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King Crimson… Give em a Kiss?

The progressive rock juggernaut King Crimson brought their seven-man supersonic machine to the Fox Theater in Oakland, California September 5th and 6th 2019 for two highly anticipated concerts.  These were epic shows 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. This latest tour stop was particularly compelling as we found the band focusing on its most mellow, romantic songs. Tears were shed, arms were raised to the ceiling. It was the best setlist I’ve ever seen the band deliver, and the best performance as well.

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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 Jeremy Stacey. Before the series of concert tours Crimson has been staging for the last few years, the various collectives of the band have not played much of their early material, other than “21st Century Schizoid Man” and the title tracks to Red and Lark’s Tongues in Aspic. Therefore for instance most of the early songs from In The Court of the Crimson King (1969), Lizard (1970), and Islands (1971) have not seen the bright lights of a concert hall in decades.  The setlist for the shows over the last few years have been spectacular.

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The 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 balanced with delicacy and precision.  In particular, the title track from Islands, the title track from In The Court of the Crimson King and the additional choice to include  “Moonchild” leading into “Epitaph” was awesome to behold live.  “Epitaph” is as relevant today as it was in 1969 when written:

Between the iron gates of fate
The seeds of time were sown

And watered by the deeds of those
Who know and who are known;
Knowledge is a deadly friend
If no one sets the rules
The fate of all mankind I see
Is in the hands of fools

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For this fan, the major moment of the show came when the band played “Cirkus including the Entry of the Chameleons” from Lizard.  Jakko’s vocals were clear and warm, yet with power during the stanzas when that was needed. Mel Collins included the crunchy bass sax, a flute solo (one of many that night) and various other wind interludes. Part time middle drummer Jeremy Stacey spent much of his time on keyboards, which made for a much richer sonic landscape than I’ve ever heard.  Tony Levin held every down with his fantastic skill on the Chapman Stick.

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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. However, this time there was more of the melodic, softer, dare I say romantic version of King Crimson. Readers who know the tracks on the setlist above will see how many compositions selected for the first show are less allegro, more mellow and beautiful.

The front line of three drummers worked miracles with the material, and several times during the concert 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 now a couple years old, “I’m in a different place in my life” and it continues to show in his playing and demeanor.  In fact, almost the entire concert was played under plain white lights – only during “Red” did the white lights slowly fade to red – a very effective bit of staging, at least for one song. The final tracks of the main set “Starless and “In the Court…” brought out intense emotions an this fan for one found it hard not to think of ex Crimson members now deceased, Greg Lake and John Wetton, while also absolutely loving every moment of Jakko’s well tuned vocals his fantastic skills as guitarist and his kind presence.

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The first of two nights was an overwhelmingly beautiful display of virtuosity – that fact alone is an amazing achievement for this groundbreaking 50-year-old musical collective.

The Set List:

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Live Photos © King Crimson – Live in Mexico

(no photos are allowed at King Crimson concerts until the bow)