California Guitar Trio & Tony Levin’s Stick Men, live at the B.B. King Blues Club, New York, June 22, 2009

The California Guitar Trio may not actually be from California (they actually hail from Belgium, Japan, and the US), but there are indeed three of them and they each play a guitar. In a way, that tells you everything and nothing you need to know. As designated spokesman Paul Richards explained during their June 22nd show at The B.B. King Blues Club in New York City’s Times Square, they met as students in one of Robert Fripp’s early Guitar Craft courses. The promising pupils became members of the touring outfits The League of Crafty Guitarists and The Robert Fripp String Quintet, and formed the CGT to present their original repertoire interspersed with well-chosen progressive rock and classical covers. As a King Crimson fan, I’ve wound up seeing them live no less than three times, all without having specifically meant to. The 1992 R.F.S.Q. show in Philadelphia still stands in my mind as one of the best concerts I’ve attended, and I recall their opening sets for King Crimson in 1995 (also in Philly) and The Trey Gunn Band in New York in 1997 going over great with audiences (during most concerts I’ve been to, audiences can’t be pried away from the bar during the opening act). Richards also told the crowd they had been recording and touring the world for 18 years, long since deserving to cease being described as former students of Fripp. (but a little namedropping never hurts!)

California Guitar Trio

Monday night’s concert was also an unmissable chance to see Tony Levin‘s Stick Men, a new band formed with fellow stick player Michael Bernier and drummer Pat Mastelotto. The droll, genial Levin is one of the world’s greatest bassists, a fan-favorite (listen for the inevitable moment when crowds go wild as Peter Gabriel introduces him on any live album he’s released in the past 25 years), and not to mention one of the world’s longest-running bloggers. Mastelotto is a powerhouse, a true drum demon obviously enjoying himself enormously on his array of acoustic drums plus various electronics a drum geek would have to identify (comments below, please). He shattered a stick at one point (startling Bernier as a bit of shrapnel flew in his direction), but deftly swapped the casualty for a new one. I’m not familiar with Bernier’s music, but as if his talents weren’t obvious on Monday night, Levin gave him props as a player who influenced his own technique (meaning a lot coming from the legend that helped pioneer the Chapman Stick instrument in the first place). Also, Bernier’s got a little bit of a Hugh Grant thing going on.

California Guitar Trio
California Guitar Trio & Tyler Trotter perform Tubular Bells

Generally speaking, the Trio gave a mellow, contemplative show, while the Stick Men came out blasting with some very dense, funky, mostly instrumental prog rock. They were really, really loud – very glad I brought my earplugs – and even chased a few people out of the venue. I’m shamefully behind on my CGT and Levin album-buying, so I wasn’t familiar with much of the later repertoire of either trio. I only own the first three CGT albums (including what I think is a rare copy of an eponymous cd I purchased at the R.F.S.Q. show, that isn’t even listed on their official site). Copies of their latest are on order from Amazon as I write, but I picked up a pristine-sounding live recording available for sale right after the show. Here’s the set list according to Hideyo Moriya’s Roadcam, along with some of my subjective comments:

  1. Punta Patri
  2. Unmei – Beethoven’s 5th Symphony rearranged by Moriya in a 1960s surf guitar style that totally, unexpectedly works.
  3. Cathedral Peak
  4. Tubular Bells / And I Know / Walk Don’t Run – A condensed version of the album-length progressive rock epic by Mike Oldfield (perhaps more famously known as the theme music from The Exorcist). Their sound guy Tyler Trotter joined the band on melodium.
  5. Portland Rain
  6. Andromeda
  7. TX
  8. Moonlight Sonata – Richards briefly described Fripp’s Guitar Craft lesson of “circulation” as a key technique that has stuck with them. Here they’ve distributed the notes among three guitars, passing single notes from one to another. I’m not an expert, but when it comes to classical music, Bach in particular seems well-suited for the guitar.
  9. Echoes – Longtime Pink Floyd fans (myself included, I must admit) recognized it from the first note, but when the major melody appeared, the audience went nuts, even more so than when some King Crimson covers appeared later in the evening! The CGT version includes a gorgeous ambient interlude, stretching the bounds of what an acoustic guitar can do when connected to all sorts of electronic devices.
  10. Eve – Levin joined them for this ballad, sounding a bit like his own “Waters of Eden”
  11. Melrose Avenue – A great, terse rocker. With Levin & Mastelotto.
  12. Blockhead – With all three Stick Men. One of my favorite CGT tunes, but they omitted any kind of solo (Fripp himself plays a stunner on the R.F.S.Q. album The Bridge Between). Amazingly, they started circulating power chords.

