It went without saying that with Robert Fripp on stage, the sound of the show would have no unpleasant surprises. We’ve recently discussed negative trends in live sound and of course, this show had a miraculous dynamic range that allowed for impossibly delicate sound that could ratchet all the way up to loud; completely bypassing brutal. The initial drumming up front was a gift to the ears as each percussive filament in the sound they were weaving was clear and distinct.
The next song played was one from the second King Crimson album. I’d been lukewarm on “In the Wake Of Poseidon” ever since hearing it in the late 70s. To me it was a weak attempt to craft another “In The Court Of The Crimson King” after losing most of its musicians, but trying anyway. “Pictures Of A City” was always a song that, on a good day, seemed like a weak knockoff of “21st Century Schizoid Man.” Not tonight! Sure, sure. The song always had a wide variety of tempos at which it could either saunter or sprint through, but the assurance of musicians who had been honing their craft for nearly fifty years meant that the arrangement calcified in the album would most certainly be superseded here tonight.
This was our first experience with Jakko Jakszyk giving voice to the lines originally sung by Greg Lake. Jakszyk had a boyish tone that belied his obvious age and probably came the closest to Greg Lake that this band had seen in over 40 years. Even so, he seemed more credible at spitting out the harsh vocal lines to this song than Lake ever did. The swaggering strut of this one gave Mel Collins a chance to revisit his territory of 1970 with a new perspective. The way the song descended into ever tightening circles of jazz power riffing was certainly thrilling. Never more so than with this large, capable band.
One of the biggest missteps of the original was the movement where almost all of the music evaporated before a recircling back to the main theme for the climax. The nearly minute of the tune originally seemed like dead air in an otherwise lively piece. Tonight would differ as Collins took the lead to dig his spurs into his sax for a full-bodied solo couched in Fripp’s abstract bed of soft jazz chords while the drums danced around them both in a frenzied shuffle. By the time the song had its famous cold ending on an extended, panicked chord, the massed sound of the full band had made the original album version sound like a flexidisc demo. This was power.
What had thrilled me more than anything about this particular formation of King Crimson was the presence of Mel Collins on saxes and flutes. As soon as I heard that he was in hearing this band became an immediate passion. While he had basically filled in for Ian McDonald on “In The Wake Of Poseidon,” I felt that he really came into his own on the follow-up, “Lizard.” He added a great deal of jazz flavoring that was always latent in King Crimson, and I really felt that he [along with pianist Keith Tippett] had pushed them into new and exciting territory on this album in particular. Now they would be playing one of my favorites from “Lizard.”
“Cirkus” was built on a abrasive tritone mellotron riff that actually managed to make the preternaturally winsome instrument create a sense of dread. This was another of Crimson’s dark mirror songs that they held up to society. The jazz present in this song lacked the abrasive attack of a “21st Century Schizoid Man,” but opted instead for something more subtle even as Mel Collins fruity sax solo here was one of his few this evening where he was following his own template from 47 years earlier. My friend Tom pointed out afterward that Mr. Jakszyk’s boyish singing lacked the tone of plummy contempt that original singer Gordon Haskell brought to the song. I conceded this but was too busy basking in the apocalyptic undertow of it all.
Next came a pure form of jazz that I did not immediately recognize. The fast tempo, skittering drumline immediately brought the nervous frenzy of Elmer Bernstein’s “Man With The Golden Arm.” When Tony Levin began hitting the spaces in-between with his standup bass it was thrilling jazz…but still not a recognizable Crimson tune. Only when the descending melody line appeared a minute into it did I realize that this was a hugely-re-tooled version of “Neurotica” from the “Beat” album of 1982!
This song now cooked like a breakneck jazz slalom through a frenzied urban nightmare. They omitted the speed-raps that Adrian Belew recited on the album version [and played back in concert this year] so only when the tempo ebbed considerably for the much slower in tempo “chorus” structure with the more languid Fripp guitar runs, did Jakszyk sing the chorus in the track. This was taking a song with a jazz framework and taking it all the way across the finish line! Mel Collin’s frantic sax skronk here was the stuff of tingling spines. Thinking about it now still does the trick! “Neurotica” was a testament to how many notes could be packed into a song under five minutes long.
After that frenzied peak, it was time to cool the show down a bit. It was time for a rare King Crimson ballad, though this was from their otherwise impactful “Red” 70s swan-song. “Fallen Angel” began with a Fripp guitar line sporting that rich, mid-70s tone he used to such great effect on the albums he made with Brian Eno. This song got off to a beautiful, even bucolic start, with Jakszyk’s singing hitting close to the mark of the late John Wetton, albeit without the duskiness Wetton brought to the song. Mel Collins played on “Red” as a session man so he had plenty of spotlight this evening to deliver his great solo once again as the tone of the song grew shifted from genteel to the point of heartbreak over its running time.
The mood shifted to accommodate an even more downbeat Crimson classic. While “21st Century Schizoid Man” will always be my favorite form their debut, I like the whole album, and “Epitaph” certainly view with “In The Court Of The Crimson King” as being the most epic sound on that disc. When one thinks “Mellotron Prog,” songs like this surely must be the first to come to mind. It has some of lyricist Peter Sinfield’s best work ever as it examines the ultimate folly of man with a heavy heart. Tonight they played it close to the template because let’s face it, it was perfect right out of the gate. There’s nothing that could have been done to improve this one. I have to admit that the intervening period of nearly fifty years has done nothing to render this song irrelevant. Quite the opposite. Our world seems as fatally flawed as ever as this song clearly shows. Crimson had tapped into their roots to deliver an impactful package that with the full eight man band onstage I’ll wager had never sounded as good as this evening. Never mind the 40+ years where Crimson setlists would definitely be missing this one.
Next: …More Surprises Abound