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Concert Review: King Crimson @ Theatre St-Denis

 

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There was an air of the unreal about my being at a King Crimson concert at all. Everything about the show was big … it was a big venue, it had big publicity, and it had very big ticket prices (starting at $73 – hard to call them the ‘cheap seats’!) … I’d asked the CKUT music coordinator to try to get me on the guest list almost as a joke, and she’d confessed it seemed highly unlikely. In fact the request had been turned down, but then the publicist had called back and offered a pass after all! Faith for the faithless.

My own relationship with King Crimson had been via the late 70s, stripped-down ‘new wave’ Robert Fripp, when he’d shaved off his hippie locks and shed the flares and the fringed jackets, and reinvented himself as a solo performer. He’d disbanded King Crimson in 1974. As he wrote in the liner notes of his 1980 solo LP God Save The Queen / Under Heavy Manners, “on a professional level this was largely a result of the decreasing possibility for any real contact between audience and performers. This seemed to me to be caused by three main factors: firstly, the escalation in the size of rock events; secondly, the general acceptance of rock music as spectator sport; thirdly, the vampiric relationship between audience and performer.”

Which was precisely the reason why I’d stopped going to large-scale concert events some time back around 1984 … because an excellent stadium show by Neil Young (like the one I saw in Ottawa that year) simply couldn’t compete with the visceral intensity of seeing a band play live in a small venue (like Three O’Clock Train live at the Steppe in May 1985, say).

So Fripp and I were on the same page on that notion … he’d toured solo in 1978, with his Eno-inspired Frippertronics set-up, “a small, mobile and appropriate level of technology, vis, his guitar, Frippelboard and two Revoxes.” A couple of years later he’d assembled a small touring band, The League of Gentlemen, featuring crack musicians like Barry Andrews (ex of XTC, later co-founder of Shriekback) and Sara Lee (later the bassist for Gang of Four). Shortly thereafter he re-launched King Crimson, featuring guitarist Adrian Belew and bassist Tony Levin. Various line-ups of King Crimson have subsequently toured under Fripp’s tutelage to this day.

After my initial interest in solo Fripp and the 80s-era Crimson, I’d lost track of the band until I chanced on a copy of the first LP, 1969’s In The Court of the Crimson King, in a bin of dollar records, and while listening to its crackling glory, was struck by the timeless intensity of tracks like ’21st Century Schizoid Man’. It was prog rock, sure, but its darker edges transcended prog’s tweeness and firmly installed it in a wider pantheon of intelligent chamber rock that today includes bands like Swans, Godspeedyoublackemperor, and Esmerine.

Frankly, I’d have been happier to see Fripp play solo, in an intimate venue, with his ‘small, mobile and appropriate level of technology’, but this latest version of King Crimson would have to do.

Theatre St-Denis is a vast cavern stuffed full of soft seats, and as I shouldered my way through the crowd in the lobby, my ‘plus 1′ friend remarked on the distinct odour of testosterone in the air. A simple enough observation – the audience was probably more than two-thirds male. We made our way to our seats, which were off to the right of the hall and about a third of the way down. We sat and discussed the triple-threat drum kits set up at the front of the stage, all with matching ‘Elements Tour’ bass drum heads. There was an announcement in French and English asking patrons to politely refrain from using any manner of recording device, camera or otherwise, during the performance. It wasn’t long before the band members started to make their way to their positions onstage, and instantaneously, smart phones, cell phones and other devices were lofted into the air to ‘capture the moment’. This prompted a second PA announcement in a very British accent, by Fripp himself I’m guessing, again politely asking the audience to refrain from using their cameras until such time as Tony Levin took out his camera. I thought this was a brilliant way of bringing the audience into the evening’s performance.

I seriously doubted that the audience members, having shelled out between 100 and 200 dollars for the privilege of seeing the band, would respect Fripp’s wishes, but as it turned out, they did. Out came the band, and there was Mr. Fripp, resplendent in his Exposure-era outfit of cropped hair, white shirt, tie, dress pants and vest. He occupied a post at stage left, surrounded by quite a range of ‘appropriate technology’. Each band member had a kind of portable screen on a stand, which I guess was a high tech version of a music stand. The audience responded to Fripp’s presence by immediately giving King Crimson a standing ovation, before they’d even struck a note.

The band launched into the first number, ‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One’, which astonished me on several levels. First, the fact of Mel Collins’ flute taking a central role. The band presented a fairly austere aspect, all in some version of suit-and-tie, so it seemed bizarre that the most baroque aspect of the earliest incarnation of King Crimson was being given voice here. Second astonishing aspect was the sheer virtuosity of the band – there was no sense of the musicians getting ‘warmed up’ to the task – they were immediately right there, and the impact this had on the audience was quite clear. For the first few songs, the audience seemed to struggle to gather their wits about them enough to simply applaud – by which time the band had already launched into their next opus. There were certain pauses where you could’ve heard a pin drop.

Of course, this virtuosity was a reflection of Fripp’s insane work ethic, which he imposes on everyone else in his orbit. The band was like a machine, cranking out flawless performance after flawless performance. Maybe a professional could’ve found some faults, but the average rock ‘consumer’ would be instantly laid out like a third-rate chump going up against an Ali. The band’s dominance of the space was aided and abetted by a crystalline quality of sound. It sounded great, even as far back from the stage as our seats were.

The third extraordinary aspect was the vocal work of one Jakko Jakszyk, who’s only recently taken on the role in King Crimson that Adrian Belew had been filling. Perhaps it was his voice that inspired the set list, heavy on amazing work-outs like ‘Epitaph’ and ‘Starless’ from Crimson’s first incarnation. He certainly had the pipes for the job, and I was also impressed by the interplay of his guitar work with Fripp’s.

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There were a few showcase moments of interplay between the three drummers, but otherwise I think they could’ve stuck to one kit for most of the set. Tony Levin did a great job and had his Chapman Stick out for many songs. Overall, it was an incredibly tight show, but I wouldn’t have expected less. Robert Fripp simply wouldn’t have toured with anything less than perfection. Standing ovation followed standing ovation, which got a bit tiresome.

At the end of the set, as promised, Tony Levin whipped out his camera and started taking pictures, and half the hall followed suit. During the encore, Fripp was annoyed by several audience members who continued to snap away, but the set went on without a hitch. That couldn’t be said for the performance in Toronto on November 20. According to a post penned by Fripp on the King Crimson website: “Persistent camera persons persisted, despite rounds of applause for the Revised Photo Policy announcement before the show, continuing into the encores.

“The Guitarist Stage Left also persisted. Until finally, having been slapped around the face and stabbed in the heart too many times (this is how I experience violation in performance), it was not possible to honourably continue. Robert left the stage, followed shortly by the other Crims. The show finished, a result of ongoing photographic abuse.”

King Crimson Set List Nov 17/15
Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One
Pictures of a City
The Letters
Red
Radical Action (To Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind)
Meltdown
Hell Hounds of Krim
Level Five
Suitable Grounds for the Blues
The ConstruKction of Light
Epitaph
Banshee Legs Bell Hassle
Easy Money
The Talking Drum
Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two
Starless
Encore:
Devil Dogs of Tessellation Row
The Court of the Crimson King
21st Century Schizoid Man

Robert Fripp: guitar
Jakko Jakszyk: guitar and vocals
Mel Collins: flute, saxes
Bill Reiflin: drums, synth and vocals
Pat Mastelotto: drums
Gavin Harrison: drums
Tony Levin: bass, stick, vocals

– Review by Vince Tinguely, photos by Tony Levin