21st Century Touring Band
King Crimson have had so many member changes there have even been off-shoot bands that play King Crimson material but in a different vernacular such as the Crimson Jazz Trio. It shouldn’t be surprising to see Adrian Belew fronting a band that features Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto playing King Crimson numbers. Rumour has it that founding patriarch Robert Fripp never wants to tour Australia so this is about as close to seeing King Crimson live in Australia we’re ever going to get. The other 3 members Julie Slick, Tobias Ralph and Markus Reuter round out the formidable sextet and the rest is prog rock, loud and raw. Beware the dinosaurs.
This is the first time I know of that some incarnation of King Crimson are playing their numbers in Australia. I have waited for this for over 30years. Kind of goes to show Australia is still a cultural backwater.
What’s Good About It
King Crimson have so many different phases to match the number of personnel who have come and gone. This band does not feature any of the members from the the pre-1974 bust up that prompted Robert Fripp to leave the business for 2 years and then move to New York, and yet their renditions of the 70s classic numbers such as ‘Larks Tongues in Aspic Part I’ and ‘Red’ are played immaculately. The post 90s double-trio numbers get a good working out as well, but the real meat and potatoes of the King Crimson material lies in the tricolour albums ‘Discipline’, ‘Beat’ and ‘Three of a Perfect Pair’. Having missed all of King Crimson’s live phases and career, this is about as good as it gets, and it’s pretty damn good fare.
What’s amazing about this incarnation of Crimson and its repertoire is that they play it with such gusto and for something like 3 hours, you certainly get your money’s worth. You come to realise that the recorded version of the music is just a shadow of this roaring red-blooded rock act. The music played live is far less mannered and much more rudely energetic and in your face. The performance bristles with energy.
The jaw dropping chops, the astounding array of sound and technology, the astonishing artistic choices, the tight control that gives way to sonic abandon, the abstraction, the integration of arrangements, is all entirely mesmerising. You sure don’t notice the three hours fly by.
What’s Bad About It
The venue lighting guys were terrible. They didn’t light the front of the stage properly so we watched Adrian Belew in silhouette, back lit from the stage lights above and back, all night long. It was ridiculous. It was like some high school revue effort and I’m pretty sure there are some high school revues that are lit better than that.
What’s Interesting About It
The twin drumming by Pat Mastelotto and Toby Ralph was a revelation. It made me wonder what it might have been like with the B’boom era double trio setup with Bill Bruford, but in most part Mr. Bruford wasn’t missed. The polyrhythms, the syncopation, the dialogic interaction, the experimentation with sounds and extended spaces all built to a tremendous sonic punch. You don’t see bands with two drummers often but when you do, it changes the perception of rock music. It’s a testament to their musical nous and intelligence that the drum interactions come over so well.
The night had a few surprising moments. Tony Levin and the Stick Men half of the double trio played ‘Breathless’ off Robert Fripp’s solo album ‘Exposure’ (a touch stone for gonzo guitar as well as punk metal, musique concrete and Frippertronics). Amazingly, it sounded very much like the recorded version. Tony Levin was doing the Robert Fripp bits on the Stick and Markus Reuter was doing the Tony Levin bits from the album. Pat Mastelotto was doing a great interpretation of Jerry Marotta.
The encore decidedly wasn’t ’21st Century Schizoid Man’. The band opted to go with ‘Elephant Talk’, and ‘Thela Hun Ginjeet’.
Adrian Belew – Guitar Rhinoceros, Twang-bar King
I had the exquisite pleasure of standing right in front of Adrian Belew all night long, so I got a close quarter look at how he goes about doing his thing. The most extraordinary thing – amongst many extraordinary things – is how well his guitar keeps tune because he rides the whammy bar hard. He rides it with his palm, he taps it with his ring finger and pinky, he gently shimmies with it and dives right down so the knob hits the neck pickup. It’s like what you imagine Hendrix to have been like with the whammy, but it’s more. More of everything, all rolled into his musical expression and style. He elicits overtones and harmonics from very different places to where other more conventional players elicit them and he bangs and whallops and bends the body and to get the whole guitar to resonate. It’s avant-garde guitar. It’s what Pete Townshend probably wanted to do but couldn’t so he opted to smash his guitars instead.
