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King Crimson

Live in Birmingham, England in September 2015

Review by John Pierpoint

I had never seen the mighty King Crimson play live before - not surprising, as I was only ten years old when the band last played my home town in 1974! I'm no longer a frequent concert-goer, but when I heard that they had added an extra date at the Birmingham Symphony Hall, I realised that this was probably my one and only chance to see any incarnation of this band live on stage.

Ambient, relaxing music was playing before the show started - probably some Frippertronics. Just before the show started, there was a recorded announcement from the band, asking fans not to take photos or record the show. Even Tony Levin said that he would not be taking photos on this tour (Levin is well known for documenting his many shows photographically). 

Soon after, the band came out onto the stage. Mel Collins played some flute along with the ambient music to warm up. They played on a relatively uncluttered stage: three (count 'em) sets of drums to the front, with the other musicians arrayed on a series of risers behind. Robert Fripp sat next to a huge rack of effects, wearing headphones, right at the edge of the riser structure - almost hidden from view. So the stage positions looked like this:

Front (L-R): Pat Mastelotto (DW drums), Bill Rieflin (Gretch drums and keyboards), Gavin Harrison (Sonor drums).

Back (L-R): Mel Collins (saxes and flute). Tony Levin (bass, Chapman Stick, stand-up bass), Jakko Jakszyk (guitar, vocals and flute), Robert Fripp (guitar). 

All personnel were wearing dark suits or waistcoats - very formal. The stage lighting was very subliminal, using just the hall's own lights. The only time that a light effect was used was during "Starless" when the whole stage was bathed in (an utterly appropriate) red. The PA was likewise almost hidden, with no major cabs visible on stage, and just two large elliptical speakers hung from the venue's ceiling. I even suspect that the drum kits weren't entirely coming through the PA, as their sound often seemed to come directly from the kits themselves. The resulting soundscape was quite effective though, producing some impressive spatial effects. Of particular note was the excellent stereo imaging of the drums, with frequent - almost choreographed - ripples of snare or cymbals from right to left.

Fripp was fairly quiet throughout the set, apparently leaving most of the guitar legwork to Jakszyk, but taking some of the signature sustained solos in his inimitable style. 

In some places the overpowering drums were a little too much, but most of the time the new arrangements worked very well. The overall sound balance was good, although Harrison's drums were too loud, especially his snare. That snare was in direct line of sight with my seat, so it may be I was getting more of it than people at other locations. There were several occasions where Collins's sax was almost inaudible.

Rieflin handled keyboard (mostly mellotron) duties as well as drums, which was an important role, given that they were covering very early material where the mellotron sound was pivotal to the mood of the pieces. All the drummers played largely acoustic kits with some electronic bits here and there. 

The show started with a recording of the final track from Islands, where Fripp is heard giving instructions to the orchestra at a rehearsal. Then they eased into the gentle opening percussion of "Larks Tongues in Aspic Part 1.” Although they played this fairly closely to the album version, the audience wasn't entirely sure when they finished, so there was a complete silence at the end, which was only interrupted when the band launched into the raucous "Pictures of a City.”

By the end of this, the audience was finally up to speed, and applauded enthusiastically. Following this came several tunes that I was not familiar with, having lost track of KC somewhere in the late 90s, but I believe some of the drum-heavy pieces were new for this tour and are yet to be recorded in the studio. 

I was back in familiar territory when they tackled "Epitaph.” Jakko's vocals were not as flowing as Greg Lake's, but as he was also wrestling with the guitar part, he could be excused. His voice certainly had the required power and tone. A new Gamelan-style drum piece (accompanied by a Fripp solo) led into "Easy Money,” where Jakszyk's vocals really came into their own - easily matching John Wetton's gritty, growling delivery.

"The Talking Drum" featured Levin in a stand-up bass solo, switching to a normal bass (but played with his "funk fingers") for the rest of the tune. Interestingly, Jakszyk also played flute for part of this one, harmonising with Collins's flute. As on the album, this went straight into "Larks Tongues In Aspic Part 2.” 

The closer was - for me, and I suspect also for many other members of the audience - the highlight of the whole evening: a superb rendition of KC's biggest, heaviest and most wonderful track: "Starless.” The opening mellotron chords alone were enough to set the spine tingling and the pulse racing with anticipation. Jakszyk's vocals utterly nailed it, and the three-drum arrangement worked equally as well as the original studio version. This was beautiful. I was in tears. . .

Some way into the tune though, there was a slight hiccup when Levin seemed to lose his way during the quiet bass / guitar bell-like interlude. This was quite surprising, as Levin is the last person anyone would expect to fluff a part. Still, that's what live music is all about! The tune may have been trimmed a bit to fit the set. I'm sure they missed a few bits here and there, but I'd rather hear a shorter version than none at all. The final few bars lacked the apocalyptic power of the original (Wetton's bass on that was the heaviest, most awesome sound I'd ever heard up to that time), but was still impressive. 

The encores began with a drum trio, followed by "The Court of the Crimson King" and - of course - "21st Century Schizoid Man,” which featured a cracking (and highly inventive) drum solo from Harrison.

All in all, this was one hell of a show, which proved that it was possible to mix all periods of KC's huge catalogue of material in a sympathetic and holistic way. I really hope this line-up sticks together for a long time, and comes back to play soon!

 

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2015  Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
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