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The Calculable Crimsons: How King Crimson Has Become the Safe Space for Nostalgia to Breed

July 10, 2017

 

There he was in all his glory. Robert Fripp was a mere three rows away from me. This time the band were at the beautiful Massey Hall Venue in downtown Toronto. Luckily for me, I was at the most optimal position to have Fripp’s head completely blocked by a cymbal, provided by one of the three drum kits situated at the front of the stage.

 

The houselights dimmed at 8:01PM on Wednesday July 5th, 2017, and my second Crimsoning was about to commence. I myself was buzzing with excitement! What would they play this time? What will their lighting effects be like? How are they possibly going to beat such a show opener like “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part One” from the last tour?

 

Easy.

 

Just repeat the previous formula from the Elements tour…

 

Over half the songs from the evening were previously played on the last tour. Also borrowed from the last tour were the same lighting effects (solid blue, except for a red section in “Starless”). As the houselights dimmed, we heard the same recording urging us to join the infamous Crimson party with no photography or videos. Perched atop the stage were the same domineering signs warning against the usage of video and photography. We also heard the same pretentious orchestration warm-up, and saw the same formal attire being worn by the band members. Even the flute solo in "Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part One" featured "O Canada" once again (although, there was no "La Marseillaise" or Moe Koffman nods this time).

 

What was different, was the addition of drummer Jeremy Stacey, who has worked with the likes of Sheryl Crow, The Eurythmics, Joe Cocker, Chris Squire, and Steve Hackett (not to mention Squackett as well!) According to Robert Fripp on the King Crimson website (www.dgmlive.com), Stacey was to replace Bill Rieflin at the start of the European tour last September, due to Rieflin taking a sabbatical.

 

That being said, Rieflin was at the Massey Hall gig, and looked absolutely miserable perched atop his series of keyboards, staring begrudgingly towards the audience. Not once did he smile or get into the music at all. During the last tour, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Rieflin on the drums, as he would quite often swing into backbeats and display intricate facial expressions, but that was certainly not the case this tour. It was a bit of a letdown, as his pouting made one feel almost guilty for enjoying the music.

 

The only one who seemed to really be enjoying themselves was Jakko Jakszyk. Jakszyk was constantly smiling and swaying from one foot to the other. He really got into the presentation of the vocals as well. During “Easy Money”, he arched his back and belted out an impressively long and expressive “Oooohh” before succumbing to “ooby down” vocables. It was one of the most emotional highlights of the show. Unfortunately, the rest of the band members were rather somber throughout the night.

 

The most disappointing aspect of the evening was the sound quality. King Crimson is a band that is known for their wall of sound hitting each and every person in the venue with such brute force. My last encounter with Crimson was exactly that. From the grandiose buildup at the beginning of “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part One”, the sound was like nothing I had previously experienced before. Naturally, when Crimson launched into “Larks’” again for this tour, I was highly anticipating the impressive entrance of the bass and drums. Instead, a wall of extremely tinny cymbals crashed into the audience. The bass wasn’t even audible. It was a real shame because you could see Tony Levin’s fingers frantically moving up and down the fingerboard, and you could only imagine the type of sounds he was generating. The bass came through whenever there was a duet with flute or guitar, but as soon as the whole band reappeared, the bass was once again lost in the muck. Similarly, the vocals were barely audible at times, which was a real crime, as I particularly like the vocal approaches Jakszyk takes with the older Crimson material.

 

For me, the highlight of the show was Mel Collins’ woodwinds. The man was simply on fire! Everything from his smooth flute passages to his screeching baritone saxophone were spot on and full of expression. In my opinion, it was Collins that made the air electric, and provided an extra cushion of chaos and raw power when needed. It is interesting to note that Collins messed up the flute solo in “Court of the Crimson King”, and quite badly. He ended up playing in a different key altogether from the rest of the band, which made for hilarious looks being exchanged between Tony Levin and Collins. At the end of the piece, Levin gave a big thumbs up and a smile to Collins, who returned an equally enthusiastic thumb and grin.

 

Since the audience behaved well, we were rewarded a Crimson kibble with the performances of “Court of the Crimson King” and “21st Century Schizoid Man” (which contained a great drum solo from Gavin Harrison) for the encore. Between the two songs was a cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes”, which Fripp had supplied the guitar to on the studio version back in 1977. It was a beautiful tribute to Bowie, with Jakszyk providing an emotional vocal rendition with the strictest of care. He really made it his own. The audience passionately sang along and ended the piece with a standing ovation.

 

Aside from the nice surprise of Bowie’s “Heroes”, this concert was a bit of a letdown overall. The lack of sound quality really took away from the aural experience of what King Crimson are best known for. The material was played meticulously well, but I would have liked more of a variation in terms of repertoire rather than a hasty rehashing of last tour’s setlist. King Crimson are notorious for their live variations, improvisations, and teetering on the edge of unfamiliar waters. To see King Crimson would mean to experience something a studio album could not anticipate. Every show would be unique and a treasure on every occasion; always looking forward and never looking back. Now it seems that the Crimson of today has become a mere cookie cutter of what it once was; sugar coating all the best bits of dough and baking them with a fool-proof recipe – "like mother used to make". They have become a safe space, bobbing on a sea of nostalgia looking back at their home on the shore.

 

Don’t get me wrong, the audience lapped it up. Almost every song was cut off by standing ovations. I just worry that the defining qualities audiences may come to expect from King Crimson may no longer be applicable, and we may eventually lose out on the qualities that made King Crimson so very special to see live. Unfortunately, the notion of pandering to an audience’s nostalgia cravings can often become a slippery slope to abandoning one’s own musical morals. But I suppose for the band it puts bottoms in seats, and provides "easy money" nevertheless.

 

Setlist:

 

Act One:

1. Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part One

2. Neurotica

3. Radical Action III

4. Cirkus

5. Lizard

6. Hell Hounds of Krim

7. Fallen Angel

8. Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part Two

9. Islands

 

Act Two:

1. Indiscipline

2. The ConstruKction of Light Part One

3. Easy Money

4. Banshee Legs Bell Hassle

5. The Letters

6. Interlude

7. Meltdown

8. Radical Action II

9. Level Five

10. Starless

 

Encore:

1. The Court of the Crimson King

2. Heroes

3. 21st Century Schizoid Man

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