King Crimson

Shepherd's Bush Empire, 1 Jul 96

Robert Fripp - guitar, Soundscapes
Adrian Belew - guitar, vocals, percussion
Bill Bruford - percussion
Pat Mastelotto - percussion
Tony Levin - bass, upright bass, backing vocals
Trey Gunn - bass, Warr guitar, backing vocals

The California Guitar Trio had been billed as support but had to withdraw. The show began instead with a Soundscape of nearly half an hour from Fripp.

I would have been disappointed by this, the last European performance of the THRaKaTTaK tour, if not forearmed by my prior disappointment at the THRAK tour. Nineties Crimson are good, but they have not risen to the heights of 'mark 2' Crimson (Larks' Tongues in Aspic et seq.). Maybe I am being unfair, comparing The Great Deceiver, a carefully chosen and 'cleaned' set of seventies performances, against one THRaKaTTaK show, but I was actually bored at times.

Nonetheless, my respect for Bill Bruford grows every time I hear him. With Fripp playing his usual sitting-in-the-dark routine, one would be forgiven for thinking this was 'Bill Bruford's King Crimson' such did he appear to be the band leader. Pat Mastelotto was doing his best not to be eclipsed too. Their partnership seems to have developed since the THRAK tour. Sometimes Mastelotto would provide the basic rhythm to Bruford's improvisation and sometimes Bruford would carry the rhythm while Mastelotto would experiment with bits bashed and bobs bent in the interests of new percussion sounds (comparisons could be drawn with Chris Cutler).

Tony Levin is always a pleasure to watch on stage; the guy just seems to be having so much fun with this manic grin on his face. (Bruford was grinning throughout as well, looking years younger.) Levin's bass work is magnificent on a variety of instruments, yet he seemed reticent in some of the freer improvs, never taking the lead as Wetton had done.

As usual, it was difficult to tell what Fripp was doing some of the time, although he was better lit than at the Royal Albert Hall THRAK show. He often seemed to play almost rhythm guitar to Belew's lead. A mistake perhaps as Belew was want to give in to temptations of being some sort of thrash guitar icon and nor does he do the 'weird noises' so well live. Not his fault, but his vocals also failed to come through the mix.

I like Belew's songs, but I think I prefer them on his solo albums, like Here and Young Lions, than Crimsonized. Towards the end of the show, Belew's vocal/lyrical contortions (e.g. "I repeat myself under stress. I repeat myself under stress. I repeat myself under stress...") struck me as similar to Peter Blegvad's work and I think the parallels go further. Both have made simple but effective singer/songwriter/guitarist albums and both have brought those skills into a wilder, brasher, more improvisatory environment, be it Crimson or Henry Cow.

Gunn still appears to have no role in the music and his stage presence is timid. Whether the latter is a consequence of the former or the former an impression engendered by the latter, I do not know.

An example of the show's success and failure was "B'Boom" and the preceding improvisation (or, I presume it was improvised). Fripp begins with a Soundscape, over which Bruford starts playing chordal drums Earthworks-style. Then Mastelotto comes crashing in with a rhythm, letting Bruford play around, both of them drowning out Fripp and then... Then, they played "B'Boom" = a fairly boring drum solo and one rather too typical of its genre. As a number of reviewers have commented on THRaKaTTaK, there seems to be too little development in the Crimson improvisations of today.

I would carry that criticism further to Fripp's pieces on THRAK. Here, they paled in comparison to the pre-Belew works played. "21st Century Schizoid Man" was one such highlight, introduced by a great reception from the crowd. Belew's treated vocals worked well, cutting through, although his guitar solo in the piece was tedious.

The crowd were less receptive to the quieter pieces, noisy throughout the introductory Soundscape. One annoying fan in particular kept shouting through a quieter improv before "21st Century Schizoid Man". He seems to have put the band off, for the improv proved rather unsuccessful. (Similar annoyance came from a group at the Wetton solo gig a few weeks before, repeatedly shouting out for more Crimson tunes even though Wetton played far more Crimson than I had ever expected.)

Returning to the percussion—it was hard to escape after all—I imagine the two drummers have been taking lessons from the Kodo drummers of Japan. :) The gig began with a 'drum duel' (tastefully done) on two large drums, while the first encore saw Bruford leading Mastelotto and Belew(!) on the same two drums and a xylophone-like-thing. This managed to work both musically and as a show. Someone in the crowd was kicking the stage(?) vaguely in time and Bruford, with a flourish, flipped his drumsticks around and proffered them towards said individual, to laughter from the crowd.

In all, some great playing of old favourites, brilliant percussion work and good playing from Fripp and Levin, but the improvisations were very hit and miss and potential new directions seem stifled by a (crowd-pleasing?) desire for thrak'ing power chords without much development (in a very general sense of the word). King Crimson, however, have wrong-footed me before: it took me some years to appreciate mark 2 Crimson and maybe I have not yet attuned to mark 4 Crimson. Someone else on r.m.p. has said that this performance was one of their poorer ones and compares badly to THRaKaTTaK, so perhaps just a bad night.

Henry Potts, 6.7.96; revised 25 Oct 2005

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