King Crimson's Robert Fripp is an enigmatic character who once described a King Crimson album as being like a love letter while a gig was a hot date, an often re-used quote by various reviewers of the band... oh and I've just used it too, but with good reason. A King Crimson show starts as a sober affair before the band takes to the stage the audience is warned not to use any cameras or video equipment during the performance (although we are allowed to photograph the band once the performance has finished and they begin to photograph us).
The main thing you notice when walking into a King Crimson show (other than the diverse age range the band now attract) is the way the stage has been arranged. There are (of course) the three drummers whose equipment is set up across the front of the stage and this organisation with the rest of the band behind the drummers on the riser allows the nearby audience to observe the interplay between the three drummers, Gavin Harrison (of Porcupine Tree fame), Jeremy Stacey (acclaimed session drummer, who also plays some of the keyboards in the band) and Pat Mastelotto (originally of Mister Mister and of course King Crimson drummer since 1993), which is fascinating to see. Behind them are the remaining members of the band Robert Fripp sits at one end of the row of musicians observing all and playing guitar and keyboards, next to him is Jakko Jackszyk the lead vocalist (in a band with very little vocals), and guitarist, occasionally also playing flute, beside him sits Bill Rieflin who originally joined the band as a drummer/keyboard player but now focuses on the keyboards, flanked by the incredibly talented Tony Levin who moves between Chapman Stick, bass guitar and upright bass as well as providing vocals, last, but by no means least, we have Flautist/saxophonist Mel Collins playing several of each type of instrument. It's a big band, but this is some colossal music.
There was a time in King Crimson history when the past was the past and it was more important for the band to perform newer music, but those days are gone and we are treated to a varied setlist with selections from each era of the band's history and while there are a great many songs in the current repertoire for King Crimson which owe their origins to a previous stage of Fripp's life (as Fripp is the mainstay of every line-up of King Crimson) nothing here replicates any of the records you may have at home, they are instantly recognisable certainly, but as Robert Fripp has said any element from King Crimson repertoire is considered new material when the band plays it, therefore we have due deference to the past, but there is a certain spontaneity in this show which gives the audience an exciting ride.
Seeing the arrangement of material from the (almost infamously badly received by some) 'Lizard' album brought to life by this band shows that there's a lot to be said for having the right band for the material. While their performance of 'Moonchild' is followed by cadenzas which hint at the extensive ambient improvisatory section which followed the song on the original album. The band proceed through the set with no stage announcements, there is no light show to speak of, except during the epic second set-closer 'Starless' where the lights turn red bathing the stage in a new and more ominous mood, set in sharp distinction to the rest of the night's performances when the band are in a more natural, relatively bright light. The audience is never short on appreciation of the musical extravaganza unfolding before us while the band receives a standing ovation at every pause with a mixture of gratitude and confusion when said pause is deliberate and set during a piece of music, not at it's conclusion. The night finishes with the band's encore, possibly the most famous King Crimson song, even before it was sampled by Kanye West, here in Glasgow the song positively thunders along complete with an astonishing drum solo from Gavin Harrison, although sadly lacking the drunken dancing I had seen at a show in Edinburgh a few years ago.
This band are truly at the peak of their musical powers and as the repertoire from which their set-lists are chosen grows we see not just new interpretations of classic material but a good number of new compositions which sit comfortably alongside the elder tracks, prompting the question of if we will hear a new studio album a thought replayed often in the heads of the fans, but not a concern to the band, this line-up of King Crimson have released several live sets and the band's website offers downloads of selected pieces from almost every gig the band play so there is enough new Crimson music performance out there to be going on with certainly.
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Review - Mike McLaughlin