King Crimson at the Usher Hall Part 1

I went to see King Crimson at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh tonight, and it was one of the better gigs of my life.

I’ve been waiting to see King Crimson live for nearly 30 years. When I first started listening to them, in about 1985, they’d just broken up for the second time, having had an unexpected 80s reincarnation as a sharp-suited New Wave/Industrial combo with Adrian Belew on vocals and guitar, and I don’t think anybody thought they’d get back together. I spent much of my late teens (the second half of the 80s) listening to 1973-74 King Crimson and wondering why nobody played like that nowadays. I had no idea that plenty of other kids with access to better record shops were thinking the same thing, because I lived in Dublin, and although I lived in a milieu of people who were either in bands or who knew people in bands, nobody I knew had even heard of King Crimson, let alone liked them.

When the band came back, in 1994, I was in my early 20s and working in theatre, and abrasive rock music was quite the thing at the time. But after enthusiastically reconnecting with them, I then began to get a bit bogged down in all the band’s different configurations and ‘ProjeKcts’. I snapped up the beautifully remastered CDs of the albums I loved, like Starless and Bible Black and Red, and I loved the fact that they were still going and still defying any conceivable trend in rock music, except for the increasingly prevalent trend for old bands to reform or at any rate keep going. My own guitar playing had come under the unmistakable influence of Robert Fripp at one point, and I found myself having to strive to not sound like I was trying to sound like him.

And so, when the band announced that it was doing a UK tour and one of my co-workers informed me, I knocked out an article that ended up freakishly over-performing on my employers’ website, just because thanks to my colleague Henry remembering that I’m a fan, and my nerdishness and alacrity, we got there quicker and better-informed than almost anyone else. I booked my ticket within days of writing the article. And tonight was the night.

The Usher Hall was gratifying jammed; the band had put on a second night within days of the first one selling out. The crowd was unexpectedly diverse. There were a great number of men who looked a bit like Jeremy Corbyn, which you’d sort of expect from a King Crimson audience, but many of them appeared to have brought their wives, and besides the expected crop of young men between 20 and 35 there were also many young women of the same age. Looking around the hall, it was a truly mixed audience, even if the fiftyish woman sitting next to me got up before the music started and didn’t return to her seat. (I later noticed that she had come back, after all; perhaps afflicted by Upper Circle vertigo, she’d hung back and watched the show from the top of the stairs to the Upper Circle bar, and at the end of the show she had a fond reunion with her partner.)

The stage was brightly lit, featuring the by-now well-known KC 2014/15 lineup: three drum kits out front and a riser behind for the other musicians. The ticket read ‘No Support. No Interval’ and there was neither.

Shortly after 7.30pm, after some semi-audible PA announcements from the band politely asking us not to video or photograph the show, the lights went down and the band shambled out, all dressed in black suits. The three drummers came out first, their kits lined up downstage, in the reverse of the usual practice, and we’ll get to them in a moment.

Meanwhile, behind, the others filed on. Stage right was Mel Collins, hunched into his leather jacket, with a mop of shaggy hair. To his left was dapper Tony Levin, sharp-suited, bald pate gleaming, surrounded by two bass guitars, an electric upright and a Chapman Stick. Next along was Jakko Jakszyk, the one with the least gear; just a mic stand and two guitars, the man himself looking self-effacing under all his curly hair. Stage left on the riser was the most intimidating setup of all: what can only be described as Fripp’s workstation. Two pedalboards and a couple of expression pedals to boot, a bunch of rack-mounted effects, at least one laptop, a stool and two guitars. Fripp himself was dressed like the chairman of the board. Three-piece suit, the jacket of which he took off and hung on a guitar stand, and glasses which he put on to play and took off to look at the audience.

The band never spoke to the audience. Instead, it roared through a selection of old and new Crim tunes. We were warned by pre-publicity that old songs might not come back the way we remember them, but this was most true of the opening number, ‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part 1’, which found time for a charming duet between Collins’ flute and Levin’s filthy fuzz bass.

There was a blistering ‘Red’, which benefited from Collins’ squalling sax lines; in general, he added an amiable, jazzy flavour to some of the more determinedly negative tunes of the evening. ‘Pictures of a City’ got a passionate performance from Jakszyk, who not only sounded eerily like Greg Lake but who also gave the music some vulnerability, which otherwise wasn’t much on show.

Having said that, the three-drummer lineup turned out to be fantastic. All three drummers had distinct personalities. Harrison, intense and floppy-haired, was the young and hungry one; Mastelotto, resplendent behind his eccentric-looking kit, was the dramatic one, standing up when he had to reach obscure bits of his kit; Rieflin in the middle was the aloof one, thin and bespectacled and battering the hell out of his relatively small kit with the air of a man who was thinking about something else. But all of them were capable of great delicacy as well as power. When Harrison took an extended solo, he didn’t entirely avoid drum solo clichés but he did exploit his kit’s entire dynamic range, playing a hilariously tiny pinging roll on part of a drum stand. Also, the drummers seemed to have learned perfect sync, knowing exactly when not to play, when to sit out, when to join in and when to play in unison for maximum battery. This is by far the most percussion-heavy version of Crimson, and the interplay between Mastelotto, Rieflin and Harrison would be almost enough in itself for a whole gig.

The hits came on. There were songs I didn’t recognise, presumably from the most recent KC albums, but the bulk of the time was given to genuinely inspired renditions of older songs. ‘The Letters’, from the band’s least well-loved album Islands, sounded better than it ever sounded on the original album. ‘Easy Money’ and ‘Epitaph’ gained much from Jakszyk’s total commitment as a singer.

The last song in the concert proper was a pretty straight performance of ‘Starless’, but then ‘Starless’ is a song it’s practically impossible to fuck up; you could do it on a ukulele and it would still be a work of grand tragedy. After a fulsome standing ovation, the band returned to the stage, did a quick drum workout, and then knocked off a fine ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ and a blistering, all-audience singalong version of ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’, which sounded more timely than ever. Then they rose to their feet, nodded politely, and filed off. Tony Levin was the last to leave the stage, and he couldn’t resist a cheery thumbs-up to some random well-wisher in the stalls.

On my way home, I met a friend whose boyfriend had been handed two free tickets to tomorrow night’s show, and he kindly gave them to me. So I’m going again, and you’ll have part two tomorrow.

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King Crimson at the Usher Hall Part 1

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