Doesn't look like this one's gonna find a periodical or online site. I'd started writing it soon after the 29 SEP concert, then something came up about the next book I'm working on, and this went to the back burner. By the time I was able to complete it and shop it, a number of weeks had passed, and a review needs to be published as soon after a performance as possible.
I'm not losing sleep or frustrated; it happens, and the aforementioned book did indeed merit time-critical focus and priority.
Accordingly, here 'tis for your perusal (and comments). Enjoy.
And if you don't like it, you got what you paid for...
King Crimson: Half a century of ‘progressive’ music
By Willie G. Moseley
I have seen and heard the past, present and future of “progressive rock,” and it is called King Crimson.
To some observers, the birth date of the so-called progressive rock genre was June 2, 1967—the day after the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released.
While Sgt. Pepper’s was (and still is) an obvious icon, the first album by the Vanilla Fudge, a quartet from Long Island, New York was a next-day lodestone for (would-be) rock musicians, as its contents included radically-transmogrified songs by the Beatles, the Supremes, and other artists. The esoteric and dramatic arrangements even interpolated snippets of works by Beethoven.
Some called such music “art rock.” The notion that such high-brow music could be played on electric guitar, bass, organ and drums was revolutionary…at least, in the U.S. A semi-obscure British rock band called Nero & the Gladiators had recorded versions of “Entry of the Gladiators” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King” that were minor hits in the U.K. in the early Sixties.
Propelled by the head-turning efforts of the Vanilla Fudge, complex rock music pieces that were also (perhaps-obliquely) influenced by classical music developed in the late ‘60s. The genre would become known as “progressive rock,” and would be fronted by bands such as the Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Kansas. Stereotypical music included against-the-grain guitar stylings, unique arrangements and time signatures, grandiose lyrics, and the use of then-cutting-edge electronic keyboard instruments such as synthesizers.
And King Crimson epitomized such stereotypes. The band released its first album, In The Court Of The Crimson King, in 1969, and although they’ve never had a hit song, K.C.’s unique music, crafted under the aegis of founding guitarist Robert Fripp, has endured for half a century.
One of the reasons for King Crimson’s longevity was Fripp’s propensity to radically shift the musical approach of different incarnations of the band. The first few albums were propelled by a Mellotron (a now-antiquated, orchestral-sounding keyboard) as well as Fripp’s oozing guitar tones. Some song passages were lush and quasi-esoteric, while other movements were so frenetic they bordered on sonic anarchy.
The band shifted to a rawer style in the mid-‘70s, then broke up for several years. Fripp organized a new incarnation of the band ca. 1980 for three albums that focused on the guitar interplay between guitarist Adrian Belew and himself, abetted by Tony Levin on Chapman Stick, a unique stringed instrument that is both a guitar and a bass; it’s played in a two-handed, tapping manner.
Other variants of the band appeared in the ensuing decades, as Fripp also pursued other musical projects as well. He’s been perceived as an eccentric genius and strict musical taskmaster, but his efforts have always been innovative.
Fripp had announced his retirement several years ago, but it lasted all of a year before the iconic fretmeister proffered yet another version of King Crimson. This time, the lineup was an octet, including three drummers, of all things. Some cynics might have opined that this was another so-called “comeback” for King Crimson, and as has been the case with other musical acts or athletes, most “comebacks” usually aren’t.
But any sarcasm aimed at the emergence of the latest incarnation of King Crimson a few years back would prove to be 180-degrees wrong. To wit:
“Formal rock concert” sounds like an oxymoron, but that’s exactly what was encountered in late September at Atlanta’s Cobb Energy Center, a 2800-seat performing arts center located near the northwest perimeter of I-285. The venue has state-of-the-art acoustics, which probably suited Fripp and company just fine.
Interestingly, the exterior of the venue was portrayed as the Center for Disease Control (CDC) nine years ago in the final episode of the first season of The Walking Dead.
This was the final show in the U.S. portion of the band’s then-current tour before they headed to South America.
The current King Crimson performance aggregation is a septet that includes returning members Pat Mastelotto (drums), Mel Collins (flute and sax), Tony Levin (bass/Chapman Stick), and Fripp, along with drummers Jeremy Stacey and Gavin Harrison, and guitarist/vocalist Jakko Jakszyk. Keyboard player Bill Rieflin is presently on leave, but had been onboard when the band recorded a stunning three-CD plus Blu-Ray set titled Meltdown—Live in Mexico City in 2017. Stacey and/or Fripp currently handle keyboards at various times during a concert.
The stage aesthetics were intriguing. Sure enough, there were three drum kits, and they were set up on the front of the stage. An elevated platform in back of the drums served as the performance locations of—stage left to stage right—Fripp, Jakszyk, Levin and Collins.
The concert began exactly at the designated time. Literal senior members Fripp, Levin and Collins (they’re all in their seventies) appeared to have worn three-piece suits but had removed their coats. The other band members were dressed more casually, but their attire was plain and, er, sensible.
Indeed, the most flamboyant item onstage was Jakszyk’s guitar, the front of which was emblazoned with the iconic and borderline-disturbing picture of the “Schizoid Man” front cover illustration for King Crimson’s 1969 debut album.
The musical presentation spanned the entire half-century of the band’s existence, interpreting selections from the first album on. The band members would occasionally nod their head to the audience in appreciation at the end of certain songs, but other than that, there wasn’t any “communication” with the concert-goers other than the music—no conversational remarks from the stage, etc. It was like attending a symphony orchestra performance, except that rock instruments were played instead of cellos and oboes. The band was there to do their job, which they accomplished with precision and passion.
The interplay between the three drummers was fascinating, of course. The expressive licks often cascaded from one percussionist to another, delighting the audience. The, er, back row handled their duties in an exemplary manner—Collins’ flute and sax passages were still vital after decades. Levin played electric bass, upright bass (utilizing a bow on one occasion) in addition to Chapman Stick. Jakszyk’s vocals were plaintive and moving, and his guitar work meshed well with Fripp’s efforts.
Fripp himself went about his business while perched on a stool in front in his rack-mounted electronic gizmos. He wore headphones the entire time.
There were no special stage effects, with one brief exception. For the entire concert, the stage lighting had been overhead blue and white lights that remained on the entire time—another indication that the focus of the concert was on the music.
However, during the “build up” in the middle of “Starless” (a definitive King Crimson song that showcases many facets of the band’s distinctive music), the stage began to slowly turn red, which probably panicked some Baby Boomers in the audience who might have thought they were having an acid flashback. The lighting change was a brilliant move because it had been unexpected by the concert-goers. Illuminated in, er, crimson, the band careened through the end of “Starless,” after which the lighting returned to its original blue and white display for the rest of the concert.
The encore was, not unexpectedly, the impeccably-crafted-yet-sometimes-barely-in-control “21st Century Schizoid Man” which sounded as vital in 2019 as it did half a century ago. The concert at the Cobb Energy Center was probably one of the most unique presentations that many in the audience had ever experienced.
King Crimson’s present-day musical efforts on recordings or in concert are in no way a time warp for aging Baby Boomers who might be erstwhile hippies. The band’s unique music is still proffered in a unique manner, and one gets the feeling that Robert Fripp wouldn’t have it any other way.
WILLIE G. MOSELEY is the Senior Writer for Vintage Guitar Magazine and the author of 13 books.