An Old Person’s Guide To King Crimson: KING CRIMSON @ BIRMINGHAM’S SYMPHONY HALL Reviewed

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One of the cardinal rules by which life is lived in The Boot Room – prompted in equal parts by agoraphobia, poverty, middle aged inertia, sheer laziness and an all-encompassing aversion to modern life is… NEVER LEAVE THE BOOT ROOM! How else could we ensure the prolific and up-to-date delivery of postings for which this blog is famed? The downside is that Ozymandias doesn’t get to attend many gigs these days, most recently Focus at the MK Stables, May 2014 (verdict? Menno Gootjes’ solos were too drawn out, bumping a bunch of classic repertoire from the set.) But King Crimson at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, 15.09.15? Tempting… especially so, given Robert Fripp’s admonition that, as the Crims’ previous UK tour took place in 1982, it might prove unwise to wait another 33 years to see them in action on these shores. That and the unexpectedly retrospective nature of the material being played could reasonably be construed as a heavy hint that this could be the last time. This could be the last time. May be the last time…

… but I dunno. Fripp’s pronouncements always have an authoritative air to them (it’s the way he tells them) yet are often contradicted by the subsequent facts. Remember how Crimson, the band and way of doing things, “ceased to exist” in 1974? Remember how he was never going to revisit ‘60s / ‘70s repertoire? Remember his recent and short-lived retirement from music to concentrate (successfully, as it happened) on pursuing monies owed? The second and third of these rethinks are, methinks, possibly not unconnected… presumably once Fripp had been ensured of his due from subsequent sales of the back catalogue, he felt happier about promoting such sales via live performance. Anyway, that’s pure conjecture on my part. Here are the facts…

Birmingham’s much-maligned city centre has been through a major overhaul since I last set foot in it, 15 years previously. The official unveiling of New Street’s £multi-million revamp was still five days away but it was already apparent that the Station has been transformed from some sunless circuit of subterranean dungeons into… something really rather spiffy. As for the closely clustered civic set pieces of the Town Hall, Repertory Theatre, International Convention Centre, Library (possibly designed by the people who did the Tyrell Corporate HQ in Blade Runner) and The Symphony Hall itself… bostin’!

This gig was scheduled after the previous night’s had sold out and the joint is about half full of Crim fanciers of all ages… there’s even a fair smattering of the fairer sex propping up the bar and milling around the merch stall. I think David Singleton was doing one of his Q&A sessions somewhere in the building, but train time tables meant I missed that. Instead I contented myself with celeb spotting, or attempted celeb spotting… no sign of Toyah… I would have thought that tonight might have been a natural for Lenny Henry… but is that Lee Pomeroy, from Steve Hackett’s band? Should have gone over and asked him but I was too shy (hush hush, eye to eye…)

Into the auditorium, whose splendour matches that of the building’s carapace, to be confronted by the much talked about massed ranks of drum-kits, soon to be occupied by (l-r) Pat Mastelotto, Bill Rieflin and Gavin Harrison. Behind them, places are set for (l-r) Mel Collins, Tony Levin, Jakko Jakszyk and yer man Fripp. Before they take the stage the boys deliver a taped plea to audients to refrain from photographing and filming the gig on their phones. “We know we can’t make an audience do or not do something…”  acknowledges an obviously mellowing Fripp, “… but what’s the point of watching the gig on a tiny screen with crappy sound later when you have the opportunity to enjoy the immersive experience here and now?” continues Jakszyk (all quotes approximate.) What indeed, would be the point? And couching the argument in such reasonable terms seemed to do the trick as I witnessed no flash or phone transgressions through the course of the evening. Tonight’s bespoke soundscape fades out and the assembled Crims make their entry. The Burton’s window dress code is starting to relax a bit, Collins’ and Mastelotto’s ties being conspicuously absent. Fripp shields his eyes against the house lights to calculate the turnout and test the air before the band start pummelling it with Larks Tongues In Aspic Part 1. Dynamic, much? As counter-intuitive as the seven piece, drum heavy formation might have seemed when announced, it immediately begins to make sense in the flesh… or should I say skin? You suspect that Fripp wishes he’d had this ensemble at his disposal in 1972, that this is what he was groping towards with the misfiring mid-90s “double trio” formation… even the heavy metal bebop of 21st Century Schizoid Man could have been written for this KC big band treatment. But wait, I’ve already got to the final number… see how time flies when you’re enjoying yourself?

