In the Court of King Crimson (An observation by ProgBlog)
By ProgBlog, Nov 6 2018 12:59PM
While I’m not particularly enamoured with the Dorset seaside resort, having landed at Bournemouth International airport twice within a few hours after separate runway problems at Gatwick caused my BA flight home from Genova in August last year to be diverted, then unceremoniously kicked off the plane when the pilot announced the flight had been cancelled and left to our own devices to find our own way back to either Gatwick or home (in my case Croydon), the only opportunity to get to see King Crimson play in the UK this year happened to be in Bournemouth, because I’d neglected to organise tickets for the London Palladium gigs before they sold out.
Crimson manager David Singleton is one of the few people I’ve read who has remarked upon the geographical significance of the first Crimson gig on the current leg of the Meltdown tour, describing the event as having “a particular poignancy as the return to Bournemouth felt slightly like a ‘coming home’ for King Crimson”, explaining for those without an appreciation of the band’s history that King Crimson precursor Giles, Giles and Fripp was originally a Bournemouth group, as indeed was Greg Lake’s pre-Crimson outfit The Gods, the pair having taken guitar lessons from Don Strike whose shop is still located in Westbourne Parade. Though Singleton also went on to reveal that the band stayed at the Royal Bath Hotel where a teenage Robert Fripp had apparently played a few gigs, and suggested that the interior decor had not changed during the intervening years, he didn’t mention the John Wetton-Richard Palmer-James connection, also crucial to the early Crimson story.
I went down to see Crimson with my friend Jim and, having decided that returning to the south London commuter belt that same evening was not the best course of action, booked overnight accommodation at the Royal Exeter Hotel, a five minute walk away from the venue at the Bournemouth Pavilion. Our hotel was formerly the first house built in Bournemouth, by Captain Lewis Tregonwell, in 1810 which retains some original features but has been upgraded to 21st century standards.
Having left Ashtead with what seemed like plenty of time for a gig scheduled for 7.30pm, we discovered that roadworks on the A31 and A338 were enough to jeopardise our plans; we ate in the hotel for expediency but still missed the opening percussion barrage, under that title of Drumsons Turn Back the Tide for the evening, and Neurotica, held outside the auditorium until the piece had ended.
The set list turned out to be very similar to that we’d witnessed in Lucca back in July, only without the tracks from In the Wake of Poseidon and I thought that the familiarity with the material that made up the set, despite a break of three months between Venice at the end of July and this Bournemouth performance, allowed them to play with a similar level of intensity that we’d seen at the Lucca Summer Festival, the penultimate city on the mainland Europe leg of their tour.
Despite a good sound in the open-air Piazza Napoleone, the stage was quite a way to our left which made it difficult to decide whether to strain to see the band or simply look straight ahead at close-ups of individual members on a big screen. The Pavilion Theatre didn’t have any of those problems; seated in row V on the left-hand side of the stalls (capacity 1012), the raked floor allowed a good view of the band. It almost goes without saying that the sound was fantastic – and notices in the foyer informed us the show was being filmed. Crimson rely entirely on their music; there are no props and the one concession they make to theatricality is gradually bathing the whole ensemble in red light during Starless, a reference to a spine-tingling moment of resonance during the last ever performance by the 1974 incarnation of the band as they played the track in Central Park, New York.
It may have simply been my perception but I thought that Mel Collins was allowed something of a free rein during the Lucca gig compared to more restrained playing at Bournemouth however, in what may have been a nod to the band’s history in the south coast resort, added a snatch of a big band style melody during a short improvisation.
I’m really pleased with Collins’ participation in this version of the band because it allows a closer interpretation of the early material to the originals, where the excerpts from the Lizard suite and Islands come across as excellent examples of symphonic progressive rock. The interaction between the three drummers is spectacular and fits in seamlessly with whatever the band are playing but the inclusion of Bill Rieflin as a dedicated keyboard player rather than as a percussionist who adds keyboards, the role now taken by Jeremy Stacey, helps to fill out the symphonic sound which is further enhanced when Fripp also adds keys. This is where having two guitarists helps with the pre-Discipline era compositions; the interlocking parts of Fripp and Jakko Jakszyk on the track Discipline is an obvious example where you can’t play the track without two guitars but Fripp’s role in the current line-up includes both the definitive spray guitar and providing classic Mellotron lines. Stacey described this in Prog magazine (Prog 92) as an illustration how the band did things properly and didn’t cheat but I’ve started to wonder when critics of groups of the first wave of progressive rock who play ‘greatest hits’ sets are going to start taking pot-shots at this band. It’s been reported that there’s already a degree of sniping at Jakszyk’s singing circulating on social media (I personally quite like his voice and really can’t visualise too many other vocalists handling the songs from the first album; I’m also rather fond of his re-imagined lyrics to Easy Money with is dig at the bankers responsible for the 2008 financial crash); it may be that history is sort of repeating itself because Adrian Belew came in for some intense criticism on Elephant Talk when electronic fan forums were just taking off.
Despite breaks between 1974 and 1981, 1984 and 1994, then 2008 and 2014 Crimson, like many of the original acts from the late 60s – early 70s, have a rich source of material to select from when compiling a live set, but last put out an album’s worth of new material back in 2003 with The Power to Believe. What the three-drummer septet/octet has done in the four years of its existence as a touring band, is tap into early material that had never previously been played at concerts, whether because of short-lived formations or the lack of the full instrumentation in a line-up to do a piece of music justice. The structure of something like the Lizard suite, something I can’t imagine I’d have ever heard played live before this incarnation, doesn’t necessarily constrain the ability to extemporise but the era of the grand improvisational pieces ended in the 70s. There’s also a suspicion that the group is playing to a wider demographic than on any previous occasion but this wasn’t particularly evident from my seat towards the back of the stalls in the Pavilion Theatre where the audience was pretty much as you’d expect for a group that formed in 1969 that is rightly or wrongly inextricably linked to the progressive rock genre. On the other hand, the concert can’t have failed to delight any of the original fan base who were present with its mix of favourites and the previously never-heard-live, or anyone being inducted into the world of Crimson with an amazing display of musicianship in a performance that lasted around two and a half hours.
I’d rate the gig very highly, on a par with the first time I saw a three-drummer manifestation in September 2015 at the Hackney Empire and with Lucca in July, each being memorable for different reasons. Maybe Bournemouth isn’t too bad, after all.
The full set list was:
Drumsons Turn Back the Tide
In the Court of the Crimson King
One More Red Nightmare
Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind (1)
Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind (2)
Larks’ Tongues in Aspic part 5
Drumsons Turn on the World
Larks’ Tongues in Aspic part 2
(Encore) 21st Century Schizoid Man
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