The Dreaded 1980s: Not So Bad After All

DECADE BY DECADE – THE LIVE CONCERT EXPERIENCE / OVERVIEW

Episode 2: 1980s

Most of the musicians I know, share with me, a general sense of … horror is really the only word that suits, although it’s not exactly the right word…at the memory of the music of the 1980s – which included but was not limited to – everything bad about the emerging synthesizer, synths badly played and not sounding very good at all – and all of the other early musical crimes of the early and middle 80s.
synthpop

A lot of bad, bad music was made in the name of quickly producing a hit MTV Video – trying to cash in on the video craze – and things were decidedly NOT about the music, as they definitely HAD been in the 1960s and 1970s.

 

I try not to remember some – or even most – of those songs and bands, and when I hear them – they make me uncomfortable at best, and downright unable to listen in others – they are just not the best songs nor are they, for me, the best musical memories – those will always belong to the late 60s / early 70s when Prog ruled the land – and I looked out at the 70s Music Scene – my own “70s Scenario” – and saw that it was good.
poison

Meanwhile, over on the hard rock scene, another disturbing trend was emerging, again, fuelled by MTV videos – albeit part of a different demographic – one populated mainly by teenage boys – within that demographic “MTV Video enthusiasts” –  and with a clear desire to cash in on the video craze – Hair Metal (later known as “Glam Metal” – fair enough) had arrived, and it looked like it was trying to stay (thankfully – it did not) – or at least – it did not stay for long.

Bands that I literally could not understand the appeal of, whose music was made so cheaply and nastily (and that was, unfortunately, reflected in the SOUND of that music, too!), just so another air-brushed group of four hooligans with MASSIVE HAIR could make a few million dollars at our expense – and the punishment for us, was having not only to hear this vapid form of “metal”, but to SEE these ridiculous “hair” bands, who were all clearly about the size and curliness of their perm, and definitely NOT all about their skill as writers or musicians – let’s face it, a lot of those bands – could not write a song to save their life, and their musicianship ranged from barely adequate to definitely sub-par.

With the emergence of a whole new breed of Hair Metal bands on the one hand, and the pop / synth / Revolution Of The Synthesizer that was coming to our TV screens and to our ears mostly from Great Britain – there was a lot to answer for “musically” during the 1980s.   Across the pond (where I live now) in this Synth Revolution – a similar and parallel activity was apparent – pop songs written just so a synth or synths could be used in the video, but which probably had no other good reason for existing.

Back in the 1970s (which suddenly looked pretty darn good to me) synths were used in the arena of Progressive Rock, but they were wielded by men and women of skill and talent, and used on songs that were finely crafted and worked on for often, many weeks or even months – until perfected.  Music created for the sake of music, of pure musicianship made by real artists – craftsmen – people who had studied their instruments and knew how to use them – finely crafted songs, that were challenging and often quite difficult to perform – but rewarding in every sense – there is nothing on earth quite as satisfying as a musical composition that works on every level – including, exciting to perform and hear, in live performance.  I missed that, especially within the recorded music of the 80s, I didn’t at first, feel there was much around of any real quality.

I got the feeling that with the whole Synth Pop Revolution (which, while it did have it’s roots in the late 1970s, to my mind, is mostly, a 1980s phenomenon) coming from Britain and the Hair Band revolution emerging from LA – that they would have spent just a few days on each piece, and no more – clock is ticking, time is money – and meanwhile, again mostly in LA “…and I have to go and get a new perm, so please let’s wrap this up”.  I can just about picture any session by one of these bands – where a lot of time is spent pouting into mirrors, and gazing adoringly at your own magnificent curly blond locks – or whatever it was.

But – as the 1980s wore on – there was a quiet musical revolution going on in the background.  It didn’t belong to any one group or any particular type of group, but rather, was a combination of a number of interesting events and occurrences in the 1980s, that were probably not brought to the fore in the news coverage (or, the MTV News Coverage) of the day.  This was not, however – a revolution of recorded music – but instead – of live performance.

I am thinking in particular of two cases or scenarios – or “types” if you wish – one, where established artists who had worked very hard in the 1970s or even 1960s, to establish themselves and their musical credentials – some of these artists, after being vilified and ridiculed by the punk movement – waited out the last few dismal years of the 1970s (as progressive rock was nearly wiped from the map by first, punk, in Britain, and then New Wave in the U.S) waiting for an opportune moment to put their head above the parapet to find out if they were still as resoundly resented as they had been…

But I think that those established artists, whether ordinary rock artists or progressive rock “musos”, it didn’t matter, they were all realising that they could not only survive in the unfriendly 1980s – but in some cases, in many instances – they could thrive.  In particular – on the live concert circuit.  And live performance is exactly what that first of two groups of musicians I am thinking of has in common with the second group – new emerging bands, who, while their music may have been “born” in a calendar year that indicated that it was in fact, still the 1980s – while that was undeniable, what was also very apparent, was that there was a kind of “backlash” – there was a hankering for the recently-departed 1960s and 1970s.

Some bands were not afraid to boldly embark on brand new careers, in the 1980s, playing music that on paper, did not and would not “work” in the wonderful “look ma I’ve got a synthesizer” world of MTV, or “look ma, I got me a perm and now the Record Company has given us a $500,000.00 advance on our album” heady days of the early Eighties – that was still going on, although perhaps to a lesser degree in the latter half of the 1980s – but at the same time, my two Secret Musical Forces – were also at work, working hard to bring out music of quality in the Decade That Quality Forgot.

And to their credit, they did it.  What tipped me off to it, was a strange but undeniable fact – OK, I had been fortunate enough to have seven years in the 1970s, when I was witness to some of the most amazing live music ever performed anywhere at any time in history – I was lucky enough to be alive and be old enough, to attend shows by now-legendary Progressive Rock and Rock acts – and there will never be a time like the 1970s again.  What I had noticed – was that, the quality and availability of good live music, seemed to be on the rise in the 1980s – NOT declining as you might have thought.

Punk gave us the good shake up we needed (in hindsight, that is undeniable), and as much as I resented the damage that punk and to a lesser degree, New Wave, did to Prog – I needn’t have worried, because not only was Prog alive and well in the 1980s, but there was also an entire parallel music scene, that you could choose to attend, so for every Eurhythmics show that I didn’t attend, there was a show built on the basis of quality music – whether that be Prog Bands from the 1970s, or other 70s act, adapting, surviving and even flourishing, during the musically-depressing 1980s.

 

splitenz

I could, in the space of a few weeks, attend shows by Crowded House (the remnants of New Zealand progressive rock heroes “Split Enz”) – who I also happened to see play live in 1981 – one of the first shows I attended in the 1980s – and in a way, you could not really get more prog than that in 1981…

 

marillion

 

…despite the band making a very poppy record – 1980’s “True Colours” – they had a still-beating prog heart – and their natural successor, Crowded House, who later went on to even more dizzying heights of success – but – as a pop band – not a prog band – or – stalwart live performers like ex-Fairport Convention guitarist Richard Thompson; or new bands like Marillion, whose music sounded like it was straight out of 1974 – and yet – strangely – it was 1985 – now that was a surprise!

A diverse and exciting mix of live performers then – all out touring, all bringing in large audiences, all being quietly successful while MTV continued to trumpet the “news” that the world was now ruled by Synthesizers, and informing us that “Don’t You Want Me (Baby)” (or whatever it’s called) was a really, really good song (it isn’t).

enobrian70s

Brian Eno himself, the once-flamboyant feather-adorned synthesizer-player of the legendary art-rock outfit Roxy Music, stated that punk was “a breath of fresh air” and over time, while at first unsure – I did come to totally agree with that sentiment.  Prog was in need of a shake up – but the media portrayed it more like a death in the family, so for a couple of very depressing years – we were left with an apparent void, which was being filled by the practitioners of punk and new wave from say, 1978-1980.

 

But – once the air had been cleared, there was no reason in the world for the rock or prog bands that had been swept up in the Great Cleansing – to lay down their instruments and quit – and in fact – most of them did not give up – they may have taken time off during a period in which it might have been difficult to fare well, but…

…eventually – sometimes sooner, sometimes, much, much later – they would in fact, return – and, join a growing number of newly emerging 80s artists who were neither Synth-playing robots nor Hair Metallists – but in fact, were just playing different kinds of rock music – from an only slightly-disguised version of progressive rock (Marillion channelling early Genesis) to a band like Crowded House, who took their prog Split-Enz roots (see what I did there!) and mutated into one of the finest pop bands the world has ever known.

For me – I was even fortunate enough to see one example of these two “groups” of mine – the two Secret Warriors Of Quality Music – on the same bill at the same show – as I was fortunate enough one year, during the 80s, to see Crowded House playing – with the great Richard Thompson as “support act” (!!).  On paper – that just seemed all wrong to me – but as a concert – it was actually brilliant – Thompson is a guitarist extraordinaire, a consummate master, and to have someone of his skill and experience opening for the less-experienced but really, no less talented Finn Brothers (of Crowded House and Split Enz fame) was strange but wonderful – and actually, an inspired idea.

thompsonrichard

Even more remarkable was the fact that during Crowded House’s set, Richard Thompson came out with his guitar to play on one of their songs – so here we had a standard-bearer from the long-ago 1960s, an ex-member and founding member of the great Fairport Convention – on stage with a bunch of musical upstarts from New Zealand.

 

 

I got a genuine laugh at the time, from hearing young Neil Finn taunting Thompson verbally, calling him a “guitar hero” and so on – it was hilarious.

crowdedhouseSome combinations of musicians, you think to yourself – “that could never happen” – and there I was, hearing Richard Thompson improvising a solo to “Italian Plastic” by Crowded House.  Very strange times indeed – but, at that moment – and during countless other 1980s concert moments – the quality of this live music – drove all thoughts of big hair and synth robots right out of my head – and I could live in the moment again, and experience quality live music again.

It was almost as if,  the 1960s and 1970s had just carried on without interruption. almost as if punk and new wave had never happened – and by the mid 1980s, I felt that the old bands were definitely on the way back “in” (I mean, just look at the massive resurgence of interest and huge popularity of both Jethro Tull and of ZZ Top – two bands definitely of the previous decade – yet, in 1987, 1988 – enjoying an immense and very real popularity that required no hype from MTV to propel it) – if anything, these bands began to turn the tables on MTV, and by 1987 – you were far more likely to see an awesome video by ZZ Top or Jethro Tull, than you were to see the dread “Don’t You Want Me (Baby)” video.

jethrotull

But what groups am I talking about here, in my two imagined groups?  Well, the easiest way for me to document that, is to turn first to my setlist.fm entries for the period of time, to get a sense of the shows I was attending – and once I have refreshed my failing memory there, I will be able to jot those down as I hope, valid examples of the two types:

Type Uno

– (Existing) Prog Rock or Rock bands and artists returning to music in the 1980s – at first, possibly more represented by concert appearances than by records, but by the end of the 1980s, they were producing smash hit albums that sold very, very well and were often award-winning and more popular than anything that we now consider to be “Classic 80s Rock” or “Classic 80s Dance” or whatever.  It was Jethro Tull, not Billy Idol or Gary Numan, scooping up awards for best album – and if that isn’t a shock result, I don’t know what is!

But what a brilliant result – I was very, very happy for Ian Anderson and co – to have survived punk, then, to have survived – and then, defeated the 1980s – that is testament to the commitment and vision of Ian Anderson – he managed, somehow, to keep Jethro Tull afloat through all that tribulation – and then, emerge successfully. at the end of their ordeal – with an award-winning hit record – I have to heartily congratulate him on that feat of persistent vision.  Brilliant work!

 

jethrotull2zztop

 

The great ZZ Top carved an equally impressive path through the myriad labyrinth of late 1980s music, and even did so with an only very-slightly updated sound – I remember seeing them in 1975, a raw, powerful blues band with real talent and skill – and here it was now, some 12, 13 years later, near the end of the 1980s – and they were back with…guess what – powerful, bluesy music – with several massive hit records included in their late-1980s successes.  Another brilliant success story almost exactly parallel to the story of Jethro Tull in the late 1980s.

But Jethro Tull and ZZ Top are highly visible, very popular groups – there were a surprising number of other bands in this category – and now I am referring to my setlist.fm listing for the 1980s – one of those bands, is the remarkable Queen.  1980 saw Queen produce an arguably very unique record in their canon, the much-overlooked “Jazz” album – and I was lucky enough to get a ticket to see them, very last-minute – and I am so, so glad that I did – again, it was in live performance where these rock and prog bands of the 1970s excelled, and Queen always put on an impressive performance.

maybrianBrian May to me, is one of the most interesting guitarists that Britain ever produced, with a very, very different and very, very unique guitar sound that no one else has ever really successfully replicated.  Queen built a whole new reputation during the 1980s – moving from the dramatic, prog-inspired heavy rock of their early and mid-70s albums, to much more sonically challenging records such as 1980s “Jazz” – and a host of other brilliant records – so again, very popular band in the 1970s – somehow managed to catapult themselves into massive popularity and success during the 1980s.

A First Time For Everyone

Split Enz – the precursor to the above mentioned Crowded House, Split Enz was New Zealand’s premiere progressive rock band in the 1970s, with a huge underground following and some of the most interesting and quirky music ever created in any country – by 1980, they had gradually been leaving the trappings of prog rock almost entirely behind, and by the time I saw them in in early 1981 – their “True Colours” album was riding high in the charts, a huge pop success thanks mostly to the tune “I Got You” – sung, incidentally, by Neil Finn, the future leader of Crowded House – rather than by Tim Finn – the actual (original) lead singer of Split Enz.  Well – one of two lead singers in the original band is perhaps, more accurate.

finnneilI will never forget being at that show, sitting there in the audience – I could clearly see the muscles in the then-very young Neil’s throat moving, moving as in a panic response – in pure fear, as he opened his mouth to sing this huge hit song – I believe this was the band’s first trip to America, and very possibly, their first show of the first tour of America – and the poor guy was scared half to death.  He needn’t have worried – the song, and the band, were received rapturously by the audience – I was absolutely blown away by the quality of musicianship (and, it was the first time I got to see the amazing Eddie Rayner on keyboards – the man is a genius) and seeing Split Enz – even in their later, “pop” persona – was a wonderful and utterly unforgettable experience – one of my favourite bands of all time.

