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Volcanic! // King Crimson (Antwerp, 3 Nov 2016) // Live Review

King Crimson, Stadsschouwburg Antwerp (Belgium), 3 November 2016

In 1969, King Crimson shook the world with a radically new sound, firing off the manic 21st Century Schizoid Man at a time when the familiar sounds of The Beatles and The Stones ruled the airwaves. Now, well into that 21st century, Robert Fripp and his gang of master musicians continue to undertake radical action. I witnessed the second of their Antwerp concerts – a nearly two-and-a-half hour onslaught. And I’m still recuperating.

What went before …

It’s fair to say I’ve had a European affair with King Crimson. I bought my first album, ‘In The Court of the Crimson King’, in Tuscany – along with Gentle Giant’s eponymous debut album, ‘H to He Who Am the Only One’ by Van Der Graaf Generator and – perhaps surprisingly – Springsteen’s ‘The Rising’, which had just been released. So it must have been 2002.

A year later I climbed the narrow alleys that lead towards the Galata Tower in Istanbul to find ‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’ in a tiny record shop. Unlike my first encounter with ‘In The Court’, I didn’t immediately get ‘Larks’. The spark caught fire months later, during a bus ride to Prague.

The irony of this KC-inspired travelogue is that Robert Fripp himself has been unwilling to play Europe after his 2003 tour of the continent. I can’t retrace why exactly, but Fripp had experienced some serious issues with the conditions of European concert venues. Thank god he reopened the case and found a way to tour this chunk of the old world again in 2015 and again 2016. On 3 November, Antwerp unfolded the red carpet for the Crimson King …

Polyrhythmic jigsaw puzzles

From the first part of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic on, it was clear we were going to be treated to a rock sound of volcanic proportions. The frontline consisted of Pat Mastelotto, Jeremy Stacey and Gavin Harