King Crimson Live at the Met Philadelphia
King Crimson creates the music of dystopia and it has never been so exhilarating. The venerable English progressive rock icons, now celebrating 50 years since the release of their debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King. Despite not having released a new studio album since 2003’s The Power to Believe, the band continues on in an expanded edition, led by the only remaining founding member, guitarist Robert Fripp.
Coming into a nearly full house at The Met in Philadelphia, Krimson assayed music from across their catalog, most notably with signature tracks from In the Court and the Larks Tongue in Aspic eras of the band. King Crimson is a cruising assault of staccato rhythm shifts, banshee guitar solos and deliriously ecstatic free-jazz saxophone, except when it’s exquisitely beautiful, like their take on “Islands”, a resplendent, romantic, pastoral ballad, words not usually associated with the band.
While Fripp is the only founder remaining, there are longtime members, including bassist and Chapman Stick player Tony Levin, who dates back to 1981 and the Discipline era and saxophonist Mel Collins, who came on from 1970 to 1972 and returned in 2013 for the current edition of the band. One of the three drummers, yes three, Pat Mastelotto, came on with 1995’s Thrak double-trio band. The other two drummers are Gavin Harrison from Porcupine Tree and session player Jeremy Stacey, who doubles on keyboards. Semi-fronting the group is Jakko Jakszyk, a veteran musician who, before he was even in King Crimson, led the 21st Century Schizoid Band, a cover group playing Krimson music. He handled songs originally sung by four different singers, the late vocalists Greg Lake, Boz Burrell and John Wetton, and the still with us, but not with Krimson, Adrian Belew.
The band plays with no staging frills. They performed under static, white lights except for one song, “Starless”, during which the lights turned red. The three drummers aligned in front and other members standing on a riser behind them, except for Fripp. He was seated as ever, dapper in a business suit with a vest.
In the first set, Krimson pulled out some oddities, like “Cat Food” from their second album, In the Wake of Poseidon. It could almost be a rap song except for, you know, the jagged rhythms, fractured guitar, and Stacey replicating Keith Tippett’s free jazz piano from the original. All of that supported Jakszyk as he shouted the lyrics of an “insane” mother with her cat food recipes. That’s a light moment for King Crimson.
Their rendition of “Red”, usually saved for later in the set, didn’t quite have its customary power, but ‘Larks Tongue in Aspic Part One,” transformed the space with its slow build of tinkling percussion and music box-like chimes before exploding into a stop-start groove and slashing guitar riffs, like Bartok playing heavy metal.
If the first set was powerful, the second set simply took off into the stratosphere. “Easy Money”, from Larks Tongue in Aspic, the closest that era band came to a pop song, was an aggressive charge, with Fripp playing scalar arpeggios like a knife slash. The reworked middle section veered toward Miles Davis On the Corner fusion with Fripp playing Reggie Lucas-style funk riffs. “Larks Tongue in Aspic Part IV” was a headlong rush as Fripp sizzled on solos of splintered, banjo-like chord runs in full fuzz-toned shred. “Starless” was simply jaw-dropping with a swirling Collins soprano sax run that harkened back to John Coltrane.
On the 50th anniversary of In the Court of the Crimson King, Krimson fans would’ve loved to hear the album performed in its entirety, but Fripp, ever the contrarian, wouldn’t do something so conventional. But they did play the bulk of the album, including the fanciful ballads, “Epitaph” and “Moonchild,” as well as the title piece and “21st Century Schizoid Man”.
“In the Court of the Crimson King” reached its full epic symphonic dimensions with Fripp mastering the Mellotron lines and the band powering through this towering work that reaches Game of Thrones grandeur.
The masterwork was the encore of “21st Century Schizoid Man.” The band crushed the heavy metal groove while Jakszyk shouted Pete Sinfield’s future shock lyrics. After the stop-start obstacle course of the original instrumental break, the band diverted with a riveting Gavin Harrison drum solo that made full use of his precisely tuned drums and modulated into a smoky, modal jazz excursion with a wailing alto solo from Collins that included a brief quote of Duke Ellington’s “Take the A-Train”. It may be the best rendition of “Schizoid Man” I’ve ever heard live. It was magnificent and left the audience breathless. After 50 years, Fripp is willing to reinvigorate his catalog with a fresh take. Now if they’d only produce a new album. This band deserves it.
Tune into Echoes on Thursday, October 10 when we celebrate the 50th anniversary of In the Court of the Crimson King.