(Note: Split Enz / Crowded House is the only band to appear in both the Type Uno and the Type Dos categories – because Split Enz was an existing Progressive Rock Band from the early 1970s, while Crowded House was a New, Emerging Band in the early 1980s that just happened to be made up of ex-members of Split Enz – so they get entered once – very early 1980s – as “Existing Prog band” and once again – early 1980s), as “New Emerging Pop band”.  A remarkable feat – being the only band that managed to straddle two very dissimilar groupings!).

zappafrankA man who needs no introduction, the late, great Frank Zappa – I honestly don’t think that any change in musical styles ever affected the forward velocity of this man – one of our greatest modern composers, and a genius at getting bands to play impossible music with impossible chops – there is nothing on earth like a Frank Zappa led and directed live performance.

I place him in the “existing Prog” category although Prog isn’t exactly the right way to describe the sheer genius of Zappa – I really think he remained unaffected by punk, unaffected by MTV – unless there was some aspect of it that he could manipulate to further his own aims – in which case – he would.  I think of all of the “existing artists” out there – that Frank just sailed through the 1960s. 70s and 80s without batting an eye – all just water flowing under a large musical bridge – while Frank was busy composing, arranging, or playing the most amazing lead guitar the planet has ever experienced – only Fripp and Hendrix are in the same league – and he could have taught those two a thing or two I feel certain lol.

So while I include FZ in this category – he was gloriously unaffected by the basic stupidities of (most) 1980s music.  Lucky guy, I would say.

This list of Existing Prog bands that came back in the 1980s (that is, if they were ever really “gone” in the first place) would not be complete without both the redoubtable and resilient Yes, who continued to make music in the 1980s, undergoing a radical musical transformation that I personally, in the main, do not enjoy (I was left cold by the Drama album and tour – a 70s-meets-80s experiment that in my opinion, simply did not work) but I have to acknowledge, it gave them a new lease on life that carried them far into the future, while Genesis, the Hardest Working Band In Prog (maybe) were being led by their undeniably charismatic “new” lead singer, one “Phil Collins” – and the success that Collins and co enjoyed during this decade where Prog was NOT King – is undeniable – and must have been so, so galling to the various departed members of the band who had only been with the band during the years of debt – among those, being original lead singer Peter Gabriel and renowned but long departed original guitarist Ant Phillips.

Gabriel is another one on this list, who fits right into this category very comfortably – an ex-progressive rock lead vocalist, revered for his seminal early and mid-70s progressive output on classic Genesis albums such as “Selling England By The Pound” and “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” – leaving Genesis at the height of their then-success in early 1975 to pursue a solo career.  Said career definitely took some interesting musical twists and turns, sometimes veering sharply away from prog (the first “Peter Gabriel” album for example), other times, returning to embrace it once again (the second, Robert Fripp-produced, “Peter Gabriel” album) – but, by the time of the 1980s – Gabriel‘s solo career was in full swing.

gabrielpeter

He became a star in his own right, without  Genesis, and was extremely popular with prog rock fans plus a whole new generation of fans that came to his music first, through his now-famous series of eponymously-titled albums – the first three (or four – see below) albums all being entitled “Peter Gabriel” – the fourth, finally getting an “actual” title – “Security” – although according to Wiki – it’s actually called…”Peter Gabriel”.  So there are four – not three !

Note: the fact that the first four Peter Gabriel albums had no title beyond “Peter Gabriel” (with the exception of the final one, which was ‘sometimes also known as “Security” ‘), was apparently really just too difficult for some people to understand or relate to – so interestingly, to make it easier for those who found this concept (which was Gabriel‘s idea – he wanted it to be like a newspaper – the same paper, with the same headline – but coming out at different times with different stories in them) too difficult – so people invented “names” for the albums based solely on the cover art – so strangely, many people “know” these three classic records as “Car” (Peter Gabriel I”)“Scratches” (Peter Gabriel II) and “Face” or “Melting Face” (Peter Gabriel 3).   For the fourth – well, it somehow acquired the “name” “Security”.

Personally – I like the original titles and the idea of it having the same title every time – that was unique – but – apparently this was too much of a stretch for some possibly less-pliant minds – so they invented these somewhat lame cover-art related “names” – for three albums that already had perfectly good names – or, rather, a perfectly good name.  It’s funny what lengths people will go to, to “force” something unusual or out-of-the-ordinary into terms that they are comfortable with – great lengths, it would seem, sometimes.

So along with Yes, Genesis, and Peter Gabriel, the 1980s was also an amazing time for one of the most underappreciated and hugely talented individuals that early 70s (or in this case, actually, late 1960s) progressive rock ever produced – and of course I am talking about the remarkable Peter Hammill, of the band Van Der Graaf Generator (which, incidentally, is still going strong after re-forming in 2005) – the 1980s saw Hammill evolving his solo performances, which were originally, just himself sat at the piano or sat with an acoustic guitar, singing “solo versions” of Van Der Graaf Generator songs (the bulk of which, were written by Hammill – the main writer and only lyricist in the band) as well as, singing songs from his rapidly-expanded selection of solo albums.

hammillpeterI was lucky enough to see Peter Hammill on several occasions, in differing musical settings, during the 1980s, and while I truly wish I had been able to see Van Der Graaf Generator play live “back in the day” – seeing these solo performances was actually, in a way, a far more powerful and intimate experience.  I have had the good fortune, for example, to witness Hammill, on his own at the piano, playing his remarkable suite of songs which make up the second side of his 1980 solo album “A Black Box” – a song called “Flight” – which is so difficult to play, that I was only able to work out, myself – on the piano – the first part of the song.

By far the simplest part of “Flight”- “Flying Blind” is the first of the several shorter songs that make up “Flight” in it’s entirety – whereas, Hammill reeled off the thousands and thousands of notes and chords of the entire 20 plus minutes long piece – as if it were nothing, all the while singing in that incredibly powerful, moving voice of his – seeing him play and sing “Flight” – live – by himself – as the encore of a remarkable live show – was an absolutely unforgettable experience for me.

hammill-potter-mcintoshA few years later, I was fortunate again, to see Hammill bring one of his small “ensembles” to Los Angeles, back to the Roxy which was where he always seemed to play when he was here in the US – this small group included just two other members, former Van Der Graaf bassist Nic Potter, and “pub musician” Stuart Gordon on violin.

But these two musicians – were no ordinary musicians, and I had no idea what an amazing musical experience we were all about to have – with Potter anticipating every phrase, every pause, in Hammill‘s incredibly strange vocal arrangements – and coming in on time, unfailingly – to Stuart Gordon’s “square wave violin” (my mental term for it – his violin run through guitar effects to achieve some unbelievably beautiful and/or dissonant effects) and the renditions that this band did of tracks such as “Cat’s Eye / Yellow Fever” – with it’s throbbing bass line, power chord guitar (provided by Hammill, of course!) and wild super-effected/treated violin gyrations.

I had never heard just three people sounding like a full on prog outfit on a tiny stage like the stage at the Roxy was.  What a show (you can hear a version of that show, on the Hammill album “Room Temperature” – Live – and well worth the investment I would say) it was – absolutely unforgettable – a brilliant experience.

In some ways, then, the 1980s portion of Peter Hammill’s career, moving through the amazing solo records of the early 1980s – starting with “A Black Box” (which, to give you some perspective, in 1980, this was Hammill’s TENTH solo album!) and then moving on to his very popular and quite hard rocking 1981 offering “Sitting Targets” – and then as the decade progressed, I saw tours for albums such as 1986’s “Skin” which was at yet a whole ‘nother level – the man is incredibly prolific, and each time, has a larger and larger back catalogue of songs to draw on – so that towards the end of that time, the range and power of songs that he could pull from that remarkable inventory of sensitive, emotional, moving songs became extraordinary in the extreme.

Each concert became the showcase for such a broad range of emotions and such an incredibly diverse and remarkable selection of songs, that it was just almost too much to take. What an extraordinary range and depth of feeling this man commands from the stage, with this intense and wonderful body of work that is “the Peter Hammill solo catalogue”…and it is still growing today (as of June 6, 2018 the count of his solo albums is 37 in Wikipedia), as he continues to produce albums regularly despite now being in his 70s.  What a remarkable character!

My 1980s was inhabited by all of these kinds of musical heroes – so my interest in, and my time spent listening to, what was supposedly currently popular “music” – began at a wane and pretty much disappeared completely as more and more of these amazing bands and artists from the 1960s and 70s, arrived in town in the 1980s to remind me that they were far from gone – that they were, in fact “alive and well and living in….” to phrase a coin (thanks, Ian!).

utopiaBut the list is far from complete – Todd Rundgren, and, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia – the popular 1970s comedic band “The Tubes” (they of “White Punks On Dope” fame) – so many bands from the 70s, were doing so surprisingly well in the 1980s – and, were out there on the road – proving that their music was truly alive and was far, far more real than what MTV was presenting to us as purportedly, the music of the times – that was not MY experience of the 1980s.

 

KingCrimson-1973It was only starting in 1981 that even more significant groups began to return, still working in Type Uno here – and this was a real surprise entrant – the return of the mighty King Crimson – after a seven year hiatus – Robert Fripp had returned, with only one former member of any former version of the band (Bill Bruford, on drums and electronic percussion) in tow – having created a totally re-imagined version of the band, and the success of their debut album (1981s total return to form, “Discipline”) and tour cannot be underestimated.

 

 

kingcrimson1981I can remember myself and the guys in my band, we were FLABBERGASTED at the idea that King Crimson was on tour, and was going to be playing in San Diego – at the UCSD gymnasium, of all places – but hey – we didn’t care – it was KING CRIMSON – alive and well.  This new version of King Crimson, featured bassist and Chapman stick expert Tony Levin, and the unstoppable Adrian Belew on lead guitar and lead vocals.

 

This “new” band, the utterly revitalised and recharged King Crimson – was nothing short of extraordinary.

To see a concert, in 1981, by what was supposedly at this time, a “dinosaur” band like “King Crimson” – a concert that had more musical quality in it’s worst moment, than some 1980’s “bands” could produce in an entire show – this concert was really, in comparison to most concerts – an experience of almost high art – rock music, progressive, intelligent music – elevated to a new plane of existence, with the interlocking musical gamelan of the Fripp & Belew Lead Guitar Axes Of Power – over one of the most powerful and unique rhythm sections ever envisioned – this was four of the best musicians on the planet, getting together to play a dozen or so of the most amazing songs that you had never heard.

 

The band did also include one or two “old” King Crimson songs, thrown in – probably more for the sake of nostalgia – or, more likely, because the new members of the band wanted to PLAY those songs lol – this concert was a sublime musical experience, that absolutely blew my mind – I could think of nothing else, for weeks, but that amazing, beautiful music I had witnessed – and I listened to the album constantly, trying (and failing, dismally) to unlock it’s musical secrets – what an extraordinary musical document.

GenesisI think for me – that was the turning point – seeing King Crimson play for the first time ever; and seeing Peter Hammill and Bill Nelson and Steve Hackett and Peter Gabriel and Genesis and Yes – all playing music in the early 1980s – when television might have you believing that something called “Billy Idol” was ruling the video-waves – the air-waves having now been superseded by the medium of Music Television.

Or – by someone called “Gary Numan” who apparently, was the next big thing – and I am not in any way disrespectful towards these artists – I very much respect their achievements and enjoy their music, too – and yes, they did make records in the 1980s, and sell records, and become “very popular” and so on.

But behind the scenes, in the background – were truly great (often very under-appreciated) musicians, with far more experience (and skill, I am afraid, too) who were out on the road, proving that their music was very real indeed,  given concerts displaying consummate skill and musical vision – and perhaps – at least slightly more real, than the perceived vision of what music was as presented by “MTV” and “MTV News”.

But sometimes, you have to judge by a different yardstick, and increasingly for me, it was a very, very musical yardstick – i.e. did this concert move me to tears?  Was the guitar playing such remarkable work of impassioned quality, that it will haunt my memories for years to come?  Those were the kinds of questions that I was walking away from concerts asking myself – concerts mainly by the supposedly long-dead “dinosaurs” of music – the progressive rock musicians of the 1960s and 1970s.  It was no longer really about what was supposedly popular – for me, it was becoming just about music, quality music – and nothing much else mattered.

And that is how I have really remained, to this day – I am not interested in what band sells the most records.  I am interested in what band or artists or guitarist or other instrumentalist – can do something never done before, or something unique, or something truly beautiful or skillful or ingenious.  Or – in some rare cases – all of the above.

That is what I was already evolving into in the 1980s, because I was seeing all of these amazing bands, behind the scenes – behind the very false, fabricated MTV Video World of “Music” and the MTV “Video Music Awards” and so on – none of that was what was real – what was real, were the opening notes of the title track of “Discipline” – the first piece played by the new King Crimson at their concert here held at UCSD gymnasium.

kingcrimson-disciplinecoverTo start a concert, with the final piece and the title track of your first album in over seven years – that is very probably the single most difficult to perform out of an entire album of truly difficult to perform songs – coming out and playing that song FIRST, makes a statement – that says “we can do THIS” – and “THIS” – is simply the part you had to hear, you had to be there – to believe – perfectly interlocking guitars over a sinuous and sliterhing bass part with an insistent, cymbal-less beat throbbing behind it – modern music taken to a whole new level, in a time-signature that I still can’t count to this day.

 

What a way to START a concert!

So it was truly musical experiences like this, that really take you out of yourself, and really make you consider the nature of what is beautiful, what is dissonant, how and when dissonance can be in itself, beautiful, and so on – music that MAKES you think – and think, and think.  That is how the music of “Discipline” made me feel at the time.  What a great way to celebrate the return of the much-missed King Crimson – we were SO glad they were back, and this career was to be short lived, but, would lead to ever-evolving versions of the band – this particular version, what has become to be known, curiously enough, as “the 80’s Crimson” did the bulk of it’s work, first as the band “Discipline” in 1980, and then, as “King Crimson” in 1981 – lasting just four years and producing three fine albums.

