the honour systems – a handshake is the “contract” and honesty and fairness are the terms.

DGM supports much more than just Robert Fripp and his side projects, so the creation of DGM and the fact that DGM could then become “home” to other artists – that’s a brilliant accidental by-product of the very negative impetus that drove Fripp to create DGM in the first place.  So now – instead of only having “traditional” record companies to deal with – musicians and artists can make an ethical choice, and go to a unique company like DGM and find success – and a direct connection to their fan base – so it is win-win-win in that scenario.

Other artists – I am thinking now about the remarkable cottage industry put together by singer / songwriter Sam Phillips – the actual subject of this blog believe it or not! – who has never been comfortable with the music industry – and once the oppression of regular record labels became too much – she left, and set up her own website and started selling directly to her fans via that website.

Initially, she did this via a subscription service called “The Long Play” which I wrote about in some detail in this blog here.

The positive response to “The Long Play” was so overwhelming, personally I think it is fantastic to be able to deal directly with the artist in these cases, and the way Phillips has developed her media and marketing is honest, straightforward and admirable indeed – and I feel happy, because the money I spend to buy her records – goes back into her industry, into her team – which will only bring more amazing records, DVDs and downloads – it’s now a very positive, good circle of fair commerce – rather than a negative record industry style experience.

 

AND SEVERAL DAYS LATER I AM MAGICALLY BACK ON TOPIC…DIGRESSION ENDS

As is my way, I have initially at least, really diverted away from today’s topic with my little discourse on independence from record companies – but that is the background from which today’s actual topic emerges – at last.

In recent years, with the emergence of artist-run and artists-selling-direct-to-fans sites, often that artist will re-acquire the rights to their entire catalogue (where possible) which means it’s easy enough nowadays, to go to www.samphillips.com and to purchase a CD or a download of a thirty year old record.  I know that Bill Nelson and other artists who previously had very, very complex and scattershot distribution – has made a real effort to bring back all of the earliest parts of his catalogue so his entire life in music can be viewed and heard and acquired in one place – his own website – and I am always very happy when I read that artists have managed to re-acquire lost catalogue items – and can hopefully, built out a full catalogue that represents the entire body of their entire life as a musician.

 

In this particular case, I already had the record I am going to discuss here, which is 2001’s “Fan Dance” by Sam Phillips but it was actually the fact of me going to purchase more recent works by Sam (in particular, 2018’s “World On Sticks” which I had just missed last year due to circumstances beyond my control; and even more spectacular – the audio and video versions of “Live At Largo” – fantastic recent releases from Sam)  – trying to complete my collection, which in fact goes way, WAY back to the very earliest days – in acquiring more recent records – it drew my attention back to some of her earlier works – so I have been  listening to a LOT of Sam Phillips lately, both modern and earlier works – and it’s been an absolutely incredibly enjoyable and joyous experience.

These songs – whether they be from last year or thirty years ago – these songs have something in them that is immensely attractive to me – and I think that just now, in 2019 – in going back and listening to a few key releases, that I have possibly figured out what it is that appeals to me with regards to the music of Sam Phillips – and it can be summed up into one very important word:

 

Hope.

 

Whether I am listening to “Love Is Not Lost” from “Recollection” (in that instance, going really, really far back into the mists of time) or the latest studio and live tracks just downloaded from www.samphillips.com – there is one common theme in this music – and it is hope.

I believe that subconsciously at least – I knew that already – and I have known it for a long time.  But it took that curious thing I alluded to earlier – the passage of time – to suddenly and very, very clearly show me that it’s HOPE that drives this artist forward – hope for something better, something beyond the ordinary – something beyond the hurt and heartbreak of life.

Like many singer / songwriters – Sam does write about pain – emotional pain – the pain of just existing in a baffling and inexplicable world – and that is one thing – but if you really listen, and if you then allow the passage of time to sink in – and then really listen again – you will hear it.

You will feel it and know it – that no matter how sad or depressing those real-life stories can sometimes get – in the uplifting way that Sam writes, and sings, and harmonises (oh my dear God, those harmonies!) and in the uplifting way that Sam presents her lyrics – you can clearly see and hear the hope in her heart – and for me, that helps me to realise that yes – there is hope – when I struggle – and I think that this knowledge is such a powerful thing.

