Genesis, Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Nirvana, Primus, Iron Maiden...just a handful of the bands that have acknowledged a debt to King Crimson, albeit in one of its many different guises. Formed way back in 1968 it’s ploughed through its fair share of members, with only one, Robert Fripp, sticking it out. Good man. Okay, so he’s taken time out on a regular basis and ‘retired’ or turned his back on the evil ol’ music biz on more than one occasion but here he is, a full 32 years after the last proper UK King Crimson tour with, according to the mighty oracle that is Wikipedia, line-up number 8.
Crimson’s one of those bands that seem to inspire almost religious levels of devotion amongst fans and, rather impressively given that they last troubled the top 40 album charts back in 1984, tonight’s gig is a sell out, with a second show booked for the following evening. Rather sweetly before tonight’s began a pre-recorded message from the band was played asking that the audience put away their phones and/or cameras and Fripp, sounding a little like a more chilled out Michael Eavis, gently urged us all to just “enjoy the moment” and, for the most part, the crowd dutifully obeys.
On come the band, suited and booted and ready for busy-ness, wending their way through an impressive display of instruments, with a gentle cheer reserved for Fripp who pauses for a moment to survey the scene, raising his hand to shield his eyes as he looks up at the balconies. It’s a big venue, but then again this version of Crimson could hardly be what you call compact. Most bands have a drummer. A handful even have two. In a somewhat drum-atic move this current incarnation of Crimson’s plumped for three...THREE...well and truly putting the drums centre stage, literally (they’re all positioned at the front) and, in many tracks, musically too.
Sitting at the back on the right hand side of the stage Fripp comes across as the Professor Yaffle of prog rock, stock still when he’s not playing but coming to life (gently it has to be said) when he’s needed. Unlike Professor Yaffle of course he doesn’t say much. In fact he doesn’t say anything. Aside from the singing bits none of them utters a word for the whole two hour set, a case of let the music do the talking I guess. And talk it does. It’s pointless trying to pigeon hole the Crimson sound, besides the pigeon would probably go mad and spontaneously combust. Suffice to say that there’s some jazz in there, some prog, some metal, some folk and a healthy dose of ingredient X. One moment you’re being blasted by an almost tribal ferocity of Burundi-ish drumming, the next soothed by a gossamer light flute.
There’s something for even the most casual Crimson fan in the setlist with Red cropping up as an early highlight. It’s funk, it’s jazz, it’s rock, it’s prog...and tonight it’s epic, with the triple drumming rendering this Red in glorious 3D (that’s 3 Drummers by the way). Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison and Bill Rieflin frequently play as one great big six armed drum machine, breaking off occasionally to add delicate (or almighty) little flourishes of their own. They make it look effortless but it must be three flavours of impossible to keep the complex timing in sync. At one point in proceedings, not content with having three of them on the stage, each drummer has two sticks in each hand...that’s 12 sticks...that’s like half a dozen drummers! It’s a drum do all round. But still they manage to stay in time. Amazing.
New track (one of several played this evening) Suitable Case For The Blues has lyrics which appear (at first listen at least) to be a bit of a lament for the state of the modern world, although some of the drumming drowned out a word or two here and there (hell, what do you expect with three world class drummers up front?). What the world would make of a brand new King Crimson album remains to be seen but the new material fits in well with the older stuff so happily it's not a case of Fripp it up and start again...
Back to the classics and the opening words of Epitaph get a small whoop of appreciation, “Confusion will be my epitaph” sings current Crimson vocalist Jakko Jakszyk (who, by a strange coincidence, is married to the daughter of original Crimson drummer Michael Giles...spooky) as several hundred audience members nod sagely, clearly no wiser in their 60s and 70s as they were when they first heard this music back in the...er...60s and 70s.
Fripp retains his dignified demeanour on his plinth throughout the evening and it’s easy to miss him, visually at least, altogether. But then you hear some beautiful guitar work spilling out, glance across and there he is, nimble fingers gliding down the fret like water over marble. Glorious. To his right stands Chapman Stick supremo and coolest looking dude in town Tony Levin who lays wonderfully warm and mellifluous funky bass licks across many of the evenings best numbers. A regular with Crimson since the 80s he’s apparently played on over 500 albums including John Lennon’s Double Fantasy and Peter Gabriel’s chart gobbling So. Not too shabby eh?
Maybe it’s just my ears but Easy Money, from 1973, seemed to have little echoes of Bowie’s Fame and Genesis’ In The Air Tonight, both of which came afterwards of course, reiterating (in case it were needed) just how influential Fripp and Crimson have been over the years. Vocally this was Jakko at his best, soaring vocals more than holding their own against the musical onslaught, no mean feat. He was also ruddy good on the brilliantly brooding Dylan Thomas inspired Starless, initially featuring just one drummer it was a much needed moment of calm before all hell (hounds of Krim) broke loose again and the triple headed drum machine was unleashed once more.
Following a pretty much universal and thoroughly well deserved standing ovation the band wheeled out the biggies. Can you get proggier than In The Court Of The Crimson King? No, no you can’t. That doesn’t stop it being a great track though, even though it nudges close to Spinal Tap territory on one or two occasions, and tonight’s version sounded suitably mythic with Mel Collins in particularly fine form on the flute. Epic. The Prog-nificent Seven anyone?
That just left room for 21st Century Schizoid Man, perhaps sadly better known by anyone under the age of 40 via Kanye West’s purloining of its chorus on 2010’s Power. Thankfully Mr West wasn’t here tonight, or at least if he was he managed to avoid invading the stage and blathering on about how misunderstood he is. Arguably the band’s crowning glory it still sounds like nothing else on earth despite being just a few years shy of its 50th birthday. It’s the kind of track that makes you want to rip off your own head and kick into space. The perfect marriage of musical madness and majesty.
Seven musicians arguably...and incredibly...still at the top of their game, some of the most intriguing and influential (even if some of those influenced don't always acknowledge the debt) music ever made and an all too rare gig in a City that the band last played way, way back in 1973 made this evening some-King truly special.
King Crimson plays Birmingham Symphony Hall again this evening. Tickets still available...or you could wait until their next date in 2047.