But there is still more to this story – still more former prog or former rock musicians, coming out of the woodwork now, re-inventing themselves in startling and remarkable ways.  Bill Nelson, former leader, lead singer, and lead guitarist of the 1970s prog/rock band “Be-Bop Deluxe” was out and about in the 1980s, fronting various versions of his 1979 creation “Bill Nelson’s Red Noise” and I saw one of these post-Red Noise concoctions play live at the Whisky in Los Angeles – and because it was the Whisky, and, Bill Nelson was one of my favourite English guitarists at the time – I took the opportunity to situate myself just in front of his pedalboard (which absolutely fascinated me, it was very, very long and thin and had about a dozen pedals on it, most of which, I was utterly unfamiliar with) and once again, I proceeded to have my musical thought processes melted away and re-formed several times during the evening’s proceedings.

nelsonbill74

Nelson is just one of those people that is ridiculously talented, and can make music with anything he turns his hand to.  Tonight though – it was all about the guitar, and actually seeing him play, at such close range, was a rare privilege indeed for me – to be able to watch how he created the chord shapes and guitar parts that made up these songs that I so, so loved – “A Kind Of Loving” or “Do You Dream In Colour” or even the bizarre “Youth Of Nation On Fire”.

 

 

He played an outrageously cool selection of songs from his first couple of solo records – and it was again, an absolutely unique and totally unforgettable musical experience.  What a show!

This show also included a real moment of drama, as Bill‘s beautiful pedalboard FAILED after one song, so, philosophically, he watched the technician hauling away his entire bank of effects – and saying something about how it may be difficult later on, when he gets into some of the more complex changes of sound… he then turned around, with a determined look on his face – plugged his guitar lead directly into his Music Man combo amp – tested a nice, chunky, distorted power chord – and launched into the next song – sans all effects.

Hearing that song played with raw, straight, unaffected guitar – was an absolute revelation for me – an amazing experience – of a true artist’s grace under pressure –  he handled it like a pro – no problem – just got on with the song, sang and played it beautifully, and then happily, took delivery of his now-repaired pedalboard just in time for the next song to begin.

nelsonbill1980sThey never really missed a beat – the whole “incident” only slowed the show by literally, two minutes – and what a unique and unusual thing to witness – that made it particularly unforgettable – getting to hear the absolutely raw – guitar-straight-into-amp Bill Nelson style – and it ROCKED.  He didn’t lean on his pedals for support to hide weak playing, as some players (myself included – I hasten to add) do – he used them to enhance and improve the sound of his guitar.   But – I could have happily watched and listened to the whole show with the guitar-directly-into-amp scenario, too – with – or without a big pedalboard full of exotic gutiar effects – either way is absolutely fine by me.

 

I would say that during the first few years of the 1980s, that Bill Nelson re-invented himself and his music, on a par and very much in parallel, with the way Robert Fripp re-invented and re-imagined his own role in the new King Crimson.  Gone were the trappings of “rock star” / Be-Bop Deluxe frontman Nelson – no more costumes or make-up or TV appearances were needed – no more limousines – just – music – music as experiment, and I can remember buying his first solo single, the aforementioned “Do You Dream In Colour?” on 7 inch vinyl which included two B-sides that I liked even better than the A side – and that was the start of a truly remarkable series of records – that moved through areas of music that I can scarcely describe using just words – those words would be “GO now, and listen, ye, to these two albums”:

  1. Quit Dreaming And Get On The Beam by Bill Nelson
  2. The Love That Whirls (Diary Of A Thinking Heart) by Bill Nelson

See – now I don’t need to try and describe how incredibly diverse and musically amazing those two early solo records are – not to mention – some of the most astonishing lead guitar work I had ever heard Nelson play – even on the opening track of “Quit Dreaming…” a song called “Banal”, ironically enough – there is a solo so dramatic, so silken smooth and flowing – so, NOT “banal” in any way – and I think that is the point – you have this hard-edged, almost frightening riff playing throughout this song  – but when it finally bursts into this solo – you get a few moments of the old 1970s Be-Bop Deluxe sweet sweet flowing lead guitar on 1980s steroids – simply amazing guitar work on this record – other pieces of note include one of my personal favourites of Bill’s – another strange one, “U.H.F.” which has a beautifully-flanged lead vocal, and again, absolutely amazing, dissonant / unique lead guitar throughout – this one is another that is just astonishing in terms of the quality and passion of guitar playing – it’s off the scale, it really is.

nelsonbillrecentSo Bill Nelson – in the early 1980s – was in every way, an ever-exploring pioneer of new kinds of musics, and his bands were hand-picked to deliver that music with the greatest impact.  I was so, so fortunate that I was able to drive up to Los Angeles to see that gig – what an absolutely unforgettable night that was!!  Standing there, just a few feet away from someone with such consummate skill with the guitar – it seemed effortless to him – autopilot on, and now – play.  sing.  perform.

 

But – it was a faultless, unbelievably professional, polished performance – Bill took his bands and his music very seriously indeed, and this outfit was more than road-worthy – they played his music – the way it was meant to be played.

 

I have now, I believe, spent more than enough time talking about Type Uno artists – however – believe it or not, I didn’t even make it past about 1983 in assembling the examples above.  If I were to continue on in this vein for the rest of the 1980s, I would add in another dozen or so examples of Type Uno artists – those ex-rock or ex-prog musicians who, for the most part – trod a very different path in the 1980s, from what their previous careers back in the 1970s had been.

And sometimes, as in the case of both King Crimson and Bill Nelson – that led to some absolutely extraordinary music and, live concerts that represented that recorded music.  I felt so, so fortunate to have been there to witness that – especially the re-birth of King Crimson  – that was almost miraculous.

Crimson was one of several bands, that I literally thought I would never, ever get to see – because from my perspective – they had suddenly disbanded in 1974 – never to return as far as we knew.

So that was a welcome return to form – along with, experiencing the new musical directions of Bill Nelson, Peter Hammill or any number of existing, surviving rock and prog people – all of them, doing so incredibly well (who knew???) in the supposedly-musically-“dead” 1980s!  The more I thought about it – the more I realised, that in some ways, the 80s were almost MORE musically rich for me than the 1970s were – for one thing, I got in a FULL 10 years of concert-going, versus the seven I had managed in the 1970s (and that was only due to my age – not through choice) – so I had an “extra” three years in which to have even more incredible 1980s concert experiences.

For another thing – these artists – who were AMAZING during the 1970s – had come back, bringing new ideas; new technologies; new ways of thinking about music; new recordings; and most importantly to me – concert tours where their faithful, loyal fans could still go and see and hear them play – and as often as not, I was totally surprised by how much these artists had grown and evolved – always, in such a positive way – that I now view the 1980s as a really, really positive decade – in terms of my overall, over-time concert experiences.

Who else, then – would I place into the Type Uno category – before I delve into Type Dos – well, a quick further check of setlist.fm’s listing for user “pureambient” (that’s me, by the way) reveals that the illustrious company noted above would also be joined by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, populists Hall & Oates (who I only became interested in, after hearing Daryl Hall’s remarkable collaboration with Robert Fripp, “Sacred Songs” from 1980 – another overlooked Fripp-produced masterpiece – and Fripp was so insistent that Hall was so good – that I had to go and see for myself.  He was.  He was an amazing singer).

roxymusicThen, there was the early-80s version of Roxy Music which, by 1983 when I saw them for the second time, had mutated so far away from their original Prog roots, that they seemed to be a completely different band – one that very well might have been better named “The Bryan Ferry Orchestra” and be done with it – with Phil Manzanera and Andy MacKay physically present at the concert, but, reduced to the roles of glorified sidemen by the rather large ego of one Bryan Ferry…

 

The only redemption, for me, was that Phil Manzanera was permitted to perform ONE of his songs – and chose to play “Impossible Guitar” which I absolutely love – so I was fortunate to get to see that rarely-performed-live piece of brilliant guitar work – made an otherwise difficult to stomach Roxy concert, much more bearable.  By way of contrast,  when I saw Roxy in 1979, four years earlier – they were then already on their way towards this not-so-good musical place, but – there was still some prog left in them, and they played a few good versions of a few older tunes back in 79.  Not so at the 1983 concert that I saw – which was pretty disappointing to say the least.

belewadrianAdrian Belew – well, he was around in the 70s, although more in the role of very talented sideman to either Frank Zappa or later, David Bowie – and I felt very, very fortunate to get to see him with his original band, “Gaga” – at the wonderfully tiny San Diego State venue of The Back Door (a music venue so small, that even ***I*** have performed there in the past – lol).

Belew and his band were absolutely unbelievably talented, funny and skilled – and it was a truly memorable evening for fans of the eccentric electric guitarist – the only true successor to the performance spaces that Jimi Hendrix used to inhabit – Belew fills that void to some degree.

More gigs for guitarists – now this was another aspect of the remarkable, the impossible things that happened in the 1980s – that you would have thought, would either be impossible, or only could have happened in the 70s – but – not so – I am talking about now, one of the most incredible performances I have ever seen – Paco De Lucia, Al DiMeola, and John McLaughlin – what a line-up.  Three legends of the guitar – each with their own style – and the combination of the three together, performing a variety of impossible pieces – was like nothing I had ever seen before and I am not likely to ever see again – everyone I know who went to this – will know what I am talking about – this was about skill, passion and grace – and these three gentlemen had lots of all of those things.  It was…amazing.

guitartrio1A year later, the trio returned – and this time, joining them on steel string acoustic guitar – was none other than future Deep Purple lead guitarist and Dixie Dregs alumnus Steve Morse – a guitarist I have seen many times – with the Dixie Dregs (another group that is in this category, that I was lucky enough to see during the 1980s)

morsesteveLater, Morse created the “Steve Morse Band” (yet ANOTHER group that is in this category, that I was lucky enough to see during the 1980s), I even got to see Morse performing at a guitar clinic in a local music store – an immensely skilled and talented player. Adding Morse to that trio (DeLucia, DiMeola, and McLaughlin) – created the single most remarkable mini-orchestra of guitarists that the mind could imagine – the Impossible Quartet – and that show was even better than the standard trio show that I saw the previous year.  What an experience!

And then – I went to see Allan Holdsworth.  I was beginning to get into jazz, a little bit – I’ve never really played it, but, I do have huge respect for those that play it well – the “Pat Metheny”s and so on in this world – but – Allan Holdsworth – who, again, was around in the 1970s, so he definitely falls into the Type Uno category – is a guitarist on an entirely different Guitar Planet.  To this day, I have never before or since seen a modern jazz guitarist, or in fact, any guitarist outside of the classical tradition, with the kind of a) encyclopedic knowledge of scales, modes, chords and….everything there is to know about a guitar fretboard and b) incredible, incredible, speed – I’ve never found another like Allan Holdsworth.

holdsworthI can remember sitting on the edge of the stage, just watching his left hand, trying so hard to figure out what on earth chords he was playing – as he played through one of my very favourite of his pieces – “The Things You See (When You Haven’t Got Your Gun)” – and there is this beautiful beautiful chord progression, that he “swells” into a big delay and reverb setting – and it’s just sublimely beautiful,

And as I watched, I realised, that even with my twenty some odd years of guitar playing experience at that time – that I literally, had absolutely NO idea what those shapes indicated – I could not understand WHAT CHORDS the man was playing.  I knew one thing though – they are beautiful.  Still are.

Later, I found out why – when I got ahold of an Allan Holdsworth music book – and the title of the book pretty much explains why a guitarist of 20 years plus experience, had no idea what it was that he was seeing and hearing when watching Allan Holdsworth play – the book is called “Reaching For The Uncommon Chord”.  THAT is why.  Because he uses inversions that most people can’t even FORM with their fingers.  “Uncommon” is exactly the right word – and seeing him play, hearing him do this – live – opened my eyes to whole new UNIVERSE of sounds and ideas that I think, I am still absorbing today – almost thirty years later.

What a remarkable guitarist – and a really nice person too, very approachable. Sadly, Allan passed away very recently – and it was a huge, huge loss to the guitar-playing, and listening, community.  An absolute Hendrix-Order, Zappa-Order, Higher-Order guitarist unique in so very many ways.  Not, however…for the faint of heart – Holdsworth is possible a musician best appreciated by other musicians as his playing style may be too intense for the public to absorb or appreciate.  If there ever was a “guitarist’s guitarist” – it was Allan Holdsworth.

Every time I think I have exhausted the list of possibly Type Unos – I find still more to add to the list – the aforementioned Richard Thompson whose career soared during the 1980s – including a lot of excellent performances both on acoustic guitar and with full “electric” band – I was lucky enough to see both types – and also, the aforementioned band Richard used to be in, Fairport Convention, who also enjoyed a resurgence of their own during the late 1980s, possibly thanks to their close touring association with the unstoppable Jethro Tull.

At the end of the 1980s, re-emerged one of the first of the many, many, many different re-configurations of the band Yes – which featured the classic five man lineup of Yes without bassist Chris Squire.  I went to see this strange band in 1989, whose first and only album was pretty underwhelming, largely because of the possibility of seeing these four ex-members of Yes, playing older Yes material live in concert.

It was – interesting.  Originally, they had Tony Levin as their stand-in replacement for the very difficult to replace Chris Squire – and that was what I had been looking forward to – only to find out, that Levin had dropped out early on, and had been hastily replaced by Jeff Berlin.  Now – Jeff Berlin is one of the most amazing bass guitarists on the planet.  I’ve seen Berlin play in a tiny club with Allan Holdsworth and Chad Wackerman, and Berlin was actually, clearly, the bass-playing equivalent of Allan Holdsworth – they were a match.  How Wackerman ever kept up with those too, will always be a mystery – stunning musicianship.