The Stick Men stayed on stage for the next set, which included the following (and a lot more):

  • Sasquatch
  • Red – The classic King Crimson barnstormer, which Levin modestly identified as “we didn’t write that one.”
  • Indiscipline – Sung by Bernier.
  • Soup (or Superconductor?)
  • Encore: Larks Tongues in Aspic Part II – An effortless-seeming version with the CGT. King Crimson fans will know what I’m talking about when I say here’s another possible interpretation of the “Double Trio” concept.

Levin congratulated an audience member in the first row for consuming a slice of cheesecake during one of the rockier numbers. He also described their recent, greatly meandering European tour, which sounded very exciting to someone with a normal day job. No doubt a professional musician will quickly counter that that much traveling and border-crossing is grueling. But if there’s time for even a few days off along the way, it sounds to me like a great way to see the world. Or maybe it’s just hell.

Tony Levin's Stick Men
Tony Levin’s Stick Men

Thanks for reading, and I invite anyone to please comment below. And finally, if anyone cares enough to have read this far, one last thing: fellow New Yorkers might know what I’m talking about when I say that some days New York is more New Yorky than usual. Monday was one of those days, and the nutters were out in force. On my way to the venue, I was blessed (or cursed, maybe, I’m not sure) but a green-clad street preacher wielding a cross made of twisted wire. Minutes later, the guy sitting next to me in Starbucks got an earful from a totally different preacher. And then, in B.B. King’s, one audience member in the back near me was obviously stoned; not on something relatively harmless that merely makes you stupid, but rather on the sort of thing that makes you manic and insane (cocaine? speed?). He couldn’t stop loudly babbling for the entire concert, and was almost literally bouncing off the walls. I kept hoping the management would toss him out, but no luck.

King Crimson live at The Nokia Theater, Times Square, New York City, August 16, 2008

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 this blog, I feel silly enough trying to condense my opinions about movies and music 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 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 was something else altogether; an extraordinary performance that rivalled the best of Crimson that I’ve heard on record, be it live (for me, maybe 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.

King Crimson live at The Nokia Theater, Times Square, New York City, August 16, 2008
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 musical heroes? In defense, I certainly don’t think they can do no wrong; I am prepared to declare their 1971 album Lizard almost unlistenable. 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 on Thursday had made it possible to see all sorts of details invisible to the nosebleed seats, 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 concentration and 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 blogger’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 high-pitched “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.

King Crimson live at The Nokia Theater, Times Square, New York City, August 16, 2008
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 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 across 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, seemingly 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.

King Crimson live at The Nokia Theatre, Times Square, New York City, August 14, 2008

UPDATE I: Welcome to all visitors from DGMLive, and many thanks to Sid for such a high-profile link to this humble blog. I appreciate the kind comments, and especially welcome what is certainly our first and only celebrity guest, none other than Patricia Fripp!

UPDATE II: I’ve also posted my thoughts about the Saturday, August 16 show. As positive as the below review of Thursday is, Crimson blew it away with a real corker on Saturday.

Last night was the first in the extended grand finale of King Crimson’s 40th Anniversary Tour: a four-night stand at The Nokia Theatre in Times Square, New York City. I hope any random readers that stumble upon this blog looking for a blow-by-blow review will excuse this blogger as he indulges himself with a few observations on Crimson in general before getting around to talking about last night’s concert.