It’s not just the whammy bar thing. It’s the loops, the effects, the abstracted shards of noise, the piano sounds off the guitar synth, the brutal distortion tone that comes and goes with a tap of his foot, the seemingly infinite array of tones coming from the Parker Fly, and then there’s the actual playing technique that has to be seen to be believed. It’s like he’s the jester in the Court of the Crimson King as he foot taps and finger taps and twiddle knobs in between playing complicated phrases, all with gusto and panache. He’s one of those people who just invent things and it’s perfect. It’s like how only John McEnroe plays tennis like John McEnroe. Only Adrian Belew plays guitar like this. I’ve seen Andy Summers at equally close quarters and Adrian left Andy for dead.
…and he sounds just like on the records. People use the word ‘awesome’ way too lightly to the point it has lost deeper meaning, and that’s a shame. Adrian Belew live on stage is the proper true definition of ‘awesome’.
Tony Levin – Stick Monster
I have a personal pantheon of bass heroes. A lot of them are prog rock guys from England that I natter on and on about – Squire, Entwistle, Wetton, Karn… The big exception is Tony Levin who is just about dead centre in my pantheon but I don’t talk about him much because I can’t begin to emulate what he does. I can come at the other guys because they play bass guitar as a lower register extension of guitars. Tony Levin plays the Chapman Stick – tapping away furiously – and when he plays a normal(-ish) bass, he plays the strings with percussive extensions on his index and middle fingers. I’m not sure what those extensions are made of, and how he goes about getting that tone he gets, but it’s a monster tone.
Seeing him live is a revelation. Especially because I’ve been reading his name on my fave album covers for most of my listening-collecting life starting at ‘Double Fantasy’ by John Lennon. Yes, he’s the bass player there. He’s on Peter Gabriel’s solo albums; Pink Floyd’s ‘Momentary Lapse of Reason’; and he’s even on ‘Anderson Wakeman Bruford Howe’ – if you can’t wrangle Chris Squire, you get Tony Levin! – not to mention the 1980 onwards King Crimson albums; and he sounds different every time out on all those records. There is no particular Tony Levin sound you can nail him to (unlike say Chris Squire who can be honed in on with a Rickenbacker 4001 bass) or a Tony Levin style except the aesthetic surprise you get when you hear his sound. And all the while, you can sort of play his bass lines on a normal bass guitar to a point but it’s just not like anything anybody else does. It’s completely original and unique.
So yeah, I finally got to see Tony Levin live, got totally blown away, and walked away with very few hints on how to do that stuff.
The Adrian Belew Power Trio
Which brings me to Julie Slick on bass over on stage right; She seems to know exactly what to do to emulate Tony Levin. At one point Tony got his Stick caught in his belt and so he sort of stopped playing and adjusted his belt mid-song while Julie Slick kept the bottom end engine room going. It was seamless.
Adrian Belew’s half of the double trio played a few non-Crimson numbers and were wild. They are ecstatic players. But if you can play like that you’d be ecstatic too.
Adrian Belew is a gentleman. They say “never meet your heroes”, but every gonzo guitar player should have the joy and pleasure of meeting Adrian Belew.
Tony Levin looks like Walter White. Just much nicer and more approachable.
Julie Slick wore these really funky shoes with one foot blue and the other yellow, adorned by dogs. They were cool.
No Robert Fripp? No Problem. Markus Reuter had those chops down. He even looked a little like Robert Fripp with the glasses.
Pat Mastelotto looked a lot more imposing in person than in photos. He has a lot of power.