But Jeff Berlin is more of an improviser’s improviser, so the idea of him playing Chris Squire’s very inventive but, very structured bass parts – well, to my mind, it just seemed like a WEIRD idea.  And in concert – well, Jeff was fine.  Jeff played all the right notes – but the feel, was all wrong – he played with a jazz, loose feel, which did not suit Squire’s intended style – so it just sounded so odd to my ears.  Not entirely successful – four experienced prog guys – with a super jazzy improvising loose bass player – no.  I wished I’d seen the Levin version…but alas.  ABWH were short-lived, and I think that is possibly a good thing.  Yes is just not Yes without Chris Squire – let’s face it.  It’s just not quite right without him.

Finally, again near the end of the 1980s, we had some glimpses of the future – Adrian Belew’s pop project, “The Bears” started making records and went out on tour, and I for one was very much enamoured of their approach – I loved the idea of two lead guitars, bass and drums, where often, both of the guitarists were playing “backwards guitar” as they sang and played live – I loved that.  I have always been a huge fan of reverse guitar, and seeing the huge grins on the faces of Rob Fetters and Adrian Belew while they were both playing backwards – it’s as much fun to do, as it is to hear!  I saw The Bears a number of times, and they are an extremely quality pop group as you would expect – excellent music.

And then – Robert Fripp and the League of Crafty Guitarists – not a “band” in the traditional sense, this latest Fripp invention – was simply Fripp performing in public on acoustic guitar, with a group of the then-best Guitar Craft students.  The repertoire was written in part by Fripp, and in part by members of “the League” and it’s a most interesting presentation – playing in Fripp’s “new standard tuning” for guitar – this was a most inspirational group to witness playing live – but in one sense, it’s also one of the most radical of re-imagining’s possible – to get from King Crimson in the 1960s and 1970s, to the League of Gentlemen in 1980, to the League of Crafty Guitarists in the late 80s and also, on into the future – that was Robert Fripp – always moving forward on so many different musical planes.

Type Uno groups that I did NOT see – the list is just staggeringly long, I am sure, but while I am on the subject – Robert Fripp’s “dance combo” the aforementioned League of Gentlemen” were one of the hottest musical properties of the year 1980.  A four piece led by Fripp and ex-XTC keyboard wizard Barry Andrews – that is one band I really, really wish I had the opportunity to see play live.  Ach well as they say…

 

Type Dos

– New, emerging bands, or, complete rebuilds of older bands that mutated into new bands – so in this category the most obvious is the one I have already mentioned, Marillion, and, the other one I have already mentioned, Crowded House.

This category does include a few bands that may well have existed in the very last part of the 1970s, but I would still class them as new not so much in that they are brand new in the 1980s, but they were not necessarily full-established or very experienced when compared to most of the Type Uno bands – many of whose roots went all the way back to the beginning of the 1970s or even into the 1960s.

There is a huge difference in an artist who formed a band in 1968, coming back to perform live and make records in the 1980s, and a band formed in 1979 that then continues on into the 1980s as part of their natural evolution – those to my mind, are “new emerging bands” – I have just taken slight poet license on when they emerged – and if I were to just adjust the time period, this silly concept of two types would work a bit better – but for now, it’s what I am working with.

The first half of the 1980s, for me – according again to my setlist.fm list of concerts attended – was a pretty sparse time for new bands with new music.

I did see a few of the most important bands of the 1980s, most notably, the great XTC, but there were far far more bands that I never did see – because mainly, to be totally honest – I was spending my time and my money, attending concerts by Type Uno artists – artists I knew and loved, and, who I knew would not let me down by giving a poor concert.

So I continued to attend concerts with a definite 1970s mindset – and that worked for me – and if you look at the list above compared to this listing of Type Dos shows attended – it’s absolutely pathetic in comparison.  I was only making an almost-token effort to include Type Dos bands in my concert-going – but if truth be told – that was mainly because – there were not that many Type Dos bands that I really enjoyed the sound of.

In some cases, I wonder exactly why I went – for example, I attended an outdoor summer extravaganza, three bands playing live, beginning with Madness, then, Oingo Boingo, then, headliners The Police.  Now this was a competently-performed set, all three bands had something to offer – but, in hindsight – I believe I enjoyed Madness far more than I enjoyed The Police.  I was never that huge of a fan of The Police, and I think it was more about peer pressure – everyone at the place I was working was going to the show – so would I go?  Sure – why not?

I have never, ever been a fan of the music of Danny Elfman, leader and creator of Oingo Boingo, and I just think it’s absolutely silly music – not for me, at all – meant to be “funny” – but – it isn’t.  Madness were terrific – great energy, good chops – a lot of fun, and a lot of musical credibility.  Then I suffered through Oingo Boingo.  Then, I did enjoy the set by The Police but it was more about wow look at that drum kit or, wow, Sting really can play the bass AND sing at the same time – look – he’s doing it.

Or rather – doing part of it – they did have three background singers, which makes the whole idea of being “just a trio” a bit silly – and I felt it was really unnecessary.  It seemed to me, that it would have been much, much better if we could have heard what JUST the three of them could do, live – now that might have been interesting. They played a competent set, with songs from every album including the then-new “Synchronicity” which for them, was ultra-complex.  They did a credible job – but that’s what it seemed like, more of a chore, a task, a job to be done – they didn’t seem like they were having any fun at all – and their lack of enjoyment was contagious.

I hope that others will remember that concert more happily than I do, but my overall impression was of being underwhelmed by The Police, and not liking Oingo Boingo one bit (I still don’t).  But – every cloud has a silver lining – at least I got to see Madness – they were great – awesome performance.

Still sticking with the mainstream, again, not really sure WHY I went – outdoor show in summer time?  nice weather?  for some inexplicable reason, I went to see Men At Work.  It was not particularly memorable.  I still do not know why I went.  In this same category, I would place The Motels, a group I barely remember – and I don’t remember a particular song I like or anything – no idea.  Those two shows – which I did attend – just flew past almost unnoticed.

I did also, however, see some very real and very powerful live performances – the aforementioned XTC among them – but I would say one other of those, was Gang Of Four.  Now – this was a band I knew absolutely nothing about, I had not heard them play – and the other guitarist in my then-band, Slipstream absolutely INSISTED that I should go to this concert – so, we went – it was a long, long drive up to LA I remember – and I was absolutely transfixed and shocked by the band once they started playing.  I have never before or since seen a band quite like this one – dark, powerful, with a lot on their minds – and deadly serious about what they were playing, and what they were saying.

With tunes like “(Love Like) Anthrax” or “Armalite Rifle” and heavily politically inspired lyrics, I found it to be a very powerful and musical experience.  The music was  – jarring.  But – this “post punk” outfit – really stuck in my memory, and I am grateful to my pal in the band for being so insistent that I attend – because I am glad that I did.  I hadn’t seen much or many bands that had a political agenda (unless you count U2 – which come on, you can’t seriously count U2???) so it was a breath of fresh air in that sense – not you ordinary love songs here – but songs that meant something.  It was a really different musical experience too, and one that was thought-provoking at the very least.

xtcliveMost important to me, was seeing XTC play live in what turned out to be, their last ever live performance – they played in San Diego where I saw them – and then, in LA the next night – they did not show up, because Andy Partridge was on his way home to escape a world of nightmares from touring and over use of prescription medications.

They never did really return to the stage – but – it also ushered in their “XTC’s Golden Age of Studio Recordings” – where, much like the Beatles – their music really, really changed once they left the stage behind for good.

XTC’s performance itself ,was absolutely amazing:  Andy was filled with so much incredible energy, and the band were animated and lively – Dave Gregory was especially amazing – bouncing back and forth between lead guitar and lead synthesizer – and the band’s vocals were also great – Colin and Andy sounded so, so good together.  I am so, so glad I went to this – I had been getting more and more into their music, and I thought why not – that should be a good show.  I never dreamed for a moment, that I would witness the last live concert by the band – wow.  What a shock to find out after the fact, that Andy had fallen very ill and returned to the UK – swearing that he would never perform live again.  Sadly – he kept that promise – mostly.

After seeing Gang Of Four first, and then, XTC, in the first part of the 1980s – was unfortunately, for me, the highlight – the rest of my Type Dos experience wasn’t quite so memorable – but I will have a go anyway:

Starting with Asia – now, in one sense, you could almost class Asia as a Type Uno band – except – what band would that have been back in the 1970s?  King Crimson?  Yes?  ELP?  Because they were not a direct descendant of one particular band – I have to class them as Type Dos – but the music they brought to the mid-80s, definitely had more of the feel of a Type Uno band.

JohnWettonAsia then – as a new “prog” band – with ex-Family, ex-King Crimson bassist and vocalist John Wetton on bass and lead vocals, with Steve Howe. ex-Yes on lead guitar, and with Carl Palmer, ex-Emerson, Lake & Palmer on drums – and, some guy called Geoff Downes on keyboards – this was a “new” band, playing “new” music.  Oh – I so, so wanted this band to be good…

 

Their debut album was a bit confusing – slightly proggy, but overlaid with a sort of sickly sheen of popiness that felt forced at best.  It was just – weird.  But I went to the show, to see the PLAYERS – not so much for the band, and certainly not for the album.  And – the players were good – again, Wetton is more than competent he played and sang well – it was fine.  Steve Howe did his usual high quality lead guitar work, nothing disappointing there – and Carl was a fine drummer for the outfit.

Perhaps it’s better if I just leave it at that – rather than try to analyse it any further – this SHOULD have been a great band, but I remember being so disappointed by everything – the album, the show – that I never bought (or heard) their second album, or anything they ever did after that.  I just lost interest immediately.  A missed opportunity.  A failed attempt at commercial success?  Something funny going on there – I don’t really know what.  But somehow – it just did not work.

On a couple of occasions during the 1980s, I went to see Elvis Costello play, usually with the Attractions in tow – and this was one of those weirdly unsatisfying things – it should have been excellent – but it was just OK.  They played well – very well.  The songs are good – but something about it – it just did not have the excitement, nothing urgent, in a lot of ways, it did not seem like “live” music – but more, an accurate re-creation of studio music.  I know that must sound weird – but I hope you can get what I am meaning.

On the surface – Elvis Costello and the Attractions put on a really good concert. But below the surface, there was something dissatisfying about the whole experience, that one could not put one’s finger on – I don’t know WHAT it was – but I felt let down, I felt disappointed – I think I thought that he would be amazing – and when he turned out to be just some guy with a guitar – well, I ended up feeling a sense of disappointment.

Then, things took a slightly upward turn, and the quality of the Type Dos bands I was going to see play, started to improve again – and that began with a gig by the revitalised Pretenders.  I am so, so glad that I got to see this band play in 1984, and I think that Chrissie Hynde is absolutely a musical genius – to write these songs, to go to Britain and put this band together – and then to succeed so well – I am so so happy that she did this.

pretenders

It didn’t last long – my personal favourite record of theirs being the astonishing Pretenders II – I think after those first two remarkable records – that things began to go downhill a bit – but when I saw them – they were at the height of their powers – and those were not insignificant.  Chrissie herself, is a powerful performer, and her approach to her vocals and her guitar playing – stick in the brain, and she definitely left a good impression on me.  I am very glad that I  chose to go see this band play live – an awesome experience.

 

The Pretenders’ opening / support act, however, the much hyped The Alarm – left me pretty cold.  I felt like they were competing for musical space with U2 – and to be honest – no one was, or is, competing for that space (!) – it’s not really a desirable musical space to inhabit !!!  But they seemed to me, like a third-rate impersonation of U2 – and while that may be overly-cruel on my part – I cannot think of a kinder way to express what for me, is a true assessment of how The Alarm sounded – “68 Guns” – maybe – but none of them were loaded.  Or they only brought 49 of those guns with them on this night – I am not sure.

Another double bill of new, emerging bands was Big Country with support from the forgettable Wire Train – and I think that my interest in Big Country was probably almost entirely derived from the fact that Stuart Adamson had been a huge fan of Bill Nelson = something he held in common with me.  The band were fine, nothing wrong with them – but nothing hugely memorable, either.  I can’t really remember Wire Train at all – much as I would like to say something about them – I cannot – I have absolutely no idea.  So this was another one that just flew past me, almost unnoticed…

I have to mention (by contract I am afraid) that I did see the band Berlin, or at least, I saw part of their set – but I hasten to add this disclaimer – going to see Berlin was never my intention – I was going for one reason, and one reason alone – not to see Terri Nunn or hear her telling us about all the roles she could play – but to hear the opening act – Bill Nelson – with a full band, on the very short “Mountains Of The Heart” tour.  And Nelson was amazing – he was not happy that night, as Berlin had used up all of the sound check time, leaving Nelson NO time to sound check his own band.

So, as retaliation (which, while juvenile in the extreme. was actually, appropriate under the circumstances) Bill decided to extend his set by an extra six or seven minutes – making Berlin wait, making Berlin late to get on stage – and he did this, much to MY good fortune, by taking a super-extended, in the spotlight, energy bow guitar solo – which was extraordinary – I’ve never heard of Bill Nelson doing this before or since – the last song had ended – but he continued playing his beautiful, powerful sustained e-bow sound – and he played and played and played – I was absolutely overjoyed.  Eventually, he relented, thanking the audience and apologising for the short set – MADE short by the thoughtlessness of the people in the band Berlin.

So while I went to a Berlin concert – it was not to see Berlin, and I actually left during one of the first few songs of their unremarkable set.  Going home was preferable to seeing Berlin play live.  Seeing and hearing Bill Nelson play an amazing short set of fantastic songs, followed by a really long “spite” guitar solo – was absolutely astonishing.  A fantastic experience!

marillionPerhaps the single most significant of all of the Type Dos bands – would be Marillion.  Bursting onto the scene in the early 1980s, but apparently believing that it was actually, still 1974 – this remarkable band of Englishmen led by one slightly mad Scotsman – became quite successful despite the fact that their music was a direct throwback to the 1970s – people didn’t seem to mind, because Fish and Marillion were brilliant on stage, Fish was incredibly friendly and personal both on and off stage, and the time that they flourished – up until 1987, when singer Fish left the band after the classic album “Clutching At Straws”.  This was a great time in music.

