My Favorite Live Record

I should note right up front: I don’t like live records as a rule. I love seeing music played live, where the sound and vision and audience interaction and smells and heat and all of the other tangible sensory elements merge together to create an amazing, full-body experience that can’t be captured at home. But . . . when I’m home (or in my car), I generally want to listen to studio recordings, since I really don’t care to hear other people cheering, and I’m not all that big on hearing ‘tween-song banter more than once, and the audio dynamite of most live shows loses something when its pressed down for home (or car) listening levels.

There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and I’ve mentioned one of them here before, but I’ve been listening to it obsessively for months now, and feel the need to further lift it up for your consideration. The record? Absent Lovers: Live in Montreal 1984 by King Crimson. This is, beyond question, the greatest live album I’ve ever heard. Period.

What makes it special? First off, it’s a document of an historic concert: the very last show by the ’80s incarnation of King Crimson, featuring Robert Fripp (guitars), Adrian Belew (guitars/vocals/drums/percussion), Bill Bruford (drums/percussion) and Tony Levin (bass/stick/synth/vocals). After this show, King Crimson went into hibernation for nearly seven years. When they regrouped, there were two new members (stick/bass player Trey Gunn and drummer Pat Mastellotto) added on to the ’80s lineup. Over the next decade, these six players worked together in various configurations, sometimes under the King Crimson banner, and sometimes as related “ProjeKCts”. (The current incarnation, in the early stages of their next recording, features Fripp, Belew, Levin and Mastellotto). After the Montreal show, though, the ’80s band never again stood (or sat, in Fripp’s case) onstage together to play, just the four of them.

Of course, I’ve seen enough tour ending shows to know that they can often be either completely rote performances (as bands are sick of each other and their material by that time) or freewheeling, self-indulgent meltdowns (as bands just don’t want that last night to end). The July 11, 1984 set captured on Absent Lovers was neither: I’ve heard and seen videos of enough other shows from that tour to know that the band pretty much kept to the same set list they’d been playing, and pretty much played the songs in the arrangements that earlier sets has included.

But something magic happens anyway. It’s intangible, I suppose, for the most part, but the energy level, technical virtuosity and enthusiasm leaking out of this concert document is exquisite on every count. King Crimson just nails these songs, one after the other, in many cases producing versions that far outstrip the ones featured on their ’80s studio albums. This record is live, yes, but it feels like its alive when you play it. It wants you to turn up the volume. It wants you to drive faster. It fights you when you try to take it out of the stereo.

While you might have to be as much of a Crimheaded geek as I am to have enough comparative listening to appreciate just how definitively powerful some of these recordings are, I think even complete newcomers to Camp King Crimson could do well by starting with this recording. It includes a pretty complete set of essential highlights from the ’80s band, along with crucial cuts “Red” and “Larks Tongue in Aspic, Part Two” from the mid-’70s band (which also featured Fripp and Bruford, along with bassist-vocalist John Wetton and, sometimes, violin player David Cross and percussionist Jamie Muir).

There’s a 20-minute block on the second disc of this record that may be one of the most dense, perfect chunks of music imaginable. “Waiting Man” features Belew and Bruford dueling on marimba-like electronic percussion, then morphs into a beautiful, wistful pop melody atop a ferocious groove, as Belew switches back to guitar and duels some of the same patterns with Fripp that he duelled with Bruford mere minutes earlier. “Sleepless” is breath-taking, orders of magnitude more powerful than the studio version (that seemed to be polished for radio, and actually even featured a rare King Crimson music video); it also offers the finest Tony Levin performance I’ve ever heard, and given the breadth of his catalog, that’s saying something. Both songs would also be on the very, very short list of all-time best vocal performances by Belew.

Next up is “Larks Tongue in Aspic, Part Two.” I have probably heard at least 20 different recordings of this song by several different Crimson lineups, and have no doubt that this one is the greatest of them all, by a long shot. I’ve watched two different concert videos where it’s performed, and I still can’t comprehend how the four players make so much complicated noise together without it disintigrating into a complete audio trainwreck. I have sat in my car while driving and literally played this one song over and over again five or six times at a pop. It’s that amazing. The only downside: it makes it hard for me to listen to the original studio version, which I’d always thought was incredible itself, but which seems slow and energy-deficient in comparison to the one captured on Absent Lovers.

The best part of the first disc in this set is hearing the largely-instrumental material from the second side of Crimson’s last ’80s record, Three of A Perfect Pair, played the way it was meant to be played. In the studio, it felt alternatively forced and wandering. Live, these songs (“Lark’s Tongue in Aspic, Part III,” “Industry” and “Dig Me”) make you hold your breath as they unfold dramatically, majestically, perfectly.

There’s only one song on Absent Lovers that I (occasionally) skip: “Man With An Open Heart”. But it’s less because of the quality of the recording or the performance than it is because I don’t really care for the song itself. If I had to listen to it, though, I’d listen to it here. And I do, most of the time.

So . . . go buy Absent Lovers: Live in Montreal 1984, and then write me to tell me about it, so we can geek out together. And if hearing this record gets you interested in learning more about King Crimson, and you’d some recommendations on which studio albums to get first, I’ve done an online guide to that, too: click away!

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