King Crimson live at The Nokia Theater Times Square New York
I turned my phone off after this picture, I swear

Despite the band’s considerable longevity, the legendary King Crimson never enjoyed fame or commercial success on a par with many of their so-called “progressive rock” peers (the pejorative term has never really fit King Crimson anyway). Witness, for example, the massively lucrative 2007 world tour by Genesis, itself originally influenced by King Crimson’s 1969 debut album In the Court of the Crimson King. Crimson’s relatively low profile is nobody’s fault but their own, and it is no accident. Crimson has been aggressively uncompromising from the very beginning, rarely willing to coast on past glories or cash-in with grand reunion tours (with one exception that I can think of: many of the original members toured under the name 21st Century Schizoid Band). It’s worth noting that Crimson has made certain half-hearted forays into the real world of commercialism, having filmed music videos in the 1980s for Heartbeat and Sleepless and lip-synced their eccentric pop novelty Cat Food on Top of the Pops in 1970. But even so, King Crimson has proven time and again that it would rather break up (sometimes leaving real money on the table) than repeat itself. Huge chunks of their songbook are resistant to casual listening, and let’s be honest, many fans take a snooty pride in Crimson’s low profile and high barrier to entry.

King Crimson is in a constant state of evolution, and many successive incarnations made radical breaks from the past: the original 1969 configuration of the band was born in the hippie era, but had a unique blend of proto-metal aggression (21st Century Schizoid Man) and Mellotron-driven dirges (Epitaph). The 1971-72 band shed much of this portentous weight in favor of jazz-rock improvisation and filthy jokiness (see especially Ladies of the Road). The 1973-74 version dove even deeper into jazz fusion (driven in part by master drummer Bill Bruford), but also unleashed some of the most intense metal instrumentals of Crimson’s entire lifetime. Crimson flamed out in 1974, but reappeared in its most radically new form yet in 1981-84, exploring guitar and drum synthesizers and giving birth to a genre that didn’t even have a name until decades later: “math rock.” King Crimson reappeared yet again in 1994, this time as a “double trio” comprised of paired guitars, drums, and basses. Later, a stripped-down quartet produced two albums of its most difficult (in a good, challenging way) music in 2001-2003.

King Crimson live at The Nokia Theater Times Square New York
Proof positive: I was there! Should’ve sprung for a better seat, though…

But all this is preamble. Now, the 2008 King Crimson is all about the rhythm section, and it was reflected in last night’s live mix. Bassist Tony Levin and drummers Pat Mastelotto and Gavin Harrison were very LOUD in the mix, sometimes relegating guitarists Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew to supporting roles. Mastelotto and Harrison played three pieces alone (B’Boom and two new untitled drum pieces), and dominated several others (including whole chunks of the thrillingly rearranged Neurotica and Level Five). I’m a huge fan of Trey Gunn (touchstyle guitarist in King Crimson between 1994-2003), having been to two of his solo shows, but boy is it great to hear Tony Levin back in the band. No one stands astride a stage like Levin, playing the bass like the lead instrument it so rarely is. Can’t we have both?

Although Robert Fripp has been the one consistent member of King Crimson over its 40-year history, it has never been entirely accurate to call it his band (one might even say it’s Adrian Belew’s band, considering his massive songwriting contributions over the years, not to mention his responsibilities as live frontman). Truth be told, Fripp might be fairly described as eccentric, certainly among other rock guitarists. His composition and style of guitar playing are utterly unique, born more from the European classical tradition than blues or jazz. He has also stood apart for his crusading stance against exploitation of musicians by record companies (long before it became cool). Fripp, now 62, has been blogging for years and making noises about retiring from touring for some time now. On the last League of Crafty Guitarists tour in November 2007, he performed partially obscured by his infamous imposing rack of electronics dubbed the Solar Voyager. Evidently, he was road-testing a new mode of playing live, and I would surmise that this new configuration is part of how he conceived of making this latest King Crimson tour possible for him on a personal and professional level. He also now wears large headphones, probably just as much to hear the rest of the band clearly as he does to blot out the sound of dopey audience catcalls. Regrettably, it’s a long-standing King Crimson tradition for the a certain contingent (whom Fripp would call “Basement Dwellers”) to call out facetious requests for songs they know well Crimson will never play (“Moonchild!”) and sometimes just the last names of their heroes, whether or not they are currently in the band (“Bruuuuuford!”). Fripp’s new level of disconnection from the audience may allow him to focus on his bandmates and the music, but it also served to only increase the amount of catcalls: “Fripp, show yourself” etc.