Fish, having his remarkable, very, very prog-sounding outfit out on tour, making retro-prog albums, playing retro-prog live and everyone loving it – what a fantastic and probably impossible thing to happen.

I really enjoyed the music of Fish and Marillion during the 1980s, and even though they SOUNDED like a Type Uno band – they are definitely the archetype of a Type Dos band – a new emerging band with a unique presence and quality music, too.

On a short trip to Britain, by complete accident, I happened to go to see a Japanese heavy metal band, Vow Wow, playing at the Marquee in London.  I wasn’t really meant to be there, I went almost by accident, but it was an enjoyable-enough experience – the band were OK, not great, but not bad – but for me, just being in the room where all of my Type Uno heroes had played – from the Move to King Crimson – was enough – at least I can say I’ve seen a show at the Marquee – OK, I wish it had been by a band that I knew, or that I liked – but – it was better than nothing lol.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S. was another attempt at a sort of Asia-style supergroup, the ill-fated GTR.  Now – I never did get the first GTR album – because after I saw them play – I would not have, and did not, want to have it.  Again – this was touted as an amazing new group, led by two of the best guitarists in progressive rock – Steve Howe and Steve Hackett.  To me – that was an irresistible combination of talent and skill – it HAD to be good !!  It wasn’t.

There was nothing good about it – singer Max Bacon was so unremarkable, that all I remember is his name.  I also do not know who else, apart from the two famous guitarists – was in the band.  None of that mattered – because they just were not very good.  I don’t remember or know a single song by them.  It’s almost as if history, ashamed of itself, has erased most of the memories of this band – to hide it’s shame.  And I am part of that – eager to believe in these two superhero guitarists – in practice – it was nothing but a huge let down – a real disappointment.  Not recommended – at all.

Towards the end of the 1980s, I ended up seeing a truly mixed bag of new, emerging artists – Type Dos artists – which included the then-very-popular Suzanne Vega, a lesser-known but far more talented singer called Maria McKee, as well as, on the complete opposite end of the spectrum of female singers – the band X from LA.  I won free tickets to see X – which I enjoyed far more than I thought I might – I particularly enjoy John Doe’s singing.

Then came what I might term as the Unavoidable Event – part of you, really did not want to go – but – you felt like you were obliged to – everyone you knew – was going – so I held out for a long time – and then ended up getting really, really horrible seats for – at the back of the Sports Arena, in literally, the VERY top row – so far up, I am surprised I did not get nosebleed – and that didn’t help my enjoyment of the show.

Having a point of view from behind the stage did have advantages, I could see what The Edge was doing really well, and his confidence and obvious skill, along with his basic humility – well, his was an impressive performance.  But sadly, U2 is not really about The Edge – it’s about one man, who I shall call, for the sake of humour – Knucklehead Smith.  That guy – the leader of said band – was just as over the top, as loud, as not funny – as we all expected him to be.  For me – he was the low point of the show.  The band could play.  But could he sing?  Sort of.

It was OK.  I wasn’t bad.  Some of the songs were pretty exciting, and the guitar work could not be faulted.  I suppose I am glad in a way, to give me a more well-rounded view of what the 1980s were all about – that I saw U2 live.  But I could have done without Knucklehead Smith – he is one crazy dude.

The last concert I remember from the 1980s, was held in a tiny club, a concert given by a new guitarist on the scene, who was just releasing his very first album, which he called “Surfing With The Alien” .  Once again, not quite sure why I was there – but I am very glad that I was – because I got to see the original, the most humble, the most basic Joe Satriani – before he became a “big star” – and it was a good, good concert – very modern, the guitar sounds were great, it was clear he was a really good player – and I left quite impressed with this young man and his guitar.  The fact that he went on to such incredible heights of fame – and that it all began with that one album – and I was lucky enough to have been there, to see the birth – to see the very beginning of Joe’s very successful career as a guitarist – more power to him.

That – my friends – was my 1980s concert experience!

 

Never Thought I Would See The Day When…

I simply love live music, and really, there can never be enough good concerts each year – or each decade for that matter – there is always someone that I missed out seeing “back in the day” or newer artists that I want to check out live – there is always something going on.  I feel very fortunate indeed that I have been able to see so many great concerts.  Moving to Britain was also a hugely fortunate thing in terms of me being able to see bands performing live that did not regularly play in far-off San Diego, California (where I lived for the first half of my life) and so many bands that I never got the chance to see when I lived in California, I have not only seen but in some cases, I have been able to see performing live several times.

This includes bands or artists – and mind you, these are bands or artists that I firmly believed I would never, ever get to see play live –  such as:

  • Caravan Caravan
  • Gong       gong
  • Muse  muse
  • Neil Young     neil

 

 

To my ever-lasting astonishment, I did eventually get to see these four bands – and it was difficult to believe it was happening until the actual moment – came – and for example, with Neil Young, whose music I had loved since I was a teenager – at age 13, two of his songs were among the songs that the very first band I was ever in’s repertoire, so I basically grew up with Neil Young as the soundtrack to my life – but everytime he played in San Diego, I couldn’t go, or I didn’t find out until too late, or it sold out or any number of things – and I ended up never seeing him play.

Little did I imagine that I would see him years and years and years later, in Glasgow, Scotland, playing one of the most amazing sets of original music I have ever seen, with his new band “Promise of the Real”.  It was an extraordinary night, and a long-held dream come true – and, he played so many of the songs that I truly, truly loved, including “Alabama” and “Words (Between The Lines Of Age)” from the 1972 classic album “Harvest”.  I just could not believe it was happening…I was seeing Neil play in this surreal situation, thousands of miles away from California where I would have thought and expected that I would see him play.  It’s funny how things work out.

I can’t remember feeling so happy, so very satisfied with a concert – the songs were all good, the band was extremely good and Neil was just Neil – a remarkable man full of the most remarkable songs but also, a world-class lead guitarist with a style that is as unique in it’s own way, as a Zappa or a Hendrix might be – there is only one Neil Young, unmistakable, as he takes “old black” through it’s paces – and I was lucky enough to hear and see him soloing quite a bit that night.  Really fortunate.

So in cases like these four, and others I mentioned in my previous blog – it seems that dreams really, really can come true.

 

Awesome Guitarists – one motivator for attending so many concerts

I was a guitarist then, and I am still a guitarist now;  so it’s only natural that I would follow and enjoy music by the world’s most talented and capable guitarists – and the list of guitarists that I was lucky enough to see in the 1980s is a pretty staggering list of remarkable, talented musicians:

 

 

Forward…into the future!

So in conclusion – for me, the 80s were a far, far more exciting time musically, for me, than I actually had expected it to be – because I largely ignored what the media would have had me believe was “my experience of music” in the 1980s – and instead, I spent my time and money on going to live music concerts put on by both Type Uno and Type Dos artists – which gave me a great mixture of very, very experienced musicians from the 1960s and 1970s, updating and renewing their sound for the tech of the 1980s, while the Type Dos shows gave me an idea of what new bands were around, what they sounded like, and how they compared to the more familiar Type Unos that I knew so very well.

Starting my decade with the musics of Frank Zappa, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, Queen, Genesis, and Yes – and that was just in the FIRST 10 months of 1980 – on up to and including Peter Hammill, King Crimson, XTC, Bill Nelson, Allan Holdsworth, and Peter Gabriel – and finally, up towards the end of the decade, the Dixie Dreg’s, Adrian Belew’s “The Bears”,  Richard Thompson (electric band this time!) and Robert Fripp with his League of Crafty Guitarists  – and many, many more – once again, I had an enormous amount of fun – and I realise now that for me, that my idea of “fun” is quite different from that of most people – I have a lot more fun when I am watching and listening to an incredibly talented lead guitarist (or in some cases, a pair of amazing guitarists – like Robert Fripp & Adrian Belew of King Crimson – or Adrian Belew & Rob Fetters of The Bears), playing as part of an incredibly talented band that has worked out an amazing repertoire of impossibly beautiful, and possibly technically demanding songs – now – that’s MY idea of fun!

Until next time then again–

 

Dave Stafford
June 6, 2018

 

Next time on Decade By Decade – The Live Concert Experience / Overview:

The Sinuous 1990s – The many-headed stylistic beast

 

1980s Concert Ticket Stub Collection (courtesy Dave Stafford)

1980sConcert Ticket Stubs – 1980s

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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

King Crimson Live – September 3rd, 2016, Friar’s / Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury, UK

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:

Soundscapes

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

Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part 1

Pictures Of A City

Cirkus

Fracture

The Battle Of Glass Tears

Meltdown

Red

The Letters

Sailor’s Tale

Epitaph

[INTERMISSION]

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

The ConstruKction Of Light

Level Five

Suitable Grounds For The Blues

Unknown / New Song (Instrumental – featuring two guitars)

Vrooom

Easy Money

Starless

[ENCORE]

Banshee Legs Bell Hassle

Heroes

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

2. Bolero

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

King Crimson – Tivoli Vredenburg, Utrecht, Holland – 20150924

For the third and final of our “three of a perfect pair” (see how I did that – effortlessly!) we went slightly further afield, and for me, seeing King Crimson playing on European soil, in Holland, in 2015 – was not only very, very surreal, but it brings a nice sense of closure for me over time. Three gigs, in three countries, and for us, in many ways, the Tivoli show was the best.

I never saw the 1969, 1971 or 1972-1974 King Crimson line-ups, for me, I started out with another “three of a perfect pair”, all which took place in San Diego, California (where I lived at the time) during the first half of the 1980s:

November 22, 1981 – UCSD Gymnasium, University Of San Diego Campus

August 10, 1982 – Fox Theatre, San Diego

June 8, 1984 – SDSU Ampitheatre, San Diego State University

(eleven years pass)

then, as a sort of strange Crimson interlude, I saw a pair of live performance by the redoubtable “double trio” during the mid-90s:

June 28 1995 – Symphony Hall, San Diego, CA

July 30, 1996 – Summer Pops Bowl Park (where finally, I got to hear “Schizoid Man” live at last!!).

(a non-descript outdoor venue where I handed out flyers to the concert-goers for Mark – and in return, got a DGM T -shirt!).

(nineteen years pass)

which then brings us to the three current 2015 shows we’ve just completed, with the September 24th, 2015 performance in Utrecht still ringing in my ears…

this show was different in a number of very significant ways, from the two UK shows we’d seen on September 14th and 17th, and we found it very enjoyable because we were much farther back in the venue, this time, up pretty high in the stalls, but it’s a beautifully-built , steep-seated theatre – so no matter how high up you are, you aren’t really that far away from the stage.

but, that actually meant that we could hear the band better, and. hear the bass a bit better, and the overall sound mix was “best” for us, out of the three shows:

September 14, 2015 – Symphony Hall,  Birmingham, England

September 17, 2015 – Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland

September 24, 2015 – Tivoli Vredenburg, Utrecht, Holland

but I am getting ahead of myself…

the Utrecht show began as all shows did, with the eiree, dissonant Robert Fripp Soundscape playing for perhaps fifteen minutes prior to show time; people were slowly finding their seats in the lovely, intimate theatre which was apparently bereft of any staff whatsoever, since there were no ushers of any kind in sight. we found our seats well ahead of time, but as we approached the later European start time of 20:00, a curious thing happened.

the Soundscape faded down briefly.  Then, a lone spotlight picked out RF’s “Lunar Module” rack mount rig and empty guitar stool, the theatre dark save for the strangely lit “Fripp” area.  Then the Soundscape returned, up to full volume again…and another wait of perhaps ten minutes this time (all the while, with that oddly lit Fripp guitar stool and guitar kit still bathed in that bright, bright spotlight), ending when the band finally emerged onto the stage.  This strange combination of Soundscape and the spotlight on the work area of the band’s leader, seemed to be saying something, but I wasn’t quite sure what.  Perhaps “this is where Soundscapes come from”, I don’t know.

so this was a bit of a different start to the show, the UK shows started earlier (at 19:30) and were a bit more on time, here in Utrecht, we started at a more Continental hour, and the band were a bit fashionably late. From our bird’s eye viewpoint this time, we could see well and hear the band really well indeed, and sonically, this show was the clear winner of the three shows we attended – they sounded fantastic.

the set opener remains unchanged, and as I never dreamed I would ever, ever, in a million years, see King Crimson playing “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part I” live, hearing it for the third and final time for this year (this MONTH!!) was something that I really enjoyed, the new arrangement is fantastic and I particularly like the drum parts and the way the two guitars divided up the work, a fantastic song and it just keeps getting better each time.  to a lesser extent than previously, we still had some difficulty at some times, in hearing Tony’s bass or stick, but apparently this is a fairly common issue at all of the shows (or so I have heard, anyway).

it could simply be the placement of the two lines, front and back, and the front line is quite loud….so that may well make things difficult for poor Tony, located as he is with four fairly loud objects encircling him: Mel, Pat, Bill and Jakko.

that may be part of the problem, or it could just be that Pat’s drum kit simply overpowers the bass from time to time, I am not really certain why the level of the bass does seem to be an ongoing issue – we noted it at all three venues we saw shows at, but it had definitely improved by he time we reached Utrecht. From high up, and this time, we were on Fripp’s side of the stage – things sounded good.

at Birmingham (Sept 14th), we were on the left side, sort of in front of Mel and Pat but off to the left; in Edinburgh (Sept. 17th), we were in the fourth row directly in front of Pat, so being both on the far opposite side, and being both “back” and “up”, meant that the Utrecht (Sept. 24th) show sounded different.  There was noticeably more Gavin Harrison in our mix. And we could hear Robert more clearly, being on his side of the stage. And Jakko, too.  The “guitars” mix was better, too.

so it was actually a blessing, getting “bad seats” (actually, it was such a nice theatre, there really was no such thing) – we’d been too close to the band at the other two shows – well, not “too close”, it still sounded amazing, but, we did get a clarity at Utrecht that we didn’t experience during the other two shows.

when “LTIA Part I” came to an end, we got our first surprise: a changed-up set list, so here, in second position, came the very powerful “Level 5” – in the section of the concert where new material normally appeared. this change made me really happy as it meant that this set would not be the same as the two shows we’d previously seen.

then things really took a new turn, in the form of the title track of “a scarcity of miracles” – which I enjoyed immensely, it was totally unexpected; Jakko was in fine voice, and it was nice to see Robert playing quite a bit of keyboard, taking his keyboard duties as seriously as his most difficult lead guitar solo.  the last time I saw Robert Fripp playing a keyboard was in 1981, where he did a bit of keyboard for “Sartori In Tangiers” or some such 80s tune in a live setting.

