by Mitch Goldman
'95 Crimson is pretty much the '81-84 version (Fripp, Adrian Belew on guitar/vocals, Tony Levin on bass/stick, and Bill Bruford on drums/percusssion) plus two new members (Pat Mastellato, drums/percussion, and Trey Gunn, stick). Fripp views this configuration as a "double trio" but it's to KC's credit that this band functions more as a fully integrated six piece than the more standard jazz double trio. Fripp and Co. proved that there's plenty of life in this beast with their recent recorded output and live shows; THRAK is one of the year's best albums, filled with nasty-sounding guitar instrumentals and thoughtful, well-written vocal tracks from Belew. THRAK actually compares favorably to Red, the final John Wetton-era Crimson LP, released in '74, and considered to be a high-water mark in '70s prog-rock.
The Town Hall show in New York back in June showed the new KC to be in fine form, tearing through mostly new material from THRAK, with some '80s and '70s-eras tunes thrown in for balance. But five months later, Crimson sounds even more reflex with their new configuration; their two shows at the Roxy in Atlanta found the six members smiling, laughing, interacting as musicians and performers in the manner of a band that's been touring for seven years, not seven months. The meshing of instruments is smoother and more seamless than it was during the summer tour; clearly, this six-piece is more comfortable with themselves, each other, and the material than they were on the first leg of the THRAK tour. And it showed, in two amazingly tight-yet-open-ended shows in Atlanta.
The two Roxy shows were very similar in material; in fact, the Sunday show contained all of the songs of the Saturday show, with a couple extra thrown in. But since the song sequence changes each night, and since there are a couple of stunning improv segments, it's a show worth going back to see again and again. Opening with a brief drum duet from Bill and Pat, KC hit full throttle on the next piece, "Thela Hun Ginjeet" (from their '81 LP Discipline, the first KC album since Red). "Thela," like much of the '80s Crimson material, has an African rhythm set to a post-punk guitar riff (KC's Belew material has much in common with middle period Talking Heads, due in no small part to Belew's participation on the Heads' seminal Remain in Light); this world-beat kind of approach has largely been abandoned on the THRAK material, so it's nice to hear these songs played live. Belew, at both shows, was his usual virtuoso-self, bending strings, slamming the neck of his Dayglo orange Strat with his fists, even taking a power drill to his strings during the improv section of "THRAK" on Sunday. Fripp, in stark contrast, sat on his usual stool at the back of the stage, between the drummers, rarely moving, but frequently letting loose with his patented, saturated Les Paul outbursts; his solo on "Three of A Perfect Pair" is a highlight, featuring the kind of sound only Robert Fripp can get from an electric guitar. Both Levin and Gunn added lower and higher register parts to the songs, each with their own style: Levin is percussive and muscular on the stick, while Gunn is graceful; Sunday night, from the sixth row, his hand movements looked like the studied movements of a ballet dancer. And Mastellato and Bruford are the epitome of a great drum duo ... while one pounds out rhythm, the other adds color, and the sheer joy they get from transposing their respective roles from song to song is amazing to witness. Bruford in particular is probably, from a technical standpoint, the finest drummer I've ever seen live, working in a precise, dynamic manner without ever sounding stale or less than fully committed. It's worth the price of a ticket just to watch this percussive master at work.
And both shows were filled with joyous highlights: the encores included a brief drum session with Pat, Bill, and Adrian all participating, smiling like kids at each other's drum parts (the joy these men get from playing with each other epitomizes what's great about live music); the wild improv segment each night during "THRAK" which ended with a totally still, totally silent band (a positively breathless moment) before swinging back into the main "THRAK" riff; Fripp's improved "Soundscape" each night, during which Robert made spacy, synthesized sounds through his Les Paul (and his battery of pedals!); the stick improv piece that preceded a set-closing "Indiscipline"; Bruford's beautiful percussion color during the quiet, fragile "One Time"; Belew's ability to get animal noises from his Strat during "Elephant Talk"; and Sunday night's finale, "The Talking Drum" and "Lark's Tongue in Aspic Part 2." Not played on Saturday (despite being yelled as requests from the audience), "Lark's Tongue" is the perfect climax to a Crimson show ... a dark, nasty instrumental that intersperses quiet, reflective passages next to the snarling guitar work of Fripp and Belew. Hearing this song reproduced so brilliantly made me feel like a kid again, discovering the wonder of Crimson in the mid-'70s, wondering why I had never before heard music that sounded so, well, different. When six guys, whose ages range from late twenties to fifty, can make a 34 year old feel 14 again, you know the music has achieved its real purpose ... like all great music, it takes you away from your current place and identity, and transports you, emotionally somewhere new.
One of the things that strikes me as a nice feature of Crimson is their impermanence; you know that, like previous KC incarnations, this one will probably only last a few years, for a few records, for a handful of tours. But rather than depressing me, this idea adds to the appeal of Crimson. Unlike other bands who NEVER seem to go away, who decline in quality, Crimson shows up every so often to take us to a whole new place. They don't pick up where they left off; rather, they pick up as if THEY'VE NEVER LEFT. And they drag us, sometimes kicking and screaming (with delight!) to a new, unseen, unfelt musical place inside ourselves ... and ultimately, they leave us there, saying "you're on your own ... see you in seven or eight years!" And this is the true beauty of King Crimson: they take us on a voyage from which we're expected to return, or continue, on our own. Those of us who've been moved by this band will always carry the memory of this musical voyage; and when this version of Crimson ceases to be, as is inevitable, it's up to each of us to keep the music alive, in our heads, in our hearts, in our CD players, in our lives. The goal of Fripp and his cohorts is no less than to elevate our lives through fleeting moments of great music, through the sheer joy of playing and listening; and in their absence, we remember, like a dream glimpsed only vaguely in our memories, what this music and these experiences have meant to us. Like anything of true beauty and power, King Crimson can't be held; they can only be experienced and felt. But for those of us who've been moved by them, that's more than enough.
Walking On Air
Coda: Marine 475
Walking On Air
The Talking Drum->
Lark's Tongue in Aspic, Part Two