The progressive rock juggernaut King Crimson brought their seven-man supersonic distortion machine to The Warfield theater in San Francisco on October 3rd and 4th for two highly anticipated concerts, dubbed “The Elements.” These were epic events for anyone seeking a potent, diverse mix of prog, metal, jazz, and classical rock – at times structured, at times improvisational – but all bundled into a challenging mix delivered by this band of expert musicians.
The current Crimson lineup is a ensemble consisting of Robert Fripp (guitar, keys), Jakko Jakszyk (guitars/vocals), Tony Levin (bass), Mel Collins saxophones/flutes), and up front, three drummers Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison and Bill Rieflin. Many of the cast have tenure in the band, others like Harrison, Rieflin, and Jakszyk are new or recently added. Only Jakszyk with Collins and other members of early versions of Crimson paid respect to their initial albums during their tenure in the group 21st Century Schizoid Band – touring around the turn of the millennia. Most of the early work has not seen the bright lights of a concert hall in decades. The set list for these “Elements” shows was spectacular.
To the astonishment and delight of long time fans, Fripp agreed to include older tracks in the set list, beyond the three most commonly played during concerts from 1981 through 2008 (“Larks 1&2”, and “Red”). In contrast, no tracks from the 1980’s version of the band were played. Instead, depending on the night’s set list, the band played three or four pieces that came after 1990, and one or two from the Jakszyk/Fripp/Collins project A Scarcity of Miracles (2011). The night belonged to the early music, which included:
- 21st Century Schizoid Man – In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)
- Pictures of a City – In the Wake of Poseidon (1970)
- Sailor’s Tale, The Letters – Islands (1971)
- Lark’s Tongues in Aspic, Part One & Two, The Talking Drum – Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973)
- Red, One More Red Nightmare, Starless – Red (1974)
These choices were inspired and balanced – instrumentals and vocals well represented. On top of that, the band was able to reproduce and reinterpret these pieces with ferocity and precision. In particular, the two cuts from Islands were awesome to behold live. “The Letters” tells the story of a woman who comes to learn of her husband’s affair via post from his lover. Upon receipt the woman reacts:
As if a leper’s face
That tainted letter graced
The wife with choke-stone throat
Ran to the day with tear-blind eyes
At the moment Jakszyk sings the last of that line, sax, guitar, drums, and all came crashing in to make a cacophony that sounds like anger, despair, and pain all wrapped into a sonic boom. Once the next verse arrives the quiet renaissance refrain begins again. Played live, these dynamics from the original record were massively amplified. The moment sums up how one could describe so much of Crimson’s work. Fripp’s compositions alternate suddenly between dark and light. A typical track will contain segments of distorted, dissonant but rhythmic sound creating almost unbearable tension and finally resolve to a peaceful passage made up of quiet beautiful tones. The black notes vs. the white – the sun and moon, the Larks’ tongue and the Aspic – all part of this yin and yang. Both were on full display for these two shows.
The band looked energized and pleased to be delivering this material. Collins played aggressively and magnificently on winds – at times with him on the sax the band actually swings! Levin demonstrated his unparalleled capabilities on upright and electric basses and Chapman stick. Jakszyk sang beautifully on key, with controlled vibrato, and clear delivery – only “One More Red Nightmare” showing a bit of strain. The front line of three drummers worked miracles with the dense material, and before the final encore we were treated to a three-man drum solo where the skills of each were highlighted. Robert, playing in the light finally, says in an interview video, “I’m in a different place in my life” and it shows in his playing and demeanor. In fact, almost the entire concert was played under plain white lights – only during the final track of the main set, Starless, did the lights slowly change to red, echoing the emotions brought from the intense “one note” guitar solo that builds to that masterful track’s resolve.
Both shows were challenging, rewarding, and exceptionally well presented – an impressive achievement for this groundbreaking 45-year-old musical collective. Take a quiet moment to hope for more than this first 22-date tour from these artists.