I really didn’t expect to hear any tracks from the “Scarcity Of Miracles” album, and of course it’s also a great showcase for Mel, too, who sounded great on the track.

once that surprising song choice ended, the “new music” section could finally begin, so we got “Meltdown” and what I think was “Hellhounds Of Krim” – I still don’t have a handle on what the percussion-based pieces are called – but I do prefer “Meltdown” now, to the now-absent “Suitable Grounds For The Blues”, so of those two non-percussion based new songs, we got the one I prefer – so more good luck for me.

then the set returned to something that more resembled the sets we’d seen, with a lively “Pictures Of A City” (featuring more amazing work from Mel of course) which was then followed by the fantastic new arrangement of “The Construction Of Light” – which I love, especially the final flute solo from Mel – I don’t know why, but I really like that part.

I should note here the remarkable talent of Jakko, who learned the interlocking “Fripp and Belew” guitar parts flawlessly, and this is especially notable on “The Construction Of Light” (and on “Level 5”,  etc.) – it’s concise, precise, correct and beautiful, too…Jakko is a natural, and the incredible range of guitar parts he is required to play, from picked mock-acoustic guitar on the 1969 tracks, to the precision interlocking parts of something like “The Construction Of Light” from 2000, or to the uproarious and wonderful guitar parts on the two tracks from 1971’s “Islands”…Jakko nails them all. He makes it look easy!!

speaking of the 1969 tracks, next up comes the first of the three (from the first album) that they often do now in 2015, “Epitaph” and this is yet another piece where Jakko truly stands out; a good vocal, carefully picked mock acoustic guitar while singing lead vocal…he knows these songs so, so well, and sings them as if the spirit of Greg Lake was inhabiting him.

I think that the first ten King Crimson albums are some of Jakko’s favourite music, much of which he learned some years back for the 21st Century Schizoid Band (who performed much of the same early repertoire as the 2015 KC does), he takes the twin tasks of singing the vocal, and playing the guitar parts note-perfect and tone-perfect too (I couldn’t believe the lengths he went to, in the 21st Century Schizoid Band, to play every Fripp note, chord or even special effect, as accuraviewedtely as humanly possible) – an astonishing performance then, and even more amazing now he is in the “real” King Crimson.

I think that Jakko does really well on all of the material, but he really seems to live and breathe the songs from the first four albums (except Lizard, from which they don’t seem to perform any tracks currently) so when he sings something like “Pictures Of A City” or “21st Century Schizoid Man”, or, indeed, “Epitaph” or “The Court Of The Crimson King” – I think he really feels it from the heart. It’s clear to me that he truly, truly loves this music.

the very solemn “Epitaph” then gives way to Gavin Harrison’s lovely little ditty “Banshee Legs Bell Hassle” which makes for a wonderful, cheerful bridging piece to the next Musical Great Leap Forward – “Easy Money” , which is always a high point in these concerts. It’s a chance for the whole band to shine, Mel has invented some great sax parts for it, Jakko sings the original lyric rather than the “USA” or “naughty” version, and Pat turns up with some of the original sounds from the original recording, such as the laugh box that he “plays” at the end. they really do a great job of re-creating the unique sonic atmosphere of this classic 1973 track…I love hearing “Easy Money” live, I can’t get enough of it really, it’s always over far too quickly.

Fripp does take a remarkable solo during “Easy Money”, using a great vintage Fripp tone dialled in on his trusty Axe-FX II effects unit, and I was privileged to see and hear him approach that solo on three different occasions, and this one was fantastic as always, a wonderful, nostalgic 1973 style lead guitar solo with cracked Wah and distortion to the fore.

from here on out, the show just hits highlight after highlight, this is really my favourite part of the show, and the next two tracks are probably my favourites, the melodramatic “The Letters” which features Fripp playing an ungainly but wonderful guitar part, a solo atop Mel‘s rollicking saxes, followed by the absolutely sublime live performance of “Sailor’s Tale”, a great instrumental featuring Mel Collins on screaming impossible sax solo, with Jakko and Robert locked in on their long, sustained notes in perfect twinned guitar harmonies.

oddly, both Pat and Gavin fall completely silent during most of this track, leave Bill Rieflin (ex-Ministry) to handle the drum part on his own; only rejoining him when he has to switch to mellotron for the ending section. Somehow, having just Bill playing drums on this, made it sound right – it just worked best with one kit – and they realised that – and I really admire that decision.  I admired Pat and Gavin for being absolutely silent and motionless during most of this piece. Two fantastic vintage “Islands”-era Crimson songs played in incredibly accurate detail, with an absolutely swinging drum and cymbal part from Bill – he really nails (the late) Ian Wallace’s drum part.

did I mention Jakko’s impassioned reading of the lyrics for “The Letters”, he really sings “The Letters” so, so beautifully, it’s such a tragic tale, beautifully sung right up to the fantastic lyric “impaled on nails of ice…and wait for emerald fire”…which eventually leads him to the final, utterly a capella stanzas.  A roar of applause greets him when his lone voice finally falls silent with “…I take my leave of mortal flesh”.  Shivers.

I often think that Jakko gets a bit short-changed here; he is alternately viewed as, usurping Adrian Belew’s “rightful place” in King Crimson (is there such a thing, for anyone except Robert himself?? I don’t think so!) or not doing justice to a certain vocalist, or whatever – but, if you think about it, the expectation that rides on this young man’s shoulders is considerable:  he has to sing like Greg Lake, he has to sing like Boz, he has to sing like John Wetton, and he has to play guitar like Robert Fripp. All four things, of which he does, without issue, without fuss – he just does it – and I think he is a remarkable, under-appreciated part of the band.  Huge expectations – and Jakko delivers, night after night after night.  He is a brilliant guitarist, too – he’s the “other Fripp” in the band 🙂

with the two amazing songs from “Islands” now done, at this juncture in the concert, I had no idea what to expect.  Would they just do the typical “last three” and be away, or what?  I didn’t have long to wait to find out, as the crashing riff and insanely-clever triple drum threat arrangements of “One More Red Nightmare” began. What a treat, too, to finally “see” just exactly how Gavin worked out the drum parts, and to see the amazing co-ordination between the three drummers on this song from 1974’s “Red” album.

this song holds fond memories for me,as I used to play and sing it, in one of my bands (Pyramid) when I was about 21 or so. the slow sections that modulate between either an E Minor To D motif, or, move up to a G minor based section, were brilliantly executed, with Mel’s snarling saxes over the two guitars…and finally, the whole band hits that opening riff hard, the triple drummers out do themselves once again, and one of the most amazing tracks of the night is over.

I was personally ecstatic that they included this song in Utrecht, it really made the set so special for me…I got my cake and ate it too, I got a different set from Birmingham or Edinburgh; I got “One More Red Nightmare” without giving up my two precious “Islands” songs.  Perfection – an inspired variation of set list.

and thence, following immediately, the beautiful “Starless”, with Mel Collins and Robert Fripp sharing that thick, liquid melodic line so perfectly, Mel in particular has clearly studied the recording incredibly well, but together they just sound so excellent on this track.  Fripp bends those notes so, so precisely this time, a great vocal from Jakko, this song works so well, too, with the triple drummers.  Tony gets a real workout, as well, playing the lead bass part for the last two-thirds of the song, until the fast bit at the end, which resolves at last into that amazing Fripp / Collins melodic conclusion – so, so beautiful!!

the Dutch crowd were very responsive indeed, I’d say they even gave the Scottish crowd in Edinburgh a run for their money, but both Scottish and Dutch were much louder and more demonstrative than the audience at Birmingham was.

A long, long, loud round of applause erupted at the conclusion of “Starless”, followed by rhythmic clapping eventually brought the band back for the two final numbers, another finger-picking exercise for Jakko in the form of “The Court Of The Crimson King” which also features the Michael Giles-channelling Pat doing his very damnedest to break his drum heads with the ferocity and speed of his drum rolling – such a powerhouse of a performer, Pat absolutely propels the final section of this song into a kind of drummer’s stratosphere.

meanwhile, Robert’s subtle, reverbed lead guitar, was so so lovely, working perfectly with Jakko’s mock acoustic guitar, and the vocal, too: “the yellow jester does not play, but gently pulls the strings…” Cue RF, gently bending between one half step and another, as if in answer to the lyric’s meaning, his guitar on this was just perfectly done, sounding very, very much like the original.

finally, it’s the end, which means it’s time for “21st Century Schizoid Man” 2015-style. Jakko sings the lyric like a man possessed, even dragging a little bit of actual melody out at the end of each spat-out line…an almost-melodic “….century schizoid man….” For me, this is one of the most altered arrangements, and it took me awhile to realise that actually, there is no real lead guitar “solo” at any point. RF does play a wonderfully convoluted descending guitar lead that walks right down to Mel’s solo (which doesn’t last long enough to become a solo) – and Mel just owns the song from there on out.

the band of course, all join together for the “precision part” which goes without incident, and then, the final verse, the final chorus…the wild ending that suddenly stops in dead silence…and the show is over.

the Dutch crowd is on their feet cheering and once again, the applause is long and loud, as the band take their final bows and are away down the stairs…and out into the cool night of Holland.

my first ever concert in Holland, but, the last of three King Crimson shows for September, 2015 – this is a month that I will not forget any time soon!!! The quality of musicianship on display, from all seven gentlemen in the band, is simply extraordinary; the selection of songs, mind-boggling in their quality and diversity; the overall effect is simple one of wonder, you are left wondering where else music could possibly go, from what you just heard…

the melodies stay with you for days.  you find yourself singing “Easy Money” or “Starless”, all the time, or you hear the choppy chords and mellotrons from “The Court Of The Crimson King” in your head – this music stays with you, for days and days, you find yourself playing your “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” albums over and over again.

its now been five days since the concert, and I can still hear huge chunks of the show in my head when I think about it.

and…I’m still singing “starless and…bible black…” and then I close my eyes and wait for Robert and Mel to come in with that unforgettable melody.  sigh.

King Crimson – Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland – 20150917

This then, is the second of three King Crimson gigs we are attending, the first of two shows at Edinburgh’s lovely old Usher Hall, on September 17th, three days after the first show we attended in Birmingham on 20150914; while boasting a similar set list to the show from the fourteenth, the Usher Hall Edinburgh show had a number of significant differences that are well worth noting.

First of all, is perspective; in Birmingham, we were off to the left side of Symphony Hall, slightly elevated, and back some distance from the stage, whereas in Edinburgh, we were in the stalls in the fourth row – directly in front of Pat’s drum kit with Mel just behind him…not bad at all.  So this time, still to the left but way up close in the stalls – we noticed quite a bit more detail – simply because we were so much nearer.

But first things first, the set list, which was pretty much unchanged from the show three days previous:

Taped Introduction (including the “Islands Rehearsal” snippet from the outro of the “Islands” album – in other words – the standard 2014/2015 Elements Tours taped intros – the “no photos please” vocal montage, followed by “Islands” rehearsal, and finally, the 1971 Voice Of Robert Fripp intoning the count of “1 2 3, 2 2 3″…) – which becomes the count in for:

Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part I

Red

Suitable Grounds For The Blues

Meltdown

The Construction Of Light

Level 5

Hellhounds Of Krim (??)

Pictures Of A City

Epitaph

Easy Money

Banshee Legs Bell Hassle

The Letters

Sailor’s Tale

Interlude (Taped audience sounds)

Starless

(Encore – after a well-deserved standing ovation for “Starless”:)

Devil Dogs Of Tesselation Row (??)

The Court Of The Crimson King

21st Century Schizoid Man

 

Since the set list is essentially identical to the Monday night Birmingham show, I will focus in on differences and details that I observed this time, that I might have overlooked with the excitement of that first show on Monday night; plus, sitting so close at the Edinburgh show, I was able to see the players in incredible detail. My new 10x binoculars helped significantly with this – if I wanted to see in close-up, what notes Robert or Jakko or Tony were playing – the binoculars allowed me to get in really close on the action, and observe chord patterns, note patterns, and playing styles in intense detail. Being in the fourth row gave us a great view of the band, but having the binoculars on top of being so close, gave me super-close up HD Guitar Vision – it was brilliant.

They all played well in Birmingham on Monday, but in Edinburgh last night…they played even better.

There were a couple of mishaps, so I shall get those out of the way, some mysterious mid to low frequency feedback was plaguing the band during “Pictures Of A City”, it was quite persistent and it ran for perhaps 40 or 50 seconds, a low, irritating non-musical tone; the band forged on as if it wasn’t happening, until eventually, the sound man (presumably) quenched it.  It returned again later, I think during Epitaph, for a shorter period of time, but that was the last of it, thankfully.
The beginning of “Easy Money” was slightly marred by an out of tune guitar (Jakko’s, I think) but then turned out fine, in fact for me, it’s a huge highlight because it’s one of the only instances where RF really tries to play a 70’s style Fripp sustained guitar solo, and that solo was a cracker, really beautiful, liquid distortion and cracked Wah pedal action…gorgeous guitar tone from Robert’s Axe FXII.

 

One of the other instances of that beautiful sustained guitar tone is Robert playing the exquisitely beautiful melody of “Starless”, however, at the end of one of those solos, his final bend ended up in a truly bum note – a rarity for Fripp.  Ever the professional, he simply looked at Jakko, and carried on as if nothing had happened.

