Review | King Crimson | Boston
King Crimson :: 9.15.14 :: Colonial Theatre :: Boston, MA
King Crimson’s first of two performances at Boston’s Colonial Theatre wasn’t what you’d expect from a rock show, but longtime fans of the group know and expect an unorthodox experience. Calling these guys the godfathers of prog-rock doesn’t do them justice. With guitar iconoclast Robert Fripp at the helm, Crimson built the alter that acts such as Tool and Primus kneel before. Over the past 40+ years, various lineups have hosted over 20 different members so when you buy a King Crimson ticket, you never know what ride you’re taking.
The current incarnation of the group is a septet that puts three drummers at the foot of the stage while a riser behind them accommodates Fripp stage-left, in addition to vocals/guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, longtime collaborator Tony Levin on bass/Chapman Stick and at stage right, Mel Collins on flute, clarinet and baritone sax. The show kicked off with Part One of “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic,” the title track off their 1973 release. Ending the show with an encore of “21st Century Schizoid Man” was predictable and rewarding but what gave the journey a sense of completion was when the group closed the proper segment of the set with Part Two of “Larks’” followed by “Starless.”
The vast majority of the performance lacked vocals and without a deep knowledge of their catalogue, a lot of the material would seem to bleed together. What segmented the performance was various instrumentals consisting exclusively of percussion. Each drummer served their own purpose and were equipped accordingly. The center-stage drummer hosted a pretty standard jazz kit, in addition to a few MIDI drum tools and a keyboard. On one side of him was a drummer set up for hard hitting, intricate rhythms with a double kick drum, a row of tom-toms and plenty of crash symbols. On the other side of the stage, the third drummer had a kit more akin to what you’d see Billy Martin of MMW play rather than Danny Carey of Tool. His kit was supplemented with a wide range of abstract percussion pieces that are alien to most Western eyes.
More often than not, the use of multiple drummers is excessive. Having two or three guys overlapping their beats does more harm than good, but unlike any current touring act, Crimson’s three drummers played off each other in a way that was complementary. Their playing was more like Dwayne Wade assisting Lebron on a breakaway dunk than a defensive line trying to smash their way to the opposing quarterback.
Tony Levin augmented the rhythm section by playing slap-bass with finger extensions in a way that made the bass sound like a percussion instrument. When he wasn’t on the bass, he was playing his Chapman Stick, a 10-stringed hybrid of both guitar and bass that is played by tapping the fret board with both hands. It allowed him to play lead and rhythm simultaneously with a speed and technical proficiency that both the eyes and ears of those in the crowd could barely process in real time.
Jakszyk presence on stage was significant not because of what he did, but because of who he wasn’t. When it comes to building the roster, Fripp is the Bill Belichick of King Crimson and nobody’s spot is a safe one. Adrian Belew had been brought on as front man for Crimson from 1981 and held the role through the end of the last decade. He’s a singer/guitarist who made his mark on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, contributed to the works of Frank Zappa, Paul Simon’s Graceland, most of Nine Inch Nails studio products and David Bowie’s last ‘70s output. Jakszyk’s vocals were theatrical in a very bland way and with the exception of a few moments, his guitar playing was the least significant instrumental contribution on stage. Jakszyk was noticeable because he wasn’t Adrian Belew.
While he stayed seated during the performance and neither faced or spoke to his audience, Fripp’s guitar playing was a foundational cornerstone all of the compositions relied on. The group’s founder notoriously invented his own guitar tuning methodology, New Standard, which is unlike anything you’ll hear 20th century rock guitarists use. Using MIDI pickups, his guitar signal was channeled through a stack of blinking preamps and computers that digitally processed his instruments signal in a way that gave him the ability to play with a sensitive level of sustain that no degree of technique or skill can regularly permit. To give you an idea of how a guitar sounds when processed through a MIDI pickup versus the standard technology, listen to Jerry Garcia’s guitar tone in the early ‘90s (MIDI) versus his sound on Live/Dead (old school humbucker pickups).
Fripp doesn’t like the spotlight, but at the end of the night, it all comes back to him. He’s the founder of King Crimson. He picks the musicians and the setlists and like the boss of any company, its failure or success reflects on him. The current roster he’s assembled is bold in its makeup and refuses to present decade’s old material as it’s heard on the recording. This was no greatest hits set and for folks fond of “King Crimson the Classic Rock Act,” this septet was much more Weather Report than Black Sabbath.
This performance was for long-time King Crimson fans in addition to all fans of musical excellence. Folks who’ve followed Fripp’s projects through the years are going to fall in love with the current incarnation of Crimson, and whether you’re a musician or just a lover of technical excellence, a King Crimson concert in 2014 is a display of classic rock blended with jazz fusion after being channeled through an abstract lens. There was no way of knowing what would come around the next corner, and it made the adventure that much more exciting.