September 1, 2019

Nostalgia isn’t what it might have been – King Crimson at 50 at the Royal Albert Hall

It’s something of an indication of the longevity of progressive, post-psychedelic music, that we’re currently witnessing a slew of 50th anniversaries – last year it was Yes, this year it’s King Crimson. By some distance the most volatile of the first wave of genre-defining bands, Robert Fripp and his current incarnation of multi-percussive wonder, undertook a “celebratory” series of dates to commemorate 50 years since the release of the still-jaw-dropping In The Court Of The Crimson King, by playing (more or less) the same set they’ve been doing since this iteration of Crimson returned to active duty in 2014.

I’d seen them before in this array – three drummers (Gavin Harrison/Pat Mastellotto/Jeremy Stacey – who replaced Bill Rieflin), reeds virtuoso Mel Collins, bassist Tony Levin, and guitarist/vocalist Jakko Jaksyk. And been less than impressed, for several reasons. Firstly, I’m not quite the pictorial definition of a rock and roll party animal, nor am I overly inclined to get down the front and mosh with my peers. However, I’m disinclined to treat what is effectively rock music with the reverence usually afforded a chamber music recital, and there was an awful lot of that as a vibe, both at that gig and the RAH. Fripp has spoken of his desire for the music of Crimson to be accepted by “innocent ears”. I’d suggest that’s unlikely to happen if those ears think they’ve wandered into a lecture hall by mistake.

Or a drum clinic. As you’ll have noticed, there are 3 drummers in the current iteration of the band. As a consequence (whether intended or otherwise), that’s a lot of drummer to keep busy. The set is therefore peppered with percussion pieces, and song arrangements are tweaked – in some cases rather gratuitously – to ensure everyone gets a fair crack of the (drum)stick. Chief culprit here would be Indiscipline – previously a showcase for Bill Bruford’s delightful rhythmic idiosyncrasies, now reduced to a succession of democratic drum vignettes that may pass muster in a prog fan’s imaginary “Top Trumps” drum-off but seemed perfunctory to me.

Another consequence of this panoply of percussion is that tempos are very much tied down, and whilst I couldn’t swear to it, it certainly felt as though the band were working to click tracks (I’ve since found out that they were). And this more than anything, encapsulated what was missing from this incarnation of Crimson – “danger”. Almost every version of KC from 1969 onwards conveyed the sensation that, at times, the bands commitment to improvisation and being “in the moment” led to moments where the music (and the musicians) were flying by the seat of their collective pants – there’s ample recorded evidence of this throughout the various boxsets documenting Crimson over the years. This time round (and for the last three times round the block), there was none of that excitement of watching a band step to the edge of the precipice with no real idea of how they got there, or how to get back.

The first set of the evening was notable for a couple of things – the lack of Red (not in itself a bad thing – for reasons I’ll go into later), and the relatively subdued nature of the material played (Moonchild, Bolero from Lizard, Peace (an End), with only Indiscipline, and Pictures of a City to pick up the tempo, as it were. Talking of Indiscipline, it would be remiss of me not to point out that, although Jaksyk does a sterling job of picking up a lot of the guitar slack, and manages to hold together Lake’s, Wetton’s, and Burrell’s vocal parts well, it’s almost painful to hear him ‘interpret’ Adrian Belew’s lyrics. It ruins Indiscipline, and doesn’t do Neurotica any favours in set 2 either.

Also missing from either set was any material from the Thrak era of the band, which was again a little strange as the instrumentals had tended to feature prominently in previous tours. As I mentioned earlier with Red, this wasn’t too much of a problem for me, as I’d noticed (or actually had it pointed out to me by a non-prog-loving acquaintance) that at slowed down regimented tempos, Crim instrumentals of this nature bore an uncanny resemblance to the theme music from 1970’s US cop shows, which isn’t a crime in itself, but once you’ve heard ‘The Streets of San Francisco’ on YouTube confirming the hypothesis, it takes all the fun out of Mel Collins et al honking their way through Vroom…..

Highlights? Well, actually, quite a few, notwithstanding the above. Discipline was surprisingly muscular, as was Pictures of a City. Radical Action 2 and Level 5 were reminders of the unrelenting power that Crimson can summon when the mood takes them, and came the closest to the excitement and, yes, danger that comes closest to defining Crimson. The melancholy that acts as a twin helix to the Crimson DNA was more than adequately illustrated by Epitaph, Starless, and a powerful reading of The Letters. 21st Century Schizoid Man was present, correct, and Gavin Harrison’s drum solo was (just) this side of indulgent. Minus points from rewriting the lyrics for Easy Money to reflect a post-MeToo era – look chaps, it’s a sexist song from the ‘70s and no amount of burnishing is going to change that: if you’re not comfortable with that just don’t play it, OK?

Oh, and it remains the only gig I’ve ever been to where the queue for the gents was at least 400% longer than the one for the ladies. Or so my partner informed me – wouldn’t want folks to think I was researching this….