Possibly because we were sat so close to Pat and Mel, I really noticed their playing this time, and I would say that Mel played even more spectacularly amazing sax and flute in Edinburgh, than in Birmingham, where he was awesome.  So better than perfect, really – the solos were so tight, so intense, and he absolutely steals the show with his soloing in “Pictures Of A City”, “The Letters”, “Sailor’s Tale” and “21st Century Schizoid Man” – his playing was absolutely stellar on those tracks in particular, he was consistent and excellent throughout.

Pat – well, what can I say, Pat is the master, and is my personal favourite of the three extraordinary drummers.  His intense, powerful playing on “Epitaph” and “In The Court Of The Crimson King” once again, channelling the great Michael Giles…was simply astonishing to witness at close quarters. Pat was amazing throughout the show, and I could really appreciate his contributions to the drumming really well indeed at this particular gig.

And, impressively, this time, we could hear the bass and the Stick, much, much better, so bring able to hear what Tony was playing, better than on Monday night, was great – I particularly love the verve with which he attacks the lolloping bass line of “Sailor’s Tale” – he sounds great at all times, really in tune and doing very musical, very good work on the electric string bass, the Stick, or the bass guitar, Tony always sounded really good.

But then, this is a band where everyone sounds good, all the time, and the amount of care and detail that goes into the band’s sound is truly overwhelming. Just watching the percussion section during the opening number, the incredible 2015 rendition of the 1973 classic “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part I” is a lesson in musical co-ordination; all three drummers are playing many different percussion instruments to add atmosphere and ambience during the quieter sections, then sitting down simultaneously to come charging in for the heavy metal section.

Watching Pat was a revelation during this, he had clearly studied the original track well, and he picked up a myriad of strange percussion devices, and operated them at certain points in time during the “lulls” in the song – with military precision.  Then that heavy metal section would come up again, with Jakko wailing away on the high, bendy lead guitar notes, Robert, playing the chords (and often, during this concert, that was the case) and the three drummers all come in on the downbeat, and also, end each bar with a cymbal smack – and hearing the three of them, playing their hearts out underneath that ominous set of power chords – just sounded amazing.

“Red” followed immediately, and again, the band was confident, Jakko playing the long, ascending sustained lead guitar line, while Robert handled the chords; Robert played the flanged “stand-alone” chords on the “middle section”, leaving Tony and Jakko, with some assistance from Mel, to handle the beautiful melody that plays over the flanged guitar chords – and then, back into that wonderful E to F# progression, which then finally leads back to the wonderful ascending guitar from Jakko – and Mel joins in for the last few notes, so they both end up on a stretched high note that is held for just the right amount of time…perfection.

I can’t really add a lot to my previous blog’s comments on the “new” songs that appear at this point in the set, although I did find myself liking “Suitable Grounds For The Blues” a bit more than the first time I’d heard it, way back on Monday night – it, and it’s companion, “Meltdown” – are just not as convincing to me as the earlier material is.  And therein lay the difficulty – the repertoire they are playing, spans 1969 – 2003, and includes some of the most incredible of Fripp compositions and other writers’ contributions – the lyrics of Peter Sinfield are a huge part of the tracks that they perform from 1969’s “In The Court Of ‘The Crimson King”, 1970’s “In The Wake Of Poseidon”, and 1971’s “Islands” (sadly, no live versions of anything from 1970’s “Lizard”, the third album) and other contributors such as Adrian Belew, whose guitar parts on “The Construction Of Light” are absolutely brilliant – but, fair dues – Jakko played them just as perfectly and just as beautifully as Adrian ever did – and to be honest, as much as I love the music of Adrian Belew, and I liked his role in King Crimson – I am actually of the belief that Jakko is a better choice, because of his knowledge of the early catalogue, and he’s a fine, serious singer, too.

So I like the fact that Jakko is there, for example, his acoustic guitar emulations on the two quieter tracks from “In The Court Of The Crimson King” are just so spot on, he does the finger picking perfectly WHILE he sings the beautiful Greg Lake vocal melody with beautiful lyrics from Peter Sinfield!  A very beautiful example of multi-tasking – Jakko gives us the acoustic guitar, and the lead vocal, leaving Robert free to play the beautiful lead guitar parts on both “Epitaph” and “The Court Of The Crimson King” – beautiful work from both guitarists.

I am still astonished by the unexpected presence of “Easy Money” in this band’s set list, but there it is, and after a shaky beginning with an out of tune guitar, it quickly turned into one of the best songs of the night, because of Robert‘s amazing 1970s style lead guitar playing, not to mention Jakko’s brilliant vocal, and Tony doing his best to play like John Wetton – and mostly, succeeding at it.  A great rendition of a great song – complete with laughing machine at the end from Pat – just like on the album.

My favourite part of the concert then arrives – the two songs from “Islands”, and again, a delicate, beautiful rendition of “The Letters” with Fripp playing super high octave chords with a beautiful guitar sound, and Jakko playing the other picked part in time, and singing the beautiful, beautiful vocal – one of Boz’s best vocals, I believe – and then, there is an incredibly powerful part, where Robert plays some amazing, super sustained “Frippy” guitar lines, before the song begins to go…a bit mad courtesy of the amazing saxophone skills of Mel Collins, who blows his way through both “The Letters” and the second of the two tracks, which follows immediately, the instrumental “Sailor’s Tale” in astonishing form, with powerful, melody, and grace.

Mel is so amazing on both of these tracks, the accuracy with which he’s tried to re-create the original parts, while at the same time, improving and updating them – it’s just an astonishing effort on his part, and his playing breathes new life into these two songs.  Jakko’s vocal on “The Letters” is possibly my favourite vocal of the night, I love the way he sings this song, right up to the a cappella ending –  which he does just perfectly – a brilliant performance.

Once the band have played “The Letters” and “Sailor’s Tale”, two tracks from my personal favourite of the early King Crimson records, I could die happy, but, things progress, and we end up in the beauty of “Starless”, where I must mention the remarkably talented Bill Rieflin, who plays mellotron on so many of these tracks, the accurate arrangements he uses are a testament to how much he cares about getting it right, and the mellotron sounds are perfect, and the playing is perfect – and on “Starless”, it’s so, so beautiful – with Robert‘s amazing, thick sustained lead guitar line, and Mel’s sinuous horn parts snaking in between, it’s a huge highlight of the night, and the excitement of the final section, after the long instrumental build up, is undeniable.

Despite Robert’s unfortunate note in the middle of the verses, this version of “Starless” brought the band to standing position, and, brought the audience to it’s feet as well – and the applause was truly thunderous as we’d just been assaulted by a dozen of some of the most amazing progressive music ever written.  And when the band walk off, the crowd is clapping in rhythm for their return – until they do return, to play us out with the last two offerings, both from that famous debut 1969 album, “In The Court Of The Crimson King” – the title track, as the penultimate offering, followed by “21st Century Schizoid Man” complete with recorded intro (the “Wind” sessions result) – and this was another great rendition of “Schizoid Man”, with one slight disappointment – I hadn’t really noticed this at Birmingham, but I am definitely sure about it at Edinburgh – there is no guitar solo!

Robert plays the beginning of the original solo, and then does a short descending lead guitar, which is an intentional bridge to Mel, who picks up the notes from Robert, and then takes the solo proper – and Mel is great at this, he always had a solo on “Schizoid Man” back in the day, so he is the perfect player for the job, and this was no exception – he played a blinder.  But then, as the song progressed, there was a drum solo, and then, they came back in to play the “precision section” – which went flawlessly – and then to the last verse and the ending – which was dead silence at the climax of sustained rock-burn-out noise – brilliant!!  The crowd loved it, and it was a great version – but, strangely – no guitar solo.  It worked, it’s great with Mel handling the solo, but I would have loved it if Robert and Mel had each had a solo (as they used to, back in 1972) – but, this is the 2015 arrangement, so I guess that’s how it goes now 🙂

Overall, despite some annoying feedback and the very, very rare issues with the music, this was a really well-played show, and it just makes me look forward to our next and final of three shows, in Utrecht, Holland, on September 24th – I can’t wait !!

One of the things I’ve noticed about previous versions of King Crimson is that, if you listen to a series of concerts over time, you generally speaking, find improvement – parts are played better, arrangements are tweaked and re-saved, and musicians find better and more perfected ways to do things – so, over time, they tend to get better – and I realise I haven’t so far heard much of a series, but I can say, that over the three day period between Monday and Thursday. that there is improvement.

One thing that was easy to observe, was the difference in audience reception. In Birmingham, the applause was not nearly as loud or persistent after the main set, there was no rhythmic clapping to call the band back to the stage, while in Edinburgh, the Scottish crowd were on their feet and shouting for more, applauding really loudly, then, clapping rhythmically – a much much better audience response, which in turn, made the players respond positively – so while in some ways, the Birmingham show might have been more technically “polished”, here in Edinburgh, there was more emotion, more audience interaction, and in the case of one Mr. Mel Collins, some incredibly passionate horn soloing – really beautiful work, just out of this world solos on every track – the man is impossibly talented.  And when Robert Fripp and Mel Collins join forces to solo, one at a time, or together / trading / overlapping solos – it just rocks.

Both concerts had high points and low points, but I felt that the Edinburgh show was more relaxed, with a much more receptive audience, so at least in that sense, it was a “better” show – but in my mind – both of these concerts were absolutely remarkable musical experiences, once- in-a-lifetime – except, I get to see it three times in a life time 🙂

 

 

See you at Utrecht on the 24th !!!!

Happy Krimsoning !!

 

 

Dave

 

 

 

 

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.

The Return Of The Dinosaurs (but then…were they ever really gone?)

The beginning of 2015 has been a real treasure-trove of live releases from the inarguably, the two most influential, powerful and long-lasting of the progressive rock bands: the mighty King Crimson (whose current ranks, in the 2014/2015 incarnation of the band, have swelled to seven thanks to a front line of three drummers) and the stripped-down-to-a-trio but just as powerful, just as dark, and just as technically proficient, Van Der Graaf Generator.

January saw the release of a sort of “taster” live King Crimson album, entitled “Live At The Orpheum” recorded at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, California, on September 30 and October 1 during the band’s 2014 US tour – their first tour in this seven-man configuration.

While the album is almost frustratingly brief, clocking in at about 41 minutes, it may be an intentional Fripp-ploy, or Fripp-plot as my keyboard seemed to prefer, so I will allow it to say that, to leave us tantalised and wanting more.  And that – it does.  I recently read a full set list of a 2014 King Crimson show (see “HollywoodReporter.com” to view this setlist), and it was about double or more in length (at least) to what this live album contains.  But – what the album contains – is surely one of the most extraordinary and most unexpected things in the universe – King Crimson, with their “front line” of three drummers (Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison, Bill Rieflin – who also plays a bit of mellotron), and a “back line” of four musicians including founder Robert Fripp, is delving deep into…it’s back catalogue.

And that – well, we had hopes – we knew that Mel Collins was back in the band, and we also knew that his fellow 21st Century Schizoid Band alumnus Jakko Jakszyk, over time, had mastered most of the classic King Crimson repertoire from the “first four” albums – “In The Court Of The Crimson King”, “In The Wake Of Poseidon”, “Lizard”, and the less well known and under-appreciated “Islands” on guitar, and on lead vocals (plus, other tracks from “Red” too) – quite a feat in itself, but, also making him the perfect new lead vocalist / spare Fripp-type guitarist, too, for this new King Crimson.  Much to my personal astonishment, we get not one, but two tracks from the much-derided and often undervalued “Islands” (1971), which over time, has actually become my personal favourite out of the “first four” classic King Crimson albums.

The two tracks they cover from “Islands” (“The Letters” and “Sailor’s Tale”), are at the same time, perfect re-creations musically and yet, edgy, new and sparkling from having “re-invented” drum parts, in three perfectly-arranged sections (Gavin Harrison, drum arranger), from the three drummers; who take these songs as seriously as any of the classic tracks on offer here, as well as what is probably Jakko’s best vocal on the album, on the wonderfully melodramatic “The Letters” – an absolutely beautiful vocal rendition.  Perfect – and chillingly accurate – “impaled on nails of ice…and raked with emerald fire…” – Peter Sinfield‘s lyrics still forming a huge part of the ethos of King Crimson, some forty plus years since they were penned in 1971 – and that was Sinfield’s last King Crimson album as lyricist – “Islands”.  For me, the lyrics from “Islands” are probably my favourite of all of Sinfield‘s lyrics on any album by any band, including the remarkable debut from King Crimson, 1969’s “In The Court Of The Crimson King” – there is something about “Islands” that just resonates with me, and much of it is in the beautiful words that the departing Sinfield graced the record with.

The back catalogue represented here on this short, but amazing live album, also extends to two tracks from the “Red” album, fast forward now from 1971, to 1974, where the second major incarnation of King Crimson, that started out in 1973 as a quintet, quickly became a quartet when percussionist Jamie Muir, left the band, leaving poor Bill Bruford on drums to handle all of the drums and percussion from there on out.  David Cross was the next to go, driven out by the world’s loudest (and best) rhythm section – John Wetton and Bill Bruford, and it was Wetton, Bruford and Fripp that remained long enough, after the extensive touring just prior to the making of their last studio album, as a trio now – so in two years, from a quintet to a trio; the ninth of the “first ten” – (counting Earthbound as no. 5 and USA as no. 10) – two songs were included: the never-before performed “One More Red Nightmare” (this time, sporting the drummers having a go at bettering one of original drummer Bill Bruford’s most difficult and well known drum parts – and doing a GREAT job of it, by the way) and as the album closer, the beautiful, extended “Starless” – with Fripp playing that signature thick, distorted lead guitar melody (the one that breaks your heart all over again when you hear it), as Mel Collins reprises both his own and Ian McDonald‘s horn parts – McDonald was a guest on the 1974 “Red” sessions – as was Collins.