Last night, Crimson came right out of the gate with one of their most challenging pieces, The Construkction of Light. Frankly, it was noticeably wobbly at first, probably even to people who weren’t familiar with it. The band’s fumbling was worrisome, but I shouldn’t have doubted; the first section of the piece is by its nature a long, minimalist tension-and-release build-up, and Belew was suffering from technical difficulties (some very noticeable snaps, crackles and pops). A guitar tech solved his troubles before the song kicked into high gear and I was practically dancing in my seat (well, as best I could, considering its odd time signature).

Level Five was impenetrable to me on first listen in 2000, and remains a mystery. I still, even now, can’t wrap my brain around it. It was by far the most challenging piece they played last night, in a set list made up largely of what passes for popular favorites in the King Crimson songbook. Level Five is frankly hard work to listen to, and definitely not something I would select to introduce a novice to Crimson.

But as I said, most of the rest of the night was true to its billing as a 40th Anniversary Celebration: Crimson reveled in many of the most rocking pieces they’ve ever composed. The Talking Drum, a piece that starts from total silence on record, now blasts out intensely from its very first note, and builds to a literally screaming climax that in turn explodes into Larks Tongues in Aspic Part II. Larks II, together with Red, can always be counted on to blow everyone’s hair back, and maybe the doors off the venue. I believe Fripp has a famous quote about Crimson being able to shred wallpaper at a distance of miles?

The beautiful ballad Walking on Air provided a break from all the intensity, but it didn’t last long. Fripp, playing more of a supportive role than ever before, stepped out for once and truly cooked in Dinosaur. Dinosaur is also, incidentally, the one song that separates the true Crimson fans from the weekend warriors: anyone who claps during the false ending is a n00b. Crimson closed with a rip-roaring rendition of Vrooom, but Fripp’s lead melody lines in the coda were sadly omitted (he did, however, play them with The League of Crafty Guitarists when I saw them last November). Although I’m fully aware that the evening was not about me and I don’t get to choose, I have to admit I was bummed to not hear Sleepless. I had read on that they had played it earlier on the tour, and as I loved the 1995 arrangement of the piece heard on the live album B’Boom, I was very much looking forward to hearing this version of the band tackle it.

A few notes about The Nokia Theatre: it was a massive movie theater once upon a time (I recall seeing the hilariously horrible Anaconda there in 1997), but is now a huge, modern concert venue. I love a good pint of beer as much as the next guy, and I hate to sound like a prohibition-like prude: but there is always a contingent that overindulges and acts out in a way that is evidently amusing to them but annoying to everyone else. I noticed a bunch of obese bald dudes on the lower right of the floor that were obviously drunk and/or high, and no doubt ruining the experience for everyone around them. Also, the venue had video cameras trained on the stage throughout, which very much surprised me, given Fripp’s emphatically-stated objections to the obstructive process of filming concerts. They even managed to capture him on screen at one point, despite his being largely obscured from view (during Larks Tongues in Aspic Part II, I believe). Perhaps someone from Crimson’s road crew had a word with the videographers, because he never appeared on screen again.

I’ve now seen King Crimson three times, first in 1995 in Philadelphia and then in 2001 in New York City. It was a delight to see them again last night, in a slightly rough-and-tumble but exhilarating performance. I look forward to catching them again tomorrow night, and plan on posting some more thoughts later.

Thanks for reading, to anyone that made it this far! Please leave a comment if you have anything to add.

Official King Crimson site:

Must view: Tony Levin’s photos of Thursday’s concert

Must read: David Fricke’s Rolling Stone review of Thursday’s concert