King Crimson is my favorite band.
There, I said it. The more music and films I’m exposed to, the more pointless it seems to pick favorites. (Isn’t it kind of absurd to say that King Crimson is “better” than, say, The Mahavishnu Orchestra? While I’m on this parenthetical tangent, has anybody else ever noticed the similarities between John McLaughlin’s jazz fusion group and the 1972–74 “Larks Tongues” incarnation of King Crimson?) Time and again on The Dork Report, I feel silly enough trying to condense my opinions about movies and concerts into a five-star rating template, and now even more so that I’ve seen Crimson blow the top off my scale (just like the back cover to the album Red). So, yes, they’ve earned a rare Dork Report 5-star review, an honor I hope the Crims appreciate (yes, I’m kidding).
I absolutely enjoyed Thursday’s show at The Nokia Theatre in Times Square, New York City, as I hope was clear from my review. I wasn’t there on Friday, but Saturday night’s was something else altogether, an extraordinary performance that rivalled the best of Crimson that I’ve heard on record, be it live (without question B’Boom — Live in Argentina) or studio (that would be Thrak — I invite readers to counter-argue in the comments below). So much so that my reluctance to play favorites is temporarily on hold; King Crimson is finally, officially, My Favorite Band.
Bending the “No Photography” rule, Part II
So who’s going to give credence to the biased opinions of an acolyte predisposed to positively rave about his heroes? In defense, I certainly don’t think they can do no wrong; I am prepared to declare their 1971 album Lizard an almost unlistenable piece of crap. But I hope that I can convey some of what made last night’s show an order of magnitude “better” than Thursday. The band was incredibly tight, hopefully putting to rest fans’ often-expressed fears that they have been a bit sloppy across this tour (a gripe I indulged in myself in my Thursday review). The crowd seemed more appreciatively rowdy and keyed-up than before; indeed the overall energy level was high. Perhaps it was just my different vantage point (slightly further back, and almost perfectly centered), but even the venue’s sound quality seemed better; I didn’t have the impression that Fripp and Belew were fighting to find the few audible frequencies left untrammeled by Harrison, Mastelotto, and Levin. The video cameras were turned off this time, being something of a tradeoff. On one hand, the flat panel TV screens scattered about the venue had made it possible to see all sorts of details invisible to the nosebleed seats on Thursday, but on the other hand, the glowing screens were distracting intrusions to my peripheral vision. But more likely, the band probably objected to the intrusion upon their performance.
The show began with a real treat not part of Thursday’s New York debut; when I walked in at about 7:30, Robert Fripp was already on stage performing Soundscapes. For the uninitiated, Soundscaping is Fripp’s term for the ambient, looping class of his solo work, originally christened (tongue-in-cheek) Frippertronics during his original 1970s collaborations with Brian Eno. When I saw Fripp live with The League of Crafty Guitarists at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in November 2007, it was clear from the general audience chatter around me that some were unaware that Fripp ever played anything other than burning, shredding rock guitar. So I wasn’t sure how much of this audience would be open to this avenue of Fripp’s work, but there was enough applause at the end of each piece to indicate that people were listening and appreciative. It helped that these particular Soundscapes were of the more beautiful and melodic variety, as opposed to the dissonant and nightmarish sort heard on the album Radiophonics. It was a rather low-key opener, certainly in comparison to the supremely fun California Guitar Trio that toured with Crimson in 1995.
For this Dork Reporter’s ears, the highlight of the evening was a shocking new arrangement of Sleepless. It was a wild, more ominously threatening reinterpretation of the slightly poppy original. Mastelotto and Harrison kicked it off with some utterly insane dumming (which I mean as a compliment), soon joined by Levin rocking the famous bassline to roaring approval from the crowd. Levin used his famous invention the funk fingers instead of the original slapping technique I’ve seen on the live DVD Neil and Jack and Me. Does anyone know if he also used the funk fingers for it in the 1990s, as heard on the live album B’Boom? It seems they had long since dropped the song from the setlist by the time I saw them in Philadelphia.
