OBSERVATIONS FROM THE DRESS CIRCLE... Nothing you THINK you've heard by the 'new' King Crimson - the rehearsal tapes, the Orpheum CD, the Albany b***leg (come on! we all know it's out there!) - can prepare you for the experience of being in the same room as this seven-headed beast when they are in full swing.
Walk On/Monk Morph Chamber Music - Having the band amble onstage and immediately start noodling about on their instruments and 'tuning the air', strikes me as very Zappa-like way of opening a concert. But doing it along with a pre-recorded orchestra tuning up, the very same piece of audio-verité featured at the end of the "Islands" album, is pure King Crimson!
Larks' Tongues In Aspic (Part I) - If you've been sneaking a look at the setlists this week, you'll know that the band has now settled on this as an opening number, having tried various different permutations during the American tour earlier. Let's be honest... "LTIA1" is what you always WANTED a King Crimson concert to start with! It is magnificent. It remains magnificent. With bells on. Literally. Right away, you realise that Pat Mastelotto has finally found his rightful calling, channelling the spirit of Jamie Muir, with all manner of metal oddments and squeaky toys to hand. The thumb-pianos are nowadays digitally-sampled, of course. The only things missing are the blood capsules!
Pictures Of A City - Anyone who ever saw the Schizoid Band will know that Jakko can always put in a good vocal performance on this one (this was THEIR traditional opening number, after all) and Mel Collins can still skronk like a good'n', making you think it's 1971 all over again.
Radical Action (To Unseat The Hold Of Monkey Mind) > Meltdown - Something new... This is the very FIRST time I've heard this music EVER, so forgive me for not knowing where one song ends and the next starts. As a rough guide, there is an instrumental bit followed by a vocal bit. All the Crimson hallmarks are present and correct though: Disciplined crosspicking, some THRAKky moments, as well as some jazzier interludes that recall earlier times. I even heard a section that reminded me a little of The League Of Gentlemen (only with MUCH better drums!)
The Hell Hounds Of Krim - Much has been written elsewhere lately about KC's uniquely bananas concept of having three drummers in one band (or one drummer with twelve limbs), so I won't go on about it again here. Speaking as someone who immediately falls into a coma at the very mention of the words "drum solo", I dreaded the prospect that there would be quite a lot of this sort of thing in the show. BUT... seeing it, rather than just hearing it, I can appreciate this COMPOSITION with freshly non-rockist ears. I think I now 'get' it, by approaching it in the ritualistic spirit of Kodo or Burundi or Gamelan percussion, rather than as the sort of thing that, say, Phil Collins and Chester Thompson used to do.
The ConstruKction Of Light followed by Level Five - A couple of pieces of 'math rock' from the later "Belew Years", but given a whole new (humanising?) dimension by the inclusion of Mel's sax and flute work. You also have to admire how Tony Levin has adopted/adapted Trey Gunn's bass parts and made them his own.
Banshee Legs Bell Hassle - In which the drummers explore the more melodic parts of their extensive hardware, a delightful little Gamelan-sounding interlude, again made all the more interesting by having the benefit of "watching how it's done". This would probably have segued rather nicely into "The Talking Drum"... but no, instead we get
Easy Money - OMG! as you kids say... If you'd suggested to me a few months ago that I would ever get the opportunity to hear "Easy Money" performed by King Crimson without someone first inventing the time-machine... I don't mind admitting that I felt a tear roll down my cheek during the 'improv' section. I don't think music gets any better than this. And you can quote me on that.
Epitaph - Bill Reiflin here wears his 'other' hat as provider of one of the Mellotrons. The other appears to be conjured forth from out of Robert's guitar, following a happy accident involving a MIDI channel or two during an earlier band rehearsal. My attention here was mainly caught by the drummers (again!), watching with amazement how they've reinterpreted Michael Giles' (typically light-of-touch) parts for three people without things getting too overbearing. Jakko's vocal performance was again spot on, thanks to his years of apprenticeship in the Schizoid Band. (Is it too late to re-evaluate the 21st Century Schizoid Band as a 'PROJEkcT'?)
Interlude - A delightful little 'chamber' piece, involving a couple of flutes, an upright bass and some atmospheric string sounds... As well as evoking Messiaen's "Quartet For The End Of Time", I also hear this as a distant cousin of the 1973 band's "Trio" with maybe a hint of Mel's "Flute Trio" from the Schizoid Band years.
The Letters - Jakko has really made this "Islands" number his own and you can tell that he actually likes singing it (probably more than Boz ever did!). I loved the way they played those hugely contrasting baritone-sax/guitar ensemble oompahs and, again, I gazed in wonder at the way that the percussionists passed the parts around without getting each other's way. Then when Jakko sang the final acapella lines, you could hear a pin drop...
Sailor's Tale - Wait! Did I just say that "music doesn't get any better than this" when referring to "Easy Money"? Well, this too comes pretty close to musical nirvana! The skronking sax! The Mellotron! Fripp's Electric Banjo Riffs From Beyond The Seventh Galaxy! The blissful din of it all!
Larks' Tongues In Aspic (Part II) - Whoomph! straight into "LTIA2" with no "Talking Drum" as a safety net! Boy, does that 10:8 swing with this line-up!
Starless - I always regarded "Starless" as a summing up of everything in the King Crimson "Way Of Doing Things" and it would be my go-to demonstration track to play to folks who say "Nah mate, never 'eard of 'em!" (That was the astonishing reaction I got from a number of so-called friends when I mentioned that I would finally be coming to see this band). As "LTIA1" has established itself as the ONLY way to start a King Crimson set, so "Starless" is now the only possible way to end it. This version of the band really do a cracking job of taking it through all its tos and fros, ups and downs... Was that another tear in my eye?
As the auditorium rose to give King Crimson the standing ovation they truly deserved, I felt like the band had only been playing for ten minutes, such was my sense of immersion in the music! But it was probably closer to two hours in real life! A further twenty minutes of music was to follow, by way of an encore...
Devil Dogs Of Tessellation Row - The infeasible multi-limbéd drum beast presents another composition which, if anything, was even more Burundi-inspired than "Hell Hounds". Seeing and hearing three men do that cross-handed thing on the floor toms, effortlessly in unison... phew!
The Court Of The Crimson King - I think this song got the biggest cheer of the evening. After Robert had told everyone he couldn't play it any more, we feared the worst. But of course, Jakko has had many a year playing this one in his 'audition' band, the Schizoids, so we knew that he was more than familiar with it... leaving Robert free to play the second Mellotron (without touching the keyboard!)
21st Century Schizoid Man - Pat even has a sample of the introductory wind noise in that kit of his somewhere! I didn't think it would be possible to approach this number with fresh ears, after forty-odd years of familiarity, but it still has the ability to grab you by the lapels and scream in your face "Who else would have thought of doing this, eh?". I can't begin to imagine how other musicians would have responded to this level of ensemble playing in 1969. Not exactly "Honky Tonk Women", is it? I think everyone got to take a solo along the way, including a prolonged one of the drum persuasion by Gavin Harrison. If anyone can make me care about drum solos, then he can!
And that's yer lot! Not a word has been spoken on stage all evening. No one moved much except to change instruments. The band members' Sunday-best suits made them look a bit like an Irish showband. There were actual paper score-sheets in evidence. Someone said it was more like a classical concert than a 'rock' one. It was similar in one vital respect, in that the stage lights didn't do anything at all (except change to blood red during "Starless"). They didn't feel the need to distract you (or the musicians) with special effects. If you wanted back-projections and varilights, then you should have gone to the David Gilmour concert down the road (no disrespect to the Floydies intended). Here the music was all. And I appreciate that.