King Crimson, Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University, Chicago Illinois, September 10, 2019. (Featured photo by King Crimson manager David Singleton.)
“Expectation is a prison.” Robert Fripp says that a lot.
He said it again this past Tuesday in Chicago. Specifically, to about sixty fans who had paid a lot of cash for a King Crimson pre-concert VIP package. Even more specifically, to one particularly zealous fan, who nervously, repeatedly begged Fripp to reveal if “Cat Food” was on the evening’s setlist.
Fripp wasn’t biting. Having already pivoted from reflections on music’s ability to change the world and the necessity for presence in the musical event (like an abbot exhorting his monastic chapter) to “wittering” on the disadvantage of playing guitar while seated (“pimples on my arse”, spoken with the endearing delivery of a bawdy rock-and-roll Mr. Magoo), his response was firm, but simple: when you don’t know what’s coming next, consider it a challenge to pay more attention. And to be more present. Then Fripp let us take his picture while he took ours; manager David Singleton teased another possible US tour next summer (he deliberately doesn’t look at the setlist); and bassist Tony Levin engaged in a much lighter Q&A session (but he wasn’t telling, either).
As blunt as Fripp frequently is, his admonition came in handy Tuesday night. This is the third time I’ve seen the current version of King Crimson live, and the personal temptation to tune out in anticipation of repetition from previous years (even seated in the center of the sixth row) was surprisingly persistent. Fortunately, Fripp and friends weren’t about to let the sold-out, 4000-strong audience off the hook; the evening swiftly turned into another hot date with one of the best working bands in the world.
Kicking off with a drum trio fanfare from Gavin Harrison, Jeremy Stacey and Pat Mastelotto (played with two sticks in each hand), Crimson launched into blistering takes on standbys from previous tours. I’ll admit I caught myself thinking ‘not another version of “Red”!’ But I also latched onto Mel Collins’ bebop saxophone frenzy on “Neurotica”, Stacey’s splintery keyboard work on “Suitable Grounds for the Blues”, and the sheer collective intensity of the opening “Pictures of a City”.
A welcome focus on the seminal 1969 album In the Court of the Crimson King followed: a gossamer “Moonchild” topped by an especially tasty bass cadenza from Levin; Jakko Jakszyk emoting for all he was worth on the all-too-relevant “Epitaph”; and a lethally regal take on “Court” itself to close the first set, complete with calliope coda by Stacey and closing Mellotron smears courtesy of Fripp’s elbows. (Oh, and they played a delectably spiky “Cat Food”, too.)
But it was after intermission that Crimson really let loose, demonstrating the awe-inspiring musical scope of what they can do. New to the Seven-Headed Beast’s repertoire, Discipline’s “Frame by Frame” was dizzying fun, with Fripp, Jakszyk, Levin and Stacey trading hypnotic licks, Collins surfing the contrapuntal web with fresh improvs, and Harrison & Mastelotto laying down a percolating rhythmic bed. Then the brutal math-rock stomp of “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part 4”, featuring the drum line firing off odd-time shrapnel with Fripp blithely shredding sextuplets above them — and grinning. And then the lush calm of “Islands”, every bit as beautiful as at Crim’s 2017 Chicago gig, framed by Jakko’s warm vocal, Stacey’s lovely piano work, and a yummy Collins coda.
Everything else from there was familiar to me — and, remarkably, everything was also brand new. “Easy Money” (with rewritten lyrics) built, broke down, then rebuilt to a vehement, shuddering climax; “Radical Action 2″/”Level Five” (Fripp calls the latter “Larks’ Tongues Part Five” now) brought the heavy metal hammer down as viciously as ever; “Starless” was darkly romantic, impossibly yearning, unbelievably intense. But — surprise!– “Starless” wasn’t the set closer. That was a jubilant, shambolic “Indiscipline”, featuring the drum line trading solos and trying to trip up each other with impossible licks, Jakzsyk embodying his modal take on Adrian Belew’s original conception like never before, Fripp roaring forth with fuzzed-out banjo licks, and Collins & Levin swinging hard. The encore “21st Century Schizoid Man” just took the whole thing higher, with Harrison’s drum solo ever so briefly morphing into the drum trio feature “Hell Hounds of Krim” before the final reprise. And the audience reacted like this (photo by Tony Levin):
Really, what other band with roots in rock’s golden age can do this right now? Who can draw a crowd ranging from folks who saw Crimson in their 1970s pomp at this very venue to young Chicago proggers District 97, take them from brooding balladry through hard, heavy rock to scorching free jazz, serve up tracks from 11 of the band’s 13 albums plus new material, and do so, not as a nostalgia trip, but as something undeniably unique, cuttingly contemporary, and just plain great? As the rock star death toll mounts (RIP, Eddie Money) and the (frequently enjoyable) victory lap/pension fund tours come faster and closer, King Crimson refuses to provide comfort food for Boomers fearing their mortality, reinventing their history on a show-by-show basis, with dedication, intention and integrity. This version of the band has now toured longer than any other formation, but they can’t go on forever. So you should go see them. As soon as possible. Really.
Oh, and that setlist? (Again, photo by Tony Levin:)
“Drumsons” (my title: 12 Sticks)
Pictures of a City
Suitable Grounds for the Blues
Moonchild with cadenzae (by Tony Levin, Robert Fripp & Jeremy Stacey)
In the Court of the Crimson King (with album coda)
Frame by Frame
Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part 4
Radical Action 2
Level (Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part) Five
21st Century Schizoid Man with Gavin Harrison solo (incorporating Hell Hounds of Krim)
— Rick Krueger