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There’s so much to take in with this band, e.g. how the drummers divide up their work (initially Mastelotto is doing the Jamie Muir schtick while Rieflin holds the beat and Harrison flexes his fusion chops… then Harrison and Mastelotto mesh while Rieflin adds mellotron adornments to some of the earlier material, before the percussive kaleidoscope shifts again…) How Fripp and Jakszyk weave guitar patterns between them. How the band leader allocates solos (mostly to Jakszyk and Collins, as it turns out, though he steps out himself on Level Five and sets his guitar to laser sustain stun for Easy Money.) Collins beefs up riffs that suddenly seem to have been crying out for his participation all along… and Levin merits serious study at all times, playing as he does like five mere mortal bassists who are simultaneously pushing at the limits of their capabilities. Then you realise that in trying to track all these interactions, you’re making the same mistake as the guys with their cell phones. Better to let the immersive experience wash over you. For the same reason I stopped trying to note down the set list, unable as I was to recognise new numbers (or even, in the case of several drum interludes, to work out whether I was listening to a fully-fledged number or just a linking piece.) By a supreme piece of deductive reasoning, I did manage to establish that the one in which Jakko kept singing about a meltdown was probably… Meltdown.

While we’re on the subject of Jakko’s singing, you might be wondering how he measured up to the standards previously set by Greg Lake and John Wetton. He manfully attempted Wetton’s scatting in an Easy Money that featured the album (i.e. marginally less lubricious) version of its lyrics. He’s certainly no Greg Lake but then again, how many people can sing that beautifully? Jakszyk acquits himself well enough on a stunning Epitaph, a song whose lyrics ring even truer now than they did almost half a Century ago (purple pixie Peter Sinfield getting the last laugh.. though I fear tomorrow we’ll be crying.)

This band is probably too mathematical to really swing but it swaggers all over the likes of Level Five and Pictures Of A City, later loosening up for one of the finest Talking Drums I’ve yet heard (complete with drunken bees and funk fingers), segueing into the inevitable Larks’ Tongues Part 2 (which contained the only apparent slight stumbles of the evening) before the crimson lights (nudge, nudge) dim over a magisterial closing Starless. Fripp, looking kinda goofily happy, scans the crowd again on their return for In The Court Of The Crimson King and 21st Century Schizoid Man, the latter featuring a wire wristed Harrison solo. I think they’d probably have come back for another encore if the crowd had persisted, but the fact that they didn’t meant I was able to make an earlier train and get back to The Boot Room at a reasonable hour and without too much extra expense.

42 years prior to all of this I sat on the last bus out of Skelhorne St bus station (now lost) on my way home from the first gig I ever attended, King Crimson at the Liverpool Empire. The general consensus on the top deck was disappointment at the fact that they hadn’t played 21stCSM that night. In 2015 we got that but on the tram home I found myself in conversation with a Crim-loving couple who’d also been to the previous night’s show, which had apparently featured heavy doses of Islands and Red. While sorry to miss the title track of the latter, One More Red Nightmare and The Sailor’s Tale, I was delighted to have been treated to the majority of both ITCOTKC and Larks’ Tongues In Aspic. In an ideal world I’d have gone both nights but there was no chance of that at £65 for a half decent seat… one (D7) in which, by the way, the placing of one of Harrison’s cymbals (the really gongy sounding one) seemed to have been specifically placed to obscure my view of Robert when he was sat down playing. I imagine “Chuckles” Fripp would get quite a laugh out of that…

Looking forward to doing it all again again in 2048. In the meantime, a nice DVD / Blu-ray record of this tour would be very welcome… if only to get a glimpse of the elusive Fripp, doing what he does best in his natural habitat.

courtdeepAnd here IS the set list for the gig under review, subsequently confirmed at dgmlive.com

Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (Part I)

Pictures Of A City 

Radical Action (To Unseat The Hold Of Monkey Mind)

Meltdown

Hell Hounds Of Krim

The ConstruKction Of Light 

Level Five

Epitaph 

Banshee Legs Bell Hassle

Easy Money 

Interlude

The Talking Drum 

Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (Part II)

Starless

Devil Dogs Of Tessellation Row

Court Of The Crimson King 

21st Century Schizoid Man

http://www.dgmlive.com

This review previously appeared on the now defunct Bootroom Of Ozymandias blog.

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