I’ve got to devote a least a paragraph to Mastelotto’s shout-outs to his predecessors. During Neurotica, he resurrected a sample of the little electronic “tink!” sound Bill Bruford scattered all over the 1982 album Beat. Frankly, I find the omnipresent “tink” sound makes Beat very annoying to listen to, but I nevertheless involuntarily laughed and clapped in appreciation when I noticed the sample last night. He also busted out some very Jamie Muir–esque sound effects to add a little extra sonic color to The Talking Drum / Larks Tongues in Aspic Part II one-two punch. I also really loved the electronica drum sounds he added to the (relatively) quiet bits in Indiscipline. Who could have guessed, but it was exactly what the song needed.
I mentioned in my review of the Thursday show that I consider Level Five to be among Crimson’s most “difficult” pieces for the audience to listen to, and judging by the furiously flying fingers, also obviously so for the band to play. But while I’m still trying to find my way into the song as a listener, it clearly went over like gangbusters, earning one of the most appreciative ovations of the night. If nothing else, hundreds of jaws dropped at the insanely rapid runs shared by Fripp & Levin. That kind of playing just isn’t human.
Worse seat, better sound?
Which reminds me of another thought I’ve always had about King Crimson. Needless to say, most members have been known as among the best-ever practitioners of their instruments. Fans often gush about how difficult the parts are, as if how speedily fingers move is directly proportionate to how “good” the music is. But I’d like to propose the idea here that that is to miss the point. The high level of musicianship in Crimson is not the goal, but rather a prerequisite to be able to play whatever is required, be it one note or a thousand. I’d argue that some of Fripp’s best playing is actually slower than what he is physically capable of, when unleashed at maximum velocity. If that’s what fans of technique looking for, might I direct you to Level Five or the 900 MPH solo to Sartori in Tangier. But to my ears, Fripp’s most affecting playing is in the gut-wrenchingly emotional solo in the Sylvian/Fripp song Wave and the slow-motion underwater solo in the Robert Fripp String Quintet piece Blue.
Further evidence the band was more energetic and connected: during the drum duet (as yet untitled?) at the beginning of the first encore, Levin elicited a some laughs by theatrically drumming along on the top of his amp with his funk fingers. Harrison & Mastelotto’s duet was infectious enough to get Belew’s head bobbing, and, shock of all shocks, I could see even the top of Fripp’s head rocking to the beat.
Anyone following the reviews being posted on DGMLive will be aware that Fripp does not join the band in coming to the front of the stage at the end of each show, instead standing off in the shadows. He very pointedly chooses to applaud his four bandmates, at once showing his appreciation for them and directing the audience’s attention to the players. To indulge in a little armchair psychoanalysis, perhaps he wants to avoid fans’ worship or rebuke, and instead direct the audience’s positive energy towards the band.
I’d like to close with two anecdotes, past and present. A minor but amusing incident from Thursday’s show I forgot to include in my review was an early cameo appearance by Adrian Belew. Long before showtime, Belew entered the venue through the crowd, mounted the stage and walked acriss into the wings, all the while toting his dry cleaning over his shoulder. When the audience noticed him and applauded, he hammed it up a little bit, pretending to sheepishly tip-toe across the stage. True story. Don’t venues have trapdoors and secret passages for the performers to sneak in and out? Perhaps he got accidentally locked out, and maybe Fripp’s ongoing comic book saga blog will tell us the full tale of how Belew was accidentally beamed outside the Crim mothership on an extraplanetary away mission to the space station dry cleaners.
And also, one telling moment I still recall from a Projekct Two show in 1999 at Irving Plaza, New York. Fripp had been typically focussed on his playing throughout, outwardly unemotional, until one moment between pieces when he sprung to life, turned to Belew and Trey Gunn and announced “Guys, I want to rock out!” He then turned to face the audience for the first time and repeated “I want to rock out, you guys!” And they did.
Official site: DGMLive.com