In The Court of the Crimson Criminals: A King Crimson Concert Review
November 23, 2015
Some things are better left in the past. The King Crimson concert from Thursday, is sadly one of those things. However, since I had the unfortunate privilege of attending that show, many have voiced questions and concerns regarding exactly what took place and why. I have decided to write a review/personal response to both the King Crimson shows I attended at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Toronto on Thursday November 19th, and Saturday November 21st, 2015.
Let's begin with Thursday. The show was supposed to start at 8pm, and I had arrived 20 minutes early. I figured this left me plenty of time to get a t-shirt. I was sorely mistaken. Although there were three people in the merchandise booth, only one was actually cashing out people with cards...which happened to be the majority of people. Although there weren't more than 20 people in line, it was painfully slow and I felt terrible for the one guy doing all the transactions. He was bright and cheerful, but the concert goers weren't overly impressed with waiting over 20 minutes for one item and nearly missing the start.
At least the band was 20 minutes late and we didn't miss anything after strolling into the theatre at 8:02. At 8:15 the lights dimmed and an announcement was made. It was the band stating that they would prefer everyone to not take pictures until Tony Levin (the bassist) brought out his camera. After a while, we would have to put our cameras down when Tony did the same. Now, I personally did not hear this part, but I'm going to give King Crimson the benefit of the doubt, and say that it was played. I understand that King Crimson wanted the audience to live in the musical moment and not get caught up in the distractions of technology and visuals. This became even more apparent when the band finally arrived on stage. I couldn't help but make note of the visual aspects, or lack thereof. There were no changes in the lighting, no video screens in the back, and the band all wore dress shirts, with the occasional vest. Right away with the lack of visual distractions, an importance was implied upon on the audio, and their dress code indicated a high level of professionalism. I also noticed that the music that was playing on the way into the theatre, continued to play, and eventually morphed into sounds of a string orchestra warming up. Although there was a woodwind player (Mel Collins), I found the implication of King Crimson, (a seven man group) being the equivalent of an orchestra in need of "warming up", (especially when there's no strings) to be a little pedantic and egotistical. Nevertheless, when the band began to play, the audience was in for the most wonderful evening. After all that unfolded in the next two hours, I will still claim without a doubt that that was the best concert I have ever attended musically.
The band opened with "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part One", which was a really nice surprise and opener! The night was full of surprises, as they covered many “golden oldies” including “Easy Money”, “Starless”, “Epitaph” and “Court of the Crimson King”. During Mel Collins' flute solo in "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part One", he quoted "Swingin' Shepherd Blues" as a tribute to Toronto's Moe Koffman, followed by "Oh Canada" and "La Marseillaise", which I thought was a nice touch to French Canadians and a nod to the recent turmoil following the Paris attacks. The audience picked up on these pieces right away, and applauded greatly when “O Canada” was referenced. It was an absolute treat having Collins with the band, as he had been with the band from 1970 to 1972, and returned in 2013.
One of the real highlights for me was the musical overlapping produced by the three drummers. They would answer each other’s rhythms and melodies and were impeccably tight. Some fans may argue that the three drummers were unnecessary, and were a scarce replacement for Bill Bruford, a drummer that had the rhythms and overlapping patterns of three. Nevertheless, I found the three drummers to be the most entertaining to watch with their visual cues and different drumming personalities. Pat Mastelotto was an absolute beast on drums complete with a grisly beard and roars of a lion. He would often start the drum cycles and was in charge of smashing the great gong. Bill Rieflin was a smaller gentlemen and offered the “cool jazz” beats in the band. He was very relaxed and went with the tempo, grooving occasionally on the backbeat. Gavin Harrison was the youngest of the three, and played most of the solo sections. He mainly contributed the snare and tom-toms, which at times overpowered everyone else.
Another great aspect was Tony Levin’s bass playing. He switched between a bass guitar, an electric upright bass, an extended-range bass, and a Chapman Stick. Levin was an absolute MONSTER on bass! I’ve never attended a bassier concert...and I’ve seen Rush! At one point, Levin used Funk Fingers, a tool that I had never seen live before. He would apply it to his fingers and slap the bass, creating rhythm while playing and changing the timbre of the notes. It was a rather captivating sound!
Jakko Jakszyk played second guitar and provided the vocals. He has been with King Crimson since 2013. I thought his singing was spot on, especially with the Court of the Crimson King material. Being a huge fan of Greg Lake’s voice, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect vocally. Jakszyk’s voice was somewhat similar to Lake’s, yet he managed to make every song his own. Jakszyk’s guitar often covered David Cross' violin solo parts, and sported the Court of the Crimson King album cover on the guitar itself. Jakszyk also had a guitar with the latest artwork from the tour sporting a man with one eye on it, but he never actually used it.
Fripp’s playing was spot on as usual, never missing a beat through the complex repertoire. At times his guitar was absolutely gnarly, sneering and screaming in the typical King Crimson fashion. At other times it was incredibly gentle and melodic, almost wafting through the air, light as a feather. Although the guitar makes these same changes on the studio albums, the live effect in that theatre was beyond any possible studio album, regardless of possible effects. The wall of sound that hit from the very beginning of the concert was absolutely mind-blowing, and was like nothing I had ever experienced. Between the three drummers and their overlapping percussion and the bass of Levin, I was completely floored. At times I was literally unable to move. I was in an absolute musical shock and all of my energy went towards responding to each piece, slowly I might add, as I didn't want to interrupt the last few notes of a piece…and neither did the audience.