Forty four years has elapsed since Robert Fripp and Mel Collins toured together in 1971, and worked on the difficult fourth Crimson album, “Islands” together with then drummer Ian Wallace, and singer/Fripp-trained bassist Boz Burrell (both of who have by now, passed on), and some 41 years have elapsed since the “Red” album – the final studio album from the “first ten” which was completed in 1974 – so it’s more than a lot of water under a lot of different bridges – but, for me, for this reviewer, it’s absolutely fantastic to hear Mel Collins and Robert Fripp playing these songs again, and showing us anew how powerful, unique, and in many cases, under-appreciated they were at the time – especially the wonderful “The Letters” with it’s incredible story of unfaithfulness and purity, and the awesome , powerful instrumental track, “Sailor’s Tale” where Jakko and Fripp re-create the double fuzz tone attack solos that underpin one of Mel Collins’s most well-known and insanely wonderful sax solos – and we now have TWO perfectly-aligned, fuzz guitars duetting with Collins now on this unbelievably cool piece of music, driven now by three drummers plus the as-ever-note-perfect Tony Levin on bass – it is simply astonishing – a great version of a great song – really powerful stuff.

In fact, besides the obvious brilliance of Tony Levin on bass / stick, the multitasking Jakko’ on vocals, guitars and possibly keyboards, and Robert Fripp himself playing what can only be called “regular guitar” (as these older pieces demanded) instead of soundscapes and, “regular guitar” from Fripp, is both a surprise and a revelation – he is as competent as ever, a stellar player – and not to be trivialised;  however, it’s really the presence of the remarkable Mel Collins that makes this live outing astonishing, beautiful, shiver-inducing and reminiscent all at once – he is able to either re-create his original parts, or, create improved, modernised versions of them, that still capture the beauty of the originals – effortlessly, and there are some very innovative uses of Mel’s abilities on this record – my favourite being during “The ConstucKtion Of Light” (the sole track from the 2000s represented on this record) when it comes time in the song where Adrian Belew is meant to sing – instead of a Jakko vocal to replace the missing Belew…we get a beautifully understated jazz flute solo from Mel Collins!

So that just knocks my socks off – a word-perfect rendition of the track, with Jakko and Fripp playing the interlocking guitar parts with precision and grace – and then here comes Mel, replacing the now-departed Adrian Belew with an amazing piece of live jazz flute – simply brilliant!

The only place where the album maybe lets us down a tiny bit, is in the almost-complete absence of any new music – it contains a short introductory piece, and an equally short percussion showcase written by Harrison – teasers, tiny bits of new Crimson.  But that tiny point does not bother me in the slightest, because the quality of the takes, the amazing versions of classic tracks on this truly astonishing mini-live album, captured from just two random nights on the tour – are of such a high quality that I can wait a bit longer to hear new King Crimson songs in 2015.

The track list is as follows:

1. Walk On: Monk Morph Chamber Music

2. One More Red Nightmare

3. Banshee Legs Bell Hassle

4. The ConstruKction of Light

5. The Letters

6. Sailor’s Tale

7. Starless

If you enjoy the music of King Crimson, you cannot go wrong with this incredibly well-played, beautiful-sounding live record – which now joins a remarkable collection of live King Crimson recordings that begins with “Epitaph”, which documents the eleven months of the original 1969 band – remarkable performanecs! – then, moves through “The Great Deceiver”, “The Road To Red”, “Starless” (covering 1973-1974 and all points in between) and many, many more – and at the moment, ends here – in 2015, to commemorate the 46th anniversary of the band’s formation back in January, 1969 – this live release, released in January, 2015 – 46 years later.

More shows are planned for Great Britain and Europe in September 2015, and I am happy to report that we’ll be travelling to both Birmingham (September 14th) and Edinburgh (September 17th) in the UK, to see the band, something we’ve never, ever done before, as well as, one date in Utrecht, Holland (September 24th)  – just for the sheer fun of it – a week later – so, I am actually ecstatic because we are going to see the new King Crimson not once, not twice – but THREE times!!  – well, maybe, once before, in 1975, when I saw Led Zeppelin twice in one week – but that was because a second show was added at the last minute – this is a deliberate tracking of the band from one city to another and then to another continent…how very exciting!!!  I’ve seen King Crimson before – a few times (1981, 1982, 1984, and in 1995) but this is King Crimson with MEL COLLINS – come on, and that is why we’re going to see them three times in one year!!! ☺.

 

Then – February arrived, and the special two-disc version of “Merlin Atmos – 2013 Live Performances” by Van Der Graaf Generator, arrived along with it.  Now, I had been lucky enough to read about and pre-order this record, because, for those that pre-ordered, a limited edition of 5000 would contain a second disc of live material, which is called “Bonus Atmos”…and I would always rather have a double-live Van Der Graaf Generator CD instead of a single-disc Van Der Graaf Generator CD – any day of the week, month or year!!

On the day the discs were due to arrive, the vendor wrote to explain that they had been short-shipped, and that there had been a serious shortage of the two disc version of the CD – and that some unfortunate customers might have to wait for more to be pressed.

I was not one of those unfortunate souls, two days after that email, my copy of the double CD arrived – and I have to say, for my money, it’s the best live Van Der Graaf Generator album YET – even if you just count the first disc. If you consider both discs – then it’s absolutely the best – the range of tracks on offer, from classic to modern, is astonishing, and of course, it contains not one but BOTH of the “behemoths” – the two “giant” live tracks that this dedicated trio have re-learned: “Flight”, taken from the tenth Peter Hammill solo album, “A Black Box” (my personal favourite), as well as a classic Van Der Graaf Generator track reworked for the 2010s – “A Plague Of Lighthouse-Keepers” originally from the VDGG “Pawn Hearts” album of 1974.  We were fortunate enough to see the band at this time, in 2013, and the setlist did include both of these tracks – and, they also both appear on disc one of the new CD, “Merlin Atmos – 2013 Live Performances” – so for those two tracks alone, it’s worth the price of admission.  You cannot go wrong!

Most people know the story of the reformation of Van Der Graaf Generator, when the “classic” line-up got back together for a show, in 2005, and then a tour, and then another tour…and originally, this included fourth member David Jackson, on saxes and flute, along with founding member Peter Hammill, organist/bassist Hugh Banton, and the remarkable Guy Evans on drums – this quartet made a new studio album, went out and played it – and then at some point, David Jackson had had enough – and much to the horror of the fans, who were loving this re-united band – he quit after the 2005 tour.

We all held our collective breaths, wondering what on earth would happen next – how could this band go on without the very distinctive flute and sax contributions of the remarkable soloist David Jackson?? – the man who plays two saxophones at once, and was a huge, huge part of some of the songs – an integral part, you would think.  An irreplaceable part…

Think again – the remaining trio of HammillBanton and Evans voted to go on as a trio – and produced an even more remarkable album, called “Trisector” in 2008, followed by tours and another wonderful studio album called “A Grounding In Numbers” in 2011, plus an experimental record called “ALT” in 2012 – so this gave the this well-rehearsed trio of veteran musicians a huge and diverse back catalogue – or two – drawing upon the classic tracks from the 1970s, or, the tracks from the current four studio albums, starting with “Present” (which was a double – so it’s really five studio albums) made with Jackson, three, beginning with Trisector – without.

One other live album, the most excellent double “real time” (with David Jackson) was also released in 2007, so this band has been very, very busy in its new incarnation(s), “Merlin Atmos” (without David Jackson) being the second full length live document of the band in the last decade – and I don’t really care how many Van Der Graaf Generator live discs get made – they are always good, and always welcome – because this is a band that actually just gets better and better as time goes on, and has become astonishingly able on the stage – almost telepathic in their ability to support the wonderful songs of Peter Hammill, as well as other tracks written by various band members over time – “HammillBanton and Evans” compositions probably to the fore, and why not?

Many of we fans have actually come to feel that the trio is somehow – better – purer, and able to improvise more freely, and it has in particular really allowed Hugh Banton to come forward, and take every single Jackson solo or part, and make it his own – beautifully.  It’s strange to vocalise this, but – I like the trio better, than I like the reformed classic quartet!  Sacrilege to some, truth to me.  I think a lot of VDGG fans will know exactly what I mean by this – especially if you have been fortunate to see the trio version play live, as I’ve been lucky enough to witness a few times.

And – this band, this oddest of power trios – drums, organ/bass pedals, and piano/guitar/vox from Peter Hammill – has dared to take on repertoire that the reformed quartet, with Jackson, would not have DREAMED of attempting.  Like the final track on CD one – the amazing “Gog” – an obscure Peter Hammill track from 1974’s “In Camera” album, that this trio plays as if on fire – a terrifying lyric and vocal, accompanied by church / nightmare / drum solo lead guitar music such as you have never heard – an extremely strange track, but – played with a wonderful, overwhelming sense of the now.  Truly powerful, unbelievably strange music – but, also truly wonderful, and I was lucky enough on one occasion to see the trio version of VDGG play “Gog”, and it pretty much frosted my socks, to coin a phrase.  I will never forget the power of that performance “will you not come to me? – and love me for one more night?” – the roar of Peter Hammill‘s voice is undiminished by time, and the anguish in the lyrics of a song like “Gog” does not lessen with time.

I did see the quartet version of the band early on; they were great, really, really good, and seeing David Jackson reprise his original solos was amazing and unforgettable, but, seeing the trio perhaps three times since then, I’ve come to absolutely love the stripped down, “can-we-really-pull-this-track-off-with-just- the-three-of-us?” (answer: yes, always) version of the band.

This 2013 double live CD is absolutely a must have, as far as I am concerned, first, so you can own the “official” live versions of both “Flight”, with it’s wonderful new intro and outro, and the re-worked, modernised but absolutely fantastical “A Plague Of Lighthouse-Keepers” (upon which one “Robert Fripp” played a bit of electric guitar, back in 1974, on the original studio version thereof) – those two tracks are astonishing, but – the rest of the tracks are of equal lineage, and the “new” tracks taken from the last few albums, sit perfectly with the older material – it no longer, in fact, “matters” from whence a song comes – it’s the Voice of Van Der Graaf Generator – and that voice is undoubtedly the voice of Peter Hammill – back healthy and hale from a heart attack scare several years back – and the music just flows from track to track and you find yourself not caring when a song was first recorded, but just listening in the moment, to a band of consummate musicians, playing a large quantity of some of the best highlights of one of the best progressive rock catalogues ever built – an amazing band.

The set list is as follows:

Disc One – Merlin Atmos

  1. Flight
  2. Lifetime
  3. All That Before
  4. Bunsho
  5. A Plague Of Lighthouse-Keepers
  6. Gog

 

Disc Two – Bonus Atmos

 

  1. Interference Patterns
  2. Over The Hill
  3. Your Time Starts Now
  4. Scorched Earth
  5. Meurglys III, The Songwriter’s Guild
  6. Man-Erg
  7. Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End

 

The band took an interesting tactic when it came to preparing this disc, that I found very refreshing – the three of them, split up the work like this:

 

  • When you lift up Disc One, it says underneath it “mixed by HB at the Organ Workshop”.
  • When you lift up Disc One, it says underneath it “balanced and arranged by PH at Terra Incognita”
  • Guy Evans wrote the liner notes, which talk about the two long pieces they learned and how that came about.

 

I thought that was really, really fair and “meet”, and when you listen to the whole disc, both discs, I mean, in order, they sound like one cohesive concert, so the way that “HB” and “PH” “hear” the band in terms of the live mix, are clearly quite similar – it’s as if they were one person, but each mixing half of the show – very odd, but – effective.  In fact, I’ve just re-listened to the transition from “Gog” to “Interference Patterns” in the play list containing all 13 tracks – and it’s just like the next track begins, there is no audible change that would indicate the hand of PH at the mixing desk, or any way to denote the handing off of the mixing task from Hugh to Peter at this point – it just flows…brilliant!

 

For me – a deeply satisfying concert, and hearing these familiar songs once again, now that the trio has been playing for a number of years, hearing the small changes and improvements – it’s just fantastic, they are growing, and, the quality of equipment, the quality of current technology, actually means that they sound better now, than they originally did in concert – back in the 1970s, underpowered and distorted PA systems, and generally bad stage sound plagued the band (as various bootlegs will attest) while all of the live material from the reunion onwards is of such a great quality – it’s fantastic, and I am so pleased for them, because it’s as if they are getting a second chance to be Van Der Graaf Generator, but, with the advantage of age, wisdom, experience, skill – and they can apply those in equal measure, on a stage that is MIDI compliant, and where microphones are not feeding back, and everything sounds really, really good – so it’s win, win, win for the new Van Der Graaf Generator – I hope they continue as long as possible, I love this band, and I can’t believe that I’ve now managed to see them four times – when I really thought I would never, ever see them play live.

I was fortunate enough to see some solo Peter Hammill shows in the 1980s, but at that time, Van Der Graaf Generator was a distant memory, and no one dreamed that they would eventually reform – and thank God that they did!  What a great band, and another great live record with another great, no, amazing set list – 2013 was a good year for this band.

 

 

So here are two bands that were instrumental in starting out what became “progressive rock” – King Crimson in January 1969, and Van Der Graaf Generator originally in 1968 – both, now, alive and well in the 2010s, and making extraordinary music live on stage – still – and long may they play.  Robert Fripp and Peter Hammill are two very different people, two very different “bandleaders” (Fripp would possibly deny being the bandleader, but never mind) but, what they do share is determination, determination that…the music shall be heard.  Fripp endured legal battles that kept him away from music and the stage, Hammill had a heart attack and overcame his health issues, to go on to start making amazing albums like “Trisector”” – and one of the tracks from that album, “Interference Patterns”, starts Disc Two of the new set, and it’s an amazing, amazing performance – a really, really tricky song – and they play it amazingly well – a fantastic version of a now-classic song from a now classic album – “Trisector”.

And rumours are abounding that King Crimson is working on new material, so it may be that they are at the start of a new run of compositions that will rival the post-reunion output of Van Der Graaf Generator – I certainly hope so, that would be fantastic, and I remain hopeful that during the September tour, that King Crimson might reveal some new works from an upcoming album – who knows?

Meanwhile, you could do worse than to start your year with either or both of these extremely high quality live releases – I highly recommend them both to progressive rock fans, and the curious, everywhere.

 

 

 

all the very best

 

dave 🙂 🙂