King Crimson’s timeless and titanic debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, was released in October 1969. The current “Seven-Headed Beast” incarnation of the band have been marking the record’s 50th anniversary with an audacious 50-concert Celebration Tour, which rolled into Chicago’s Auditorium Theater last night. The last time the Crims played Chicago in June 2017, the group (rightly) deemed the performance to be so stellar that they reworked their planned release dates for the year to get Live in Chicago into the hands of those who could not be in the Court that evening. While Marcia and I lived mere blocks from that show’s venue (the venerable Chicago Theater) at the time, the Scheduling Fates had us in the Netherlands that week, so we just experienced the show after the fact via CD, before catching a later date on the same tour in Milwaukee.
And now we live in Des Moines, but this year, the Scheduling Fates actually smiled upon us: I was in Chicago for work this week, and Marcia flew over to join me for the show. This is our third time seeing the Beast, twice with seven heads, once with eight; sadly, keyboardist Bill Rieflin’s wife Francesa Sundsten (who also created the modern Crims’ wonderful art work) passed away after a long illness in August, and he has been unable to tour with the group this year. Marcia and I also saw the fractal incarnation ProjeKCt Two together back in Albany in 1998, and I caught the five-piece 2007 version of the band in New York City. So on one hand, we theoretically know what to expect at a King Crimson show, but on the other hand, part of the magic of a King Crimson show is that if you leave your expectations at the door when you arrive, you’re likely to have a more magical, perhaps even spiritual, experience in the presence of music that transcends its creators.
King Crimson and its management company, Discipline Global Mobile (DGM), are exceptionally attuned to the sweet spots where audience and artist come together to create unique moments that cannot exist one without the other. One aspect of this culture manifests itself in strict prohibitions against photography during performances, flying hard yet consistently in the face of modern social media culture where audience members are often more obsessed with capturing the perfect Instagram shot or getting wobbly clips up on Youtube tomorrow than they are with being in the moment with the music today. Having been to countless shows marred by idiot audients in this way, I cannot tell you how refreshing a King Crimson concert feels with the gadgets put away until curtain time. It is Crim Policy that after all the music that is to be played has actually been played, bassist Tony Levin raises his camera to snap the audience, and we in a spirit of good faith and reciprocity can snap the band as they take their bows as well. I wish this practice would spread.
Another facet of DGM’s audience engagement is their “royal package” approach to the traditional VIP experience. Rather than some seedy backstage grip and grin photo opportunity where ticket holders are shoved through a rope line for a few seconds of reflected, resented glory with their heroes, DGM actually acquires the best seats in the house directly, and invites those who wish to purchase them to a nearly hour-long pre-show conversation with band members and management. We heard, at some length, from Crimson founder, composer, guitarist and visionary Robert Fripp, bassist Tony Levin, and manager David Singleton. And after the pre-show conversations, but before the concert, we enjoyed our complementary signed programs and other high quality merch from our amazing seats in the front row, on the right center aisle. It’s an exceptionally decent and dignified approach to audience engagement, and I applaud it.
I especially appreciated, as I always do, hearing from Robert Fripp, either speaking in person or sharing his thoughtful written words. (For example, over breakfast today, he summarized a portion of his remarks last night thusly). He’s one of a very small number of people in my life who have actively shaped my understanding and appreciation of music not only through what they write and play onstage or in the studio, but also in the ways in which they frame their work and practice, and place their artistry within a context beyond commerce. (Pere Ubu’s David Thomas also comes to mind on this front). Fripp is deeply thoughtful about what he does, and why he does it, and what it means. And he has been deeply committed for decades to sharing the perspectives he’s gleaned from those experiences and reflections, and I find that thought-provoking and inspiring. He’s also very funny, and he loves his wife very much and is never afraid to tell people that, and I hold those traits in the highest regard too. He moves me, at bottom line. I’m glad to spend time with him.
And then we get to the music: two sets, starting at 8pm sharp, wrapping at 11pm sharp, with a sharp 20-minute intermission that began, sharply as promised in the taped welcome from the band, immediately after the first set, and concluded immediately before the second set. After five years together on the road, the Seven-Headed Beast is truly monstrous at this point, making sounds unthinkable in their complexity with brilliant, pointillist precision, tone and timbre and texture deployed in the full service of the music, which is almost always audibly King Crimson, but which almost never sounds the same, from moment to moment to moment, as the concert careens onward.
