Everything about King Crimson is weird, wonderful, and different. Would you imagine an old punk like me would be a fan of the ultimate prog-rock band? Weird things happen. Years ago, my dear, departed friend Joey sat me down and played me his copy of Lark’s Tongue In Aspic, Crimson’s fifth album released in 1973. To say it was a mindblower was an understatement, the first track (‘LTIA, Part 1’) beginning with all kinds of hippie dippie percussion that seems to go on forever, until Robert Fripp’s absolutely howling metallic guitar screams into the picture. Wonderful. I was aware of In The Court Of The Crimson King (with the iconic ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’) and, to some degree, the metal workout of Red. But I was never a Crimson fan, until 1981’s Discipline. I had been following Adrian Belew’s career, and he, Fripp, Tony Levin, and Bill Bruford had a hell of a quartet. This would eventually morph into the ‘double-trio’ that recorded the Vrooom EP and the astounding Thrak record. I’ve followed Crimson pretty closely since 1981 until now.
That being said, King Crimson is a band that is a way of life among their fans. I make no claims to being an expert on this band. But I have seen King Crimson seven times now. So, the newest incarnation of the band, the ‘Seven-Headed Beast,’ features guitarist/bandleader/keyboardist Fripp, bassist/Chapman stick player Tony Levin, singer/guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, horns and wind instruments by Mel Collins, and THREE drummers, Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison, and drummer/keyboardist Jeremy Stacey. The ensemble was at the very nice Cobb Energy Center in Atlanta, great acoustics, great seats, great sightlines, all in a 2700 or so capacity sold out theater. This was their 2019 celebration tour, being the 50th anniversary of the first Crimson LP, In The Court Of The Crimson King.
Different. A King Crimson concert is different from any other. No photography is allowed, ever. No recording. No use of phones at any time. Old fans are ready for this, and new fans are met with plenty of signs telling you to put your phone away. They will throw you out if you use your phone. The idea is that the band wants you, the listener, to be present in the music. Taking the phones away really helps. I can’t remember enjoying a cellular-era concert experience more, without the constant shining screens in the air. It really works. A King Crimson show, with it’s impressive, beyond top level musicianship, excellent sound, and dearth of any rock tropes (no video screens, no backdrop, no fancy lighting, no talking to the audience) reminds me of going to see a classical ensemble. It’s very civilized and very enjoyable.
The show was set for 7:30 pm. And King Crimson was playing at 7:30 pm. We were in the lobby finding our seats when they started. The band broke up the show into two parts with a 20 minute intermission (also very civilized). Right up was ‘Neurotica’ from 1982’s Beat, singer Jakko covering the Belew vocals and Mel Collins’ sax playing all over. The band sets up with the three drummers up front, with Collins, Levin, Jakko and Fripp on a riser behind them. Traditional prog was the core of ‘Cirkus’ from Lizard (1970), which was a showcase for both Jeremy Stacey’s keyboard work and Jakko’s vocals (sounding very much like original Crimson’s Greg Lake). Next up was ‘Red’ from the same LP (1974), an evil, metal workout that I really love. Tony Levin’s shifting bass was a highlight amidst Fripp’s take-no-prisoners guitar, and all three drummers were full bore (I know you may be thinking, three drummers? But this is King Crimson, it’s weird and wonderful and it works). ‘Moonchild’ from In The Court Of The Crimson King got a great audience response, all full of mellotrons, e-bow guitar, and more I-swear-that’s-Greg-Lake vocals. “Elektrik,’ from 2003’s The Power To Believe, was a pseudo-electronica workout with Fripp and Jakszyk playing delicate guitar filigree on top. They ended part one of the show with a heavy, heavy take on ‘Level Five’ from The Power To Believe. Now for a civilized twenty minute intermission.
Part two of the show began with a drum workout, and then a beautiful version of “Epitaph’ from In The Court Of The Crimson King. Jakko’s voice and the oh-so cool mellotron sounds were spine-tingling. After a portion of ‘Lizard’ the seven-headed beast lumbered into ‘Larks Tongue In Aspic, Pt. IV’ from 2000’s The Construktion Of Light. This was a thirteen minute or so metal workout with so, so many parts. A wonder to behold. It also had an extended solo from seventy year old Robert Fripp showing him to be one of the fastest guitarists on the planet, and not just fast but precise, never missing or flubbing a note. Astonishing. As the set neared the end, they did a fabulous intro to ‘Indiscipline,’ (from 1981’s Discipline) featuring Mastelotto, Harrison, and Stacey in an extended drum-off before the howling body of the song came in. Weird and wonderful. Next was ‘Starless’ from Red, a beautiful slow-burner showing Tony Levin at the top of his game, holding together an impossible sounding bass line.
‘The Court Of The Crimson King’ brought the crowd to its feet. Funny I just saw the Claypool Lennon Delirium do an incredible version of this song (tinyurl.com/zubdelirium) but this was KING CRIMSON. There is no better version. Another, lengthy standing ovation, and they were off stage and back for the ultimate encore, a workout on ‘21st Century Schizoid Man:’ metal riffs, raunchy sax, screaming distorted vocal, jazz-improv like middle, the amazing start-stop section. It was all different, weird, and wonderful. Fripp has said he believes this song was the first metal song, and as with everything Fripp, he is probably right.
King Crimson. Really hard to define. Amazing show, remarkable music, best musicianship ever. Rock as classical chamber music. Total respect for the audience. Not putting up with ANY bullshit from the audience. Heightened expectations, heightened outcomes. Weird, wonderful, and different. Long live the King!
Rolling Stone article about ‘21st Century’ (in two parts)
A Spotify playlist made by Brad Carr approximating the set: