Tuesday 8th September 2015
Hackney Empire, London
Thirty-three years ago, foundational progressive rock group King Crimson played in Oxford, Guildford, Cromer, Dunstable and Poole. You would have to go back to 1972 to find the band performing in cities such as Cardiff, Brighton and Birmingham. Now, almost unbelievably and following a highly acclaimed US tour in 2014, King Crimson have now re-emerged for their first U.K. tour since 1982 and first performance in London for 15 years. Just before the start various members of the band made a recorded announcement, asking the audience to not use mobile phones, i-pads or recording devices, and to experience the evening using our eyes and ears. In short, this is usual KC practice! A short time later they took the stage, all looking very smart and dapper, kudos to Bill Rieflin who played a powerful set at his drum kit without removing his jacket… that’s rock ‘n’ roll the KC way folks!
Following a complete volte-face having retired from music in 2012, band leader and motive force Robert Fripp has now assembled a 7-man line-up (the largest ensemble in the band's history) that flips the traditional rock band on its head with three drummers acting as the frontline, two guitars, bass and saxophone/flute at the back and this is certainly an event worthy of a mention. He sat at a stool with his guitar wearing a dark two-piece suit and tie, deceptively mild in appearance. The 69-year-old is the only original member of King Crimson, survivor of a turbulent history of fallings-out and hiatuses since they were formed in 1968. The latest line-up is the eighth version of the band. It withstands comparison to its famously inventive predecessors. For the record, eighteen musicians and three lyricists have passed through the ranks, although the tenure of certain members has sometimes extended for decades.
The three drum kits at the front of the stage were occupied by Bill Rieflin, Pat Mastelotto and Porcupine Tree stickman Gavin Harrison. Behind them, raised on a platform, were Mel Collins (who has played with The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton) on sax, clarinet and flute, Tony Levin (who has played with John Lennon, Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel) on bass and Jakko Jakszyk on guitar and vocals. Fripp was at one end, jacket off, headphones on, a virtuoso of guitar texture and guarded by a monolith of outboard gear. He has always seemed, on stage, like a reluctant guest at his own party.
The band’s music is created from a broad palette of sources including classical, rock, jazz and abstract improvisation; and despite virtually no airplay on commercial radio stations and precious little TV coverage they have maintained a loyal following, confirmed by an almost-full Hackney Empire, built in 1901 as a music hall. From 1963 to 1984 the theatre was used by the Mecca Organization as a bingo hall but has survived closure threats due to severe financial difficulties and was refurbished in 2001, part funded by donations from Sir Alan Sugar no less!! It re-opened again in 2004. The theatre’s facilities are clearly now much improved for people attending shows there and as a first time visitor WTS was impressed and will look out for future shows there!
A buzzing sound like an approaching swarm resolved into ferociously heavy riffs on the band's opening number, ‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Pt I’. The twisty 1973 instrumental - a jazz-rock raptor bearing down on Vaughan Williams’s ‘The Lark Ascending’ - was given a muscular workout, led by the powerhouse frontline of drummers.
Not being a massive KC fan and a first time viewer, some more songs I had never heard of or recognized followed and I continued to marvel at the skill I was witnessing in a curious detachment I was not used to at gigs. This felt like some sort of dry analytical exercise for myself, which is a different experience for me in concert. I reached the oasis of another song I actually recognized when they played ‘Easy Money’. A calmer mood was introduced with one of the band’s earliest songs, ‘Epitaph’, from the 1969 debut album ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ with Jakszyk ably taking the role of original vocalist and founder member Greg Lake who left KC in 1970 to form somebody called Emerson, Lake and Palmer! Simply wonderful. Song endings came suddenly, solutions to enjoyably tricky problems. The best undoubtedly for me was the 100% prog anthem and ultimate KC song ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’, played at pace with uncannily timed stop-start pauses - a brilliant song with a great drum solo by Gavin Harrison.
I could only sit there and marvel at the dexterity and marvellous interplay between the drummers, overseen like some sort of musical bank manager by Robert Fripp. If you closed your eyes you’d never know there were three players such is their cohesion. With Rieflin also playing the mellotron, the trio was frequently given a chance to shine with extended percussion-only interludes Not one word was spoken to the audience all evening by any band member by the way. This felt like some sort of classic orchestral performance. The ‘congregation’ (as this was clearly a religious experience for many attending) were totally entranced for the most part as the music demanded.
Red light suffused the stage for 1974’s claustrophobic ‘Starless’, the only moment of theatricality. No further decoration was needed for the music, all intricate patterns and impeccable timing. The band then trooped off like it was the end of school assembly with Fripp the headmaster last off, but the students (as this was also an event to ‘study’ evidently) wanted more and gave a rapturous response. They soon returned for the encore and everyone was ecstatic eventually when the band launched into the fantastical pomp and majesty of ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’, another prog rock sacred anthem if ever there was one... At the end the house lights were put on so the band could connect with the audience. Fripp stood at his position and slowly scanned every part of the hall as the storm of applause washed over the band, as if thanking everyone individually for there attention. No emotion, no acknowledgement, simply an almost one-to-one thank you and a look of quiet satisfaction after being afforded an inevitable standing ovation by a hall of fans who in some cases are probably seeing this reclusive band for the first time - and then they were gone.....
This was an incredible concert played with great precision and passion, but for me this felt like very cerebral music for the head rather than something for my heart – but then again I do not possess that life-long emotional ‘fan’ connection so evident in so many ‘Krim’ worshippers present. However, there can be no denying the exceptional musical abilities and timing demonstrated in songs that demand split-second reactions to crossover rhythms, key changes and sudden u-turns mid-number that made the incredibly difficult seem easy. This is high-end musicianship that would challenge the most accomplished performers from any genre. Would I go again? Maybe not (especially at those prices!) but I am very glad to have finally seen such legends in awesome action and doing classics from arguably the first ever Prog album. I would put the band on the same level as Yes and Genesis, just in a different way. Band longevity relies more on brand than continuity of personnel and Fripp’s current line-up seems set to ensure King Crimson will comfortably pass the half-century mark with their reputation as progressive innovators intact.
Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (Part I)
Radical Action (To Unseat The Hold Of Monkey Mind)
Hell Hounds Of Krim
The ConstruKction Of Light
Suitable Grounds For The Blues
Banshee Legs Bell Hassle
Devil Dogs Of Tessellation Row
21st Century Schizoid Man
The Talking Drum
Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (Part II)
The Court Of The Crimson King
Wrinkly the Silver