I have never seen such a receptive audience. Like myself, they were absolutely floored by what they were hearing, sound and musicality wise. During the pieces the audience was ridiculously silent. If the music cut out for a beat you could hear a pin drop. While the vocals closed during "The Letters", no one spoke, coughed, shuffled, or clapped until the very last note tapered off to the back of the theatre. Even then there was a couple of seconds before one clap was made. The audience was so attentive and glued to the performance. People were literally crying tears of joy. Some people had waited years to hear King Crimson play again, others, like myself, had waited their entire life. The respect the audience had for the band was beyond measurable, and nothing I had ever experienced before. They acted like they were seeing an orchestra. They took in every note, every sound, every pause. The focus was solely on the music. There were no changing of lights (until the very end piece when the lighting slowly turned red, but faded back to the original blue), no video backgrounds, no distractions…just the music, and people ate it right up.
Everything was going smoothly until the encore occurred. At the end of "The Court of the Crimson King", Fripp quickly unhinged his guitar and walked off. He was shortly joined by the other members. The audience wasn't sure what was going on. Was this part of the encore? Was that it? Are there two encores with the second one sporting "21st Century Schizoid Man"? Clearly the lighting technician had no idea what was going on either. The stage lights remained on, and the house lights off. Even after the stage lights went off briefly, there were no house lights, only the return of the stage lights. There were no indications as to why the band had left, or any warning that they wouldn't be coming back , so we stood there cheering and waiting for them to return for a half hour. It wasn't until a large group of us made our way to the front of the stage after the house lights finally came on to ask one of the stage crew what had happened. He informed us that two people continued to take photos during the encore, which angered Fripp and caused him to end the show early. After all the incredible music of the evening, within a flash, it was gone.
On Friday morning, Fripp quoted his roadie Biff Blumfumgagnge on Facebook who wrote:
"The photo convention the band is asking the audience to adhere to is gracious and fair. The pre-show announcement asks us to 'have a party with King Crimson' but - some people have to put a turd in the punch bowl. Enter using your eyes & ears, and take your picture when Tony Levin takes his - c'mon people you can get this! The Toronto audience last night seemed very different from both Quebec City & Montreal's, both of which were joyful... Dunno why?"
As a participating audience member in one of the most respectful audiences I’ve ever witnessed, I was incredibly offended, being labelled as joyless. There was so much joy in that theatre that people were crying buckets of joy. There was absolutely no escaping it! How could the band and crew not feel it? How could they not see it? How could they not hear it in the way the crowd held on to every last note with such care and consideration? How could they be so disconnected from the audience like that? And what gives anyone the right to compare a Quebec audience to a Toronto one? Of course they’re going to be different! All cities are!
Fripp took to Facebook Friday morning, offering this statement:
"The band went onstage at 20.15 in good spirits. Mel played beautifully over the Eb major / Cm Soundscape. Into Larks’ I and onwards.
"My experience was of pouring wine into a cup with a hole in it. Once upon a time, I would have attributed this feeling-experience to the presence of bootlegging. Several times the thought flew by: you only need one prick in a balloon.
"The energy of a performance contains and embraces those within it, performers and audients. When the energy encircles and holds the event, the performance develops intensity, shifts gear, and becomes a qualitatively different undertaking: it takes off and flies away into a different world. When we are carried with it, sometimes a performance can be transformational: even, redirect the course of lives. A requirement of players and listeners is to remain engaged and present, hopefully with goodwill, to the extent that all can bring to bear. Tonight, strangely, nothing took off IMO; a first for this KC.
"Persistent camera persons persisted, despite rounds of applause for the Revised Photo Policy announcement before the show, continuing into the encores.
"The Guitarist Stage Left also persisted. Until finally, having been slapped around the face and stabbed in the heart too many times (this is how I experience violation in performance), it was not possible to honourably continue. Robert left the stage, followed shortly by the other Crims. The show finished, a result of ongoing photographic abuse.
"The revised KC photo policy is a fair and reasonable way of engaging with those who hand over their hard-earned pay and feel the need to take a picture of the band. To photograph outside those parameters is at least rude, and discourteous to other audients and the players. At a certain point, given the intentionality that gives rise to an act, proscribed acts become aggressive; even close to an expression of ill will. This is what I felt tonight.
"A report on tonight’s performance, presented from a viewpoint of playing in public for over 56 years."