Sam Phillips is a serious musician, who writes serious songs about many, many topics – some, the more expected or ordinary (for lack of a better word – there is nothing ordinary about any of Sam’s songs really!) “singer-songwriter” fare – i.e. love songs, songs of loss, songs of longing, wistful songs, and so on – but she also writes a lot of other types of songs – some of them, very, very dark indeed (I am thinking of “The Black Sky” now, from the remarkable “Martinis And Bikinis” album from 1994 – which, by the way, features a few tracks with Colin Moulding of XTC on bass guitar – don’t miss that one!) – songs about mankind’s ability to destroy and fuck up the world while we sit and watch in horror – so her writing runs a real gamut from being all about love to the most biting social commentary possible – but no matter what the song is about, for me, somewhere  in there, in some turn of phrase or lyrical invention – there is HOPE.  Or possibly, a warning that a lot of bad things are happening, and we NEED some hope.

Over the past 20, 30 years or more, there has been a LOT of music produced, by a lot of artists – that holds little or no hope whatsoever.  It’s all the darkest, most real, most terrifyingly true stuff – it’s real, it is happening:  and musicians and artists are looking at events and reporting them through their art – and it’s just terrifying because it’s TRUE.

And – in that massive outpouring of musical truth – there is a lot of great music, OK – it is true that lyrically some artists and some bands almost seem  to espouse or prefer a “THERE IS NO HOPE” kind of ethos within their music – and because that is also usually the absolute truth – it does appeal , it is of interest and I love a lot of that music – probably because it DOES tell the unvarnished truth – and I will always prefer hard, honest music over something less real…

However – within the lyrics that Sam Phillips writes – and it’s not often overt at all – I just get an intense feeling of hope from what she is saying.  A sense of hope…and this is the really important point here – that I do NOT get from many, even from most, artists no matter how good or how much I might really love their music – other artists rarely make me feel the way listening to the music of Sam Phillips makes me feel.

It took me a long time to realise that, and even longer to articulate it (until just now, in actual fact).

I think that the human being’s enjoyment of music is an incredibly complex, multi-faceted thing that it is not easy to understand, describe or understand easily.  For me, every piece of music has components that I listen to in different ways, for different reasons – there is no single standard “way” of listening because often, a certain element or elements leap out at me and attract me where for another listener – those same elements hold nothing for them, they do not move them or affect them as they affect me.  And there is nothing wrong with this – just as each human being is a unique individual, I think that each listener has his or her own “way” of listening to any particular song, album or artist – and the perception of each song is going to be different each time, for each listener – that’s what makes listening to music such a unique and such a very “personal” thing – because the same song – can have a huge array of very different effects on each different listener.

Some listeners will love a song because of the vocal.  Or the words.  Or the bass guitar.  Or the drum sound.  Or the way that one splash cymbal hits just before the vocal chorus begins…

Other listeners will find other components that stand out or appeal to them – and you end up with thousands and thousands of different yet all valid “reasons” why we like a song.

 

But beyond that personal interpretation – sometimes, there are globally available energies that we could ALL tap into if we were aware they are present.

I think that the quality of “HOPE” which is not tied directly to just one song or one lyric or one bass note or one piano chord – but in fact, this quality seems to exist ALMOST independently of the song itself (unlikely as that seems and as counter-intuitive as that seems) I think that the feeling of hope that I get comes from some underlying mechanism – something about the lyrics, the way she has written each lyric – and if you just judged them on the surface – you might not “get” the feeling of hope.

So while I am sure it (the hope) is mostly contained in the lyrics – I am also quite sure that (the hope) is NOT in the lyrics or rather, not in the lyrics alone.

 

 

Somehow – and this is the feeling I’m getting these past couple of days in revisiting the “Fan Dance” album of 2001 so closely – somehow it’s not just in the lyrics, but the hope I am now seeing, now hearing now FEELING properly and completely for the first time since 2001 when this record appeared – that hope is tied to the ENTIRETY of the performance.  I will try to say what I mean here:

It is in the warmth of the tone of Sam’s voice as she sings the melody

It is in the amazing blending of voices that occurs when Sam harmonises with herself

It’s also in the unique and lovely background vocals and harmonies which seem straightforward on the surface, but can be often quite sophisticated and complex – as one example, the song “Love Is Everywhere I Go” contains a lead vocal, a second, overlapping vocal “response” (“looking through you…”) and background vocals – and somehow – this is all woven into an incredible single vocal “tapestry” if you will – along with, an astonishing transition from the “bridge” back to the chorus – which I don’t really even understand how she DID that – but it’s amazing.

The vocal layering and complexity – with an ultimately very simple sounding and straightforward output as “the vocal” – of a track like this – it also contains a lot of this hope I am now detecting – somehow – woven into this elaborate and beautiful tapestry of interwoven voices.

 

It’s also in the CARE that is shown in the playing – in the deliberate, slow, precise strokes of the acoustic rhythm guitar – which is then mirrored in perfection by the deliberate, slow drum beats and then  to the details of that following percussion – when that crash or splash cymbals DOES hit just before the chorus begins again – the band is so tight, so together as to be performing as if one body – those drum parts mirror those Sam Phillips rhythm guitars which mirror the bass and atop which sits the Magic Vocal Tapestry Full Of Hope – it’s in THERE.

