A studio album is a love letter. And I enjoy love letters, especially when they’re from my wife. But live music … (looking to the heavens with a sigh) I’ll always go for the clinches.Robert Fripp, King Crimson Royal Package presentation
King Crimson, Meadow Brook Amphitheatre, Rochester Hills, Michigan, August 28, 2021
Following an opening set from The Zappa Band that showcased Frank Zappa’s lifelong trademarks — smug, satirical vignettes enfolded in gleefully virtuosic workouts — King Crimson went straight for the clinches. The rock (as in the opener “Pictures of A City” and “Radical Action II”) rocked hard; the metal (including “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part Two” and “Level Five”) was remorselessly heavy; the out there material (“Neurotica” and “Indiscipline,” played back to back) went waaaaay out there; the more intricate music (the opening multi-part drum trio, along with “Discipline,” a welcome surprise in the setlist) shone with both precision and passion.
To be fair, the genres — along with the era a song may have come from — are never that clear cut with this Crimson, even within individual pieces. The mid-section of “Pictures of A City” saw Mel Collins pushing at the boundaries of tonality with his sax solo, egged on by Robert Fripp’s banjo-from-hell guitar chords. Tony Levin’s inventive bass lines on “The Court of the Crimson King,” “Red” and “Larks Two” honored the original work of Greg Lake and John Wetton while adding his own spin to spur on Collins and Fripp. And the drum battle that opens “Indiscipline” turned into a comedic cutting contest, as Pat Mastelotto, Jeremy Stacey and Gavin Harrison moved from flashing their chops to cracking up each other with their contributions. (Harrison’s deadpan disco snippet got the audience laughing too.) By treating everything as brand new, the band gracefully transcends the multiple eras in which these varied musics were birthed.
With a shorter setlist than recent tours and fewer surprise choices in the mix, what stood out for me this evening were the ballads — “The Court of the Crimson King,” “Islands,” “Epitaph” and “Starless”. Even the two guys sitting in back of me who talked through a good chunk of the show shut up for them! Vocalist/guitarist Jakko Jakszyk stood and delivered, drawing old emotions and new insights from the lyrics as he sang. And the ensemble coalesced around him with palpable intensity, cradling the vocals, then conjuring up the ironic circus of “Court,” the serene seascape of “Islands” (kudos to Stacey for his luscious piano work), the bleak cultural devastation of “Epitaph.” The endlessly mounting tension of “Starless” was, as always, a high point — melancholy and uplifting at the same time, grabbing for the audience’s heart as it built and cracking psyches wide open as the double time finale took flight. After that, what could be the encore but a slamming “21st Century Schizoid Man,” complete with Levin prodding Fripp and Collins to even greater extremes and a kit-spanning drum excursion by Harrison?
I make no secret of my admiration for King Crimson; Robert Fripp and his various co-conspirators have formed my ideal of the questing musician’s life and work since I stumbled into a Frippertronics record store show back in 1979. And I’ve never hesitated to sing the praises of the current Crimson incarnation; their 2017 and 2019 tours yielded two of the best rock concerts I’ve ever attended. So it moved me that, with the COVID-19 pandemic delaying this show for a year and throwing numerous obstacles in their path, Crimson could return to the States and provide another genuinely awe-inspiring evening for the thousands gathered in this Detroit-area amphitheatre. Never say never; but if (as Crimson’s management has stated) this may the final time the band plays North America, I’m convinced that we shall not see their like again.
Setlist (as assembled by Robert Fripp):
- Drumsons – Bish! The Way to Universal Peace and Amity
- Pictures of A City
- The Court of the Crimson King (with coda)
- Tony (Levin bass) Cadenza’s Wernacious Slitheriness
- Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part Two
- Radical Action II
- Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part Five (Level Five)
- 21st Century Schizoid Man (including Gavin Harrison drum solo)
— Rick Krueger