King Crimson, November 26, 2017: Shows I’ll Never Forget

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The Riverside Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin: There was a subdued, if not solemn attitude among the patrons in Milwaukee’s Riverside Theater on this Sunday night in late November. But this was to be expected. After all, it’s King Crimson. People come to worship this band, not necessarily to enjoy themselves. A King Crimson concert is serious business.

So, it was strangely incongruous that just before the lights dimmed, a very British pre-recorded voice came through the hall’s P.A. system, happily suggesting: “Let’s have a party!” The voice was that of Robert Fripp, the backbone and nerve center of King Crimson since the band’s late 1960s inception. His proclamation, almost a demand, that the audience should “have a party” was followed by other firm requisites for the evening. Fripp’s edicts, politely stated but quite unyielding, echoed the large signs posted on the stage: no photography of any sort and no recording would be tolerated. After making this point no less than three times the voice lightened, concluding as it began: “Let’s have a party!”

Fripp was as good as his word, giving the audience an extremely satisfying King Crimson concert. He knew precisely what the older fans would enjoy. In the middle of the opening set, the unmistakable chords of “Epitaph” brought many to their feet. It was the first of four songs that this double quartet performed from the group’s 1969 debut album — still the favorite of many Crimson devotees. The inclusion of these songs was enthusiastically embraced since, for many years, the group did not play any of this album in concert.

If an audience didn’t know anything about King Crimson, they would be hard pressed to single out Robert Fripp as its leader. Dressed in a white shirt, tie and dark vest, his appearance as a seated electric guitarist belies his status as a rock icon. Located at the far right of the stage, Fripp watches his band in the same manner he occasionally looks into his audience — with professional detachment. Even on the hottest of passages from his group or the most enthusiastic of responses from the audience, Fripp’s expression is unreadable.

Milwaukee was the final stop in King Crimson’s latest series of concerts, dubbed the Radical Action tour. The last night of a tour sometimes causes nervous uncertainty for audience expectations: Will the band be burned out from the road? Will they be phoning it in? Will the members be tired of each other and of the material? Or, will they have hit their stride as an ensemble? Will they have found the best approach to each tune and be on fire? Will they play like it’s their last gig on earth?

Fortunately for Milwaukee, it was the latter scenario. Performing two lengthy sets that opened with pieces titled “Hell Hounds of Krim” and “Devil Dogs of Tessellation Row,” it was clear that nobody would be taking it easy for this concert. On “Breathless,” second guitarist Jakko Jakszyk and keyboard player Chris Gibson were given intricate visual cues by Fripp as he conducted the song’s precise ending. I believe I saw bassist Tony Levin and Gibson reading sheet music for at least one infrequently played number. Fripp was keeping his band fresh and on its collective toes.

Early in the first set, the band performed both familiar and less frequently heard songs. “Neurotica” and “Cirkus” were played nightly on this tour, while “Pictures of a City” and “Fallen Angel” less so. Also included were “Radical Action” and “Meltdown,” two numbers that encapsulate the essence of the prog-rock genre, and both given inspired readings. King Crimson then switched directions by playing the beautiful ballad “Islands.” It was on this piece that multi-reed man Mel Collins was featured on various saxophones — soprano to baritone — and even bass flute. Synthesizers are fine, but Robert Fripp knows that nothing can fully replicate the true sound of a woodwind.

After the yearning melody of “Islands” allowed everyone to relax a bit, the octet presented some of its more frenetic material before taking a break. “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” is a favorite, but what surprised many was the band’s playing parts one and two of this piece in unbroken succession. As with the entire first set, it was unexpected, interesting, and extremely welcome.

The second set began like the first — with an impressive workout for the band’s three drummers. And as if to accentuate the importance of rhythm to this tour, Fripp had placed the trio of full-sized drum sets on the front line, with the other five instrumentalists on a raised platform behind percussionists Pat Mastelotto, Jeremy Stacey, and Gavin Harrison.

All three drummers had a distinctly different approach to their instruments, with each complementing the others’ playing. Pat Mastelotto has been with King Crimson longest and is most associated with the group’s style. When not on the road with the Crims, he is working with the band’s longtime bassist Tony Levin in their own trio, the Stick Men. Gavin Harrison engages in electronic drumming more than his two counterparts, but these elements were not called upon until near the end of the concert. Mastelotto and Harrison each used a huge set of drums, with Harrison having a great and varied cymbal retinue at his command.

Jeremy Stacey had the most “old school” drum set and played in a more traditional rock style than either of his colleagues. From Stacey’s center position on the stage, he frequently swiveled on his drum throne to double on keyboards. Actually, it was sometimes a third keyboard part that this drummer added to the mix, for in addition to Stacey and designated keyboard player Gibson, Fripp himself would also occasionally lean over his Les Paul guitar to play keyboards.

The layered sound from these multiple keyboards was most prominent following the intermission, when King Crimson performed two more numbers from In the Court of the Crimson King. On “Moonchild,” as with the album’s title number, the textured instrumentation sounded exactly like the record. The band’s current singer could not replicate Greg Lake’s distinctive vocals, but neither did he try. Instead, Jakko Jakszyk gave his own impassioned and appropriate interpretations to these songs.

The instrumental “Starless” proved a late evening pinnacle, as did the concert’s concluding numbers, “Radical Action II” and “Level Five.” King Crimson returned to the stage for “21st Century Schizoid Man,” which provided one last percussion feature for all three drummers, particularly Gavin Harrison.

The final night of the tour. Bassist Tony Levin later wrote in his Road Diary for this Milwaukee date: “As you’d expect (or at least hope), we’re playing the material pretty well by now.” Playing pretty well; I can only agree.

Tom Wilmeth is the author of ‘Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,’ which has earned raves from the likes of Gary Burton and Hal Holbrook. It’s available now from Muleshoe Press via Amazon.

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth, an English faculty member at Concordia University-Wisconsin since 1991, has given presentations and published widely on the topics of literature and music. Author of 'Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,' he earned a Ph.D. at Texas A&M in College Station. Contact Something Else! at
Tom Wilmeth
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