Since the Crims’ reboot/relaunch in 2014, I’ve often encountered eye-rolling about the very existence of the band’s triple-drummer front line (Gavin Harrison, Pat Mastelotto, and Jeremy Stacey, the latter most ably doubling on keyboards, often in the same song), which somehow seems to trigger certain critical types into exegeses on excess and essays grounded in stale musical verities from four decades ago. All I can say on that point to the disbelievers is that until you’ve seen and heard it in concert, it’s hard to comprehend how perfect and powerful it is, both in the context of supporting the four back line musicians (Mel Collins on woodwinds, Tony Levin on basses, Fripp and Jakko Jakszyk on guitar, with the later on lead vocals as well), and as an exercise in its own right in high-wire, seat-of-the-pants technical expertise that’s simply dazzling in how incomprehensibly impossible much of it looks and sounds.
Both sets opened with the drummers drumming, and it was delightful to peek up at the top riser every so often and see how much the non-drummers also seemed to enjoy watching their percussive pals playing. The technical wizardry and auditory audacity continued unabated in the early going of the first set, as the gnarly and knotty “Pictures of A City” and “Neurotica” offered a pair of peeks (written over a decade apart) into the perils of big city living, with “Suitable Grounds For the Blues” following as a most apt third element, here in the hometown of electric urban blues. A mid-set block of “Red,” “Moonchild” (with improvised cadenzae from Fripp, Stacey and Levin), and “Epitaph” felt spacious and soaring after the claustrophobic density of what which came before it, though it was no less technical, just less frenetic. Marcia and I got to hear the quirky “Cat Food” (which earned the Crims an improbable lip-synching spot on Top of the Pops in 1970) live for the first time later in the set, which ultimately wrapped up with the electrifying “Elektrik” and the title track from In the Court of the Crimson King, still as haunting and evocative as ever, even with digital Mellotrons.
The second set’s opening drum fest segued into the gamelan-like “Frame By Frame,” which found Levin and Jakszyk harmonizing the vocals sweetly, as Stacey and Harrison created circular marimba tones around them. After a swarming installment from the five-part “Larks Tongue in Aspic” suite, the sweetness resumed with the utterly lovely title track of the Islands album, an almost jazz chamber music number that allowed Collins to shine most brightly as the music swayed and swelled inexorably like the sea against some lonely summer shore. The epic “Easy Money” is featuring new lyrics this year, carrying the themes of economic malfeasance that shaped the original forward into these most venal of populist times; Jakszyk’s wordless ululations through the swelling bridge section gave the song a sense of passion and fire and perhaps even despair in the face of market evils, then and/or now. A potent instrumental pairing of the final “Larks Tongue” segment with a chunky cut from the contemporary “Radical Action” suite returned the band to the knotted instrumental complexity that opened the show. Then an inspirational “Starless” (with its memorable theme, powerful vocals, and that epic building bass bridge that got the audience whooping well before it had run its way back to the final verse and chorus) and a thunderous “Indiscipline” (featuring more of the Drumsons’ incredible “pass the beat” collaborations) carried us into the second interim.
While King Crimson set lists are written by Fripp and presented to the band the day of each concert, always tailored to the moment, never stock repetition of the prior day’s glories, it was a reasonably safe bet that we would receive “21st Century Schizoid Man” as an encore last night, having not yet heard it, and that’s indeed how we ended the evening. Whenever I hear this song — live or at home — I never cease to marvel that (a) it’s half a century old now, (b) it opened a then-unknown band’s debut album, and (c) it was written by a quintet of very young musicians without much academic or technical training between them at the time when they created it. The song is so titanic, so sophisticated, and so iconic that it simply boggles the mind to ponder the fact that it even exists, never mind the fact that it can actually be played, and then never mind the fact that when it is, it’s as if it’s the most current, most present, most right here right now musical moment imaginable. Everywhere. Always.
I’m not often awed by audio, but that song gets me there, and it was the perfect capstone to a concert that was filled with jaw-dropping moments beyond count. This review is already probably longer than it needs to be, and I could append paragraph after paragraph describing each of the seven players’ performances, but I think it’s sufficient to summarize by saying that their deepest collective strength is how well they work as an ensemble, every one of them using their most formidable technical skills to support the whole, solos (when they occur) appearing less as acts of creative onanism than crucial elements in catapulting the canon forward, upward, onward. As the sole member who has appeared at every occasion when King Crimson has manifested itself live, Robert Fripp often consumes much of the media’s attention and focus, but in concert, he’s the consummate team player, content to create quiet textures from his back corner perch just as often as he called attention to himself with fire and flash, allowing Jakszyk to spin off as many guitar solos as he did over the fully packed course of the evening. It worked. It works. It’s wonderful.
A moving and powerful evening, at bottom line, with some notable elegiac elements for me and Marcia: with our move to Des Moines earlier this year and my retirement from TREE Fund in October, this is the last planned concert of our wonderful years together in Chicago, and the date also marked the 17th anniversary of my father’s death. We remember. We celebrate. Life happens, change changes, and music matters, most especially if we open ourselves to its ministrations, and let it move us as it may.