King Crimson – Live In Argentina 1994 (2012)

When King Crimson reconvened in 1994, the band was made up of the four-piece unit that recorded in the 1980s (guitarists Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew, bassist/Stickist Tony Levin, and drummer Bill Bruford) and a new pair of instrumentalists: Stick player Trey Gunn and drummer Pat Mastelotto, both having worked with Fripp in the Sylvian/Fripp live band. That’s right: two low-end guys and two drummers along with the original two guitarists or, as the band became known, the Double Trio.

The band set off to South America to play a small series of shows to work out the kinks, having just finished recording the then soon-to-be-released EP, VROOOM. This set captures two shows from the middle of that tour, the earliest video evidence of this band working live, and it’s a thrilling thing to witness these two shows, afternoon and evening, on DVD, having never been available before.

The ravenous reaction by the crowd to material both old and new is as encouraging as it is infectious. It’s hard to believe these new songs haven’t been heard by a single member of these audiences. The two shows are nearly identical save for the appearance of the intricate “Discipline” and an impromptu encore presentation of “Coda Marine 475” in the evening show, but the evening show presents a slightly tighter band, having worked out the kinks earlier in the day. On a technical note: the encore “Coda” is camera audio and so not the fantastic sound of the rest of the show.

Aside from the encore, audio quality isn’t a question: The band recorded all of these shows themselves and compiled a fantastic live release in the form of B’Boom (sadly no longer in production, but it can be found pretty easily.) Most surprising of all is the video quality. I had expected that great audio to be paired to something murky and bootleggy, in keeping with some of the tendencies of this series. That, happily, is not the case at all. The picture is crystal clear, even by today’s standards, and is presented 4:3 (that’s likely how it was shot) so you will have to put up with vertical letterboxing on widescreen TVs.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Longtime King Crimson member Adrian Belew on the future of the band: Robert Fripp ‘may never want to do it again’]

If there’s an issue to be had, it’s simply with how that great footage was handled. While we are spared the quick jump-shots from one player to another, a dependency on extremely long dissolves develops over the length of each concert that does start to aggravate after awhile. And, sometimes, the dissolves, well, dissolve back into nothing, and you never get any resolution of switching from one shot to another to find out who was the blob you were staring at.

But that’s a small complaint for getting this footage. This is a relatively green band (we’re still talking about six consummate pros here, after all), feeling its way through new music, with new members who are being let into the fold. With a plethora of live material from later in the tour, it’s even easier to see how Gunn and Mastelotto started fitting themselves into the spaces being created for them by their attentive and compassionate comrades. Here, in late 1994, their space in the band is much more tentative and mysterious. You see Gunn up there playing something on Stick but you’re still not quite sure what his contribution was (side note: this is the only live video footage of Gunn playing a Chapman Stick with King Crimson. Shortly after this, he would switch to the Warr Guitar.)

Similarly, Mastelotto seems to be playing around Bruford rather than in combination with him as he would later do. He adds new colors to old songs, and on new songs he plays in tandem, but there’s little of the good-natured rough-housing that would show up over the next couple of years of playing.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Here are a few more suggested King Crimson-related downloads, culled from years of hanging out in the archive section at DGMLive.com.]

Most enjoyable to watch is simply the pure joy present on the stage. There’s a playful nature bouncing around up there. It should come as no surprise to see Adrian Belew’s ever-present grin as he goads the others on, and Bill Bruford is frequently seen with a smile and gesturing loosely while the others react in kind. It’s serious music made through serious fun.

But there’s a double-edged sword here, if you are one of those who, like me, care enough. With this set we are given something and we see something start to be taken away. It’s the old good news/bad news situation. That’s what we have here, depending on how deeply involved in the world of King Crimson live material you are. Let’s start with the bad news: the long-running King Crimson Collector’s Club, set up to distribute particularly noteworthy performances by the band, will be drawing to a close at release No. 50. Live In Argentina 1994 is No. 46.

The series has had its ups and downs, however, being more suited to true, absolute, complete die-hards who simply want to hear moments in history rather than listenable music. More often than not, there’s been great stuff to be had, but every once in a while, if you’re not looking for history and instead just want great live stuff to hear, you can get burned (Discipline Live At Moles Club, 1981 being one prime example – Discipline being the name of King Crimson just prior to Fripp “sensing the presence of the Crimson King” in the music, or whatever it is that goes on in his head. Regardless, it’s a historical release because it’s the first performance by that four-piece, but it it’s far from great sounding. There are some much nicer sounding audience recordings from later in the Discipline tour available to download from DGMLive if sound quality is your concern.)

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Tony Levin goes in-depth on his work with King Crimson, performing on John Lennon's final sessions and his trio project with David Torn and Alan White.]

So the end of the Club is bittersweet. It means there are likely no “big” releases left in the archives after No. 50, and whatever’s left will be run-of-the-mill releases for download only, or perhaps commercial release. But it also means there may be more great sounding live sets available on DGMLive.com that may not be of historical importance, but they may be the ones you listen to over and over again.

There is a hope that comes with this announcement of the end: that these last few will be spectacular. This, the first of those comes pretty close to living up to that.

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Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.