The HOPE I am hearing and feeling and experiencing now, that I did perhaps feel in a lesser, more clouded way back in the day – it’s so much a part of each and every song on each and every Sam Phillips record – it’s definitely there – but as you can see, articulating “where” it is within a particular song is very, very difficult, if not impossible!

 

So I know the hope is very real, I can feel it absolutely – but I don’t exactly (or even inexactly) know where it is “coming from” in any given song, or on any given album – but – one thing I do know –  it that it is definitely there – and it’s my hope – that if you like the music of Sam Phillips – it would be my hope that you have heard this feeling of hope coming through her music,  too.

 

For me, this quality sets Sam apart from many other musicians – where I don’t feel that hope in others’ music – I just don’t feel anything even akin to hope in a lot of modern music.  And maybe it’s there too, in the music of those other artists – but it’s harder to see.  Or will take longer to see.  The “passage of time” – that’s a variable that is not in my control – or anyone’s control – and in this case, a certain amount of “a passage of time” has allowed me to see, hear and experience something within this music that I already loved – that I had never really seen, heard or experienced until I listened again to the “Fan Dance” album yesterday and again, today.

I am very glad that this happened, because we can all always use a little more hope – and, I’m also happy to report, that it doesn’t feel like just a little hope – often with Sam’s songs and Sam’s records –  it feels like a great big, joyous, hopeful hope – and that has made me feel very happy indeed.  Now when I hear these songs – I am given an extra gift, I am uplifted – and you don’t get that every day.

 

What a remarkable experience this has been – and it’s all down to perception, the passage of time, and suddenly recognising something important – something very important – that was actually there all along but I just did not realise it.

It’s all about the hope.

 

Note:  for the purposes of this blog I listened to the “Fan Dance” CD a few times, but in terms of direct inspiration and for me, having the most readable, easiest to see, hear and feel – in terms of the hope theme I am talking about – I relied upon these particular tunes, with their particular lyrics – and it is upon these particular tracks that I formed the opinions expressed in this blog – and that is not to discount any of the songs NOT named – the entire album is a brilliant expression of not just hope, but of a visionary singer songwriter who writes with a rare, rare honest and forthrightness that frankly, I think – the world could use a lot more of.

 

My specific, particular song by song inspirations then – from the “Fan Dance” record – for this article – were:

 

Edge Of The World

Five Colors

Wasting My Time

Taking Pictures

Love Is Everywhere I Go

 

Also useful is this discography of Sam’s work

I could cite any number of Sam’s lyrics (or songs or albums) to try and demonstrate that underlying hope – which perhaps, on the surface – when you just read it – flat, on a page – (as below)  – maybe the sense of hope doesn’t come through as strongly – but if you put on the record, and listen – I think that then – I believe then you will hear it, you will feel it – and the lyrics themselves will take on a new meaning  that comes from your deeper understanding of the song as a whole.

The lyrics alone then, are not responsible for the perceived sense of hope – it’s actually the entire construct of the song – the music,  the instruments, the rhythm, the harmonies – the singing, the phrasing – the feel – many intangible properties making up a whole musical experience that in these cases – also house the secret weapon of Hope – real perceptible hope – it’s there for all to experience – and I am so, so glad that I took the time to go back and really listen to these songs… because that allowed me to have this extra experience that I am not sure all listeners of “Fan Dance” have yet had.

 

It would then be my hope that what I have written, might help unlock that same hope for any or all of you wanting to experience more than just “listening to a few songs” – for me, this new hope has huge value – underlying or not, visible or not – I am so glad it’s there – and I am so glad I happened across it in my music listening experience.

 

“There is no end to the good”.  Just think about that one crucial line – which appears right at the start of the song – bringing so much positivity, so much real hope – there is NO END to the good.  It is forever – it is always there – it is always available – I think that is part of what Sam is telling us.  A big part of it – have hope, there is hope, I know there is hope – so – you my patient audience – please have hope too.

 

________________________________________________________

 

Love Is Everywhere I Go

Sam Phillips – 2001

 

 

Going down this road again
I finally know
There is no end to the good

Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you
Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you
Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you

Burning light inside my dreams
I wake up in the dark
The light is outside my door

Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you
Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you
Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you

Chasing every fragment I see
Looking through you
Love is looking for me
Breaking open the clouds
I’m not stranded in time

Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you
Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you
Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you

 

________________________________________________________

 

 

“There is no end to the good”.

 

 

Dave Stafford

September 1, 2019

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King Crimson – Symphony Hall, Birmingham, UK – 20150914

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”.

Indeed.