It is not my place to criticize, condemn, question, or argue with Fripp's wishes. One must respect one's opinions, points of views, and understandings. That is respect in its simplest form. However, respect should be a two-way street, and so I completely disagree with how the situation was handled. I realize that Fripp was upset by the one or two people disobeying the rules, but don't take it out on several hundred people who paid a lot of money to be there! Take the one or two people who took the pictures out of the auditorium, thus ceasing the flashes, creating embarrassment on the two perpetrators, and setting an example for the rest of the audience. I understand that Fripp's point is that the magic dies when cameras interfere, but he must realize the audience died with his actions, and I was there to witness the sheer destruction his actions caused to the people around me. Normally I wouldn't feel so passionately about the audience perspective but I must insist on voicing the repercussions of Fripp's decision to abruptly leave. If respect is to be a common topic here, why not have the decency to send someone on stage to explain the situation? There were many young people there, and for them it was their first experience of King Crimson. They had no prior experiences to fall back upon, and were left feeling completely devastated with the band's cold departure. Many spoke out, explaining that they were students and simply couldn't afford seeing Crimson another night in hopes of catching "21st Century Schizoid Man", or a more pleasant ending to an otherwise incredible evening. The whole incident left an incredibly bitter taste in the mouths of the young Crimson fan base, and ultimately tainted their perception of the band.
I bought a ticket to see King Crimson's Saturday show, but it came at the cost of eating macaroni and cheese for the next few weeks. Nevertheless, I wanted to experience the musicality of the band another time. I was so blown away from the sounds I was hearing on Thursday, I wanted to hear if they were always this on top of their game. Since Fripp had previously expressed he felt "nothing took off" that night, surely I was in for a real treat! Plus there was always the possibility of hearing "21st Century Schizoid Man" in a way I would have never heard before. After entering the theatre, dozens of signs presented themselves warning not to take photos. There was also increased security guards wandering about, and closely eyeing the crowd. At one point, a security personnel was hustling an older man with a cell phone, even though the fellow was just trying to figure out how to shut it off. If Fripp wants to talk about polluted environments, this one was as potent as it gets...and the show hadn't even started.
Unfortunately, the environment only thickened with tension as the night progressed. To be fair, I'm sure the majority of the tension was felt by me, as I had been a witness to the events of Thursday night. I sat in my seat, arms folded, almost afraid to move in fear that a guard might think I'm fidgeting with a phone. The audience was also rowdier than Thursday, shouting words between and even during songs. With every shout or outburst came the inevitable fear of Fripp packing up and leaving. At the end of "The Letters", the last few words were drowned out by woops and "YEEEAAHHHH!"s. This completely different atmosphere for me took away the intensity, the delicacy of the music, and the overall respect that was shown towards the music and what it had to say. Thursday's performance was like watching an orchestra perform. The sound swirled and people observed. It was a perfect environment for taking in such astounding musicality and not missing a pinch of the musicians and their work. As a woodwind musician, I learned so much that night about tightness, sound, and especially technicality and controlling one's embrasure just by watching Collins. But this performance was completely different. I had never been so tense at a concert. I desperately wanted the end to come, to see if we had behaved well enough to deserve the mighty "21st Century Schizoid Man"...I say that with a little bitterness. By the time the encore hit there were at least four security personnel scrutinizing up and down each isle, blocking views and staring at us as if we were all criminals. Perhaps if it were a performance of Roger Waters' The Wall I wouldn't have minded as it would have added to the show, but given this situation it completely ruined the experience. All it did was distract from the music and implement fear.
I'd like to say that the music made up for the hostile environment, but I would be lying. I was only a few seats away from my seat on Thursday, but the sound was miles away from what it was that previous night. There wasn't as much bass and tightness between the musicians. The beautiful flute interlude at the beginning that included "O Canada", ""La Marseillaise", and "Swingin' Shephard Blues" was breathy and so badly supported that the audience didn't even recognise "O Canada" until halfway through. Collins seemed tired, and often interrupted the phrases to take breaths. Even the drums didn't seem as tight as Thursday, and appeared rather mechanical.
By the end of the show I was absolutely livid. Although I was "privileged" enough to hear "21st Century Schizoid Man", it was nowhere near the level of musicality I expected from such a piece. At that point I would have much rather heard the album version. Maybe my judgement was clouded by the events of the heightened security, or perhaps the visions of Thursday's performance still lingered in my mind. Regardless, I would have been better off staying at home. I was so frustrated wondering what could have been Thursday night. Not only would we have experienced "21st Century Schizoid Man", but we would have also experienced drum solos and proper goodbyes. It would have been a proper ending to a profound display of musicianship and musicality.
To this day, I am still frustrated with the "What If?" of that night. In my opinion, King Crimson were simply untouchable on Thursday. Maybe it was because they were well-rested from their Montreal gigs, or in a new city with new faces. Regardless of what the exterior factors were, the outcome of the interior events have left this King Crimson fan and many others, disappointed.
Setlist for Thursday November 19th:
Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part One
Pictures of a City
Radical Action (To Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind) I
Hell Hounds of Krim
The ConstruKction of Light
Suitable Grounds for the Blues
Banshee Legs Bell Hassle
The Talking Drum
Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part Two
Devil Dogs of Tessellation Row
The Court of the Crimson King
Setlist for Saturday November 21st: Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part One
Pictures of a City
Radical Action (To Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind) I
Hell Hounds of Krim
The ConstruKction of Light
Banshee Legs Bell Hassle
The Court of the Crimson King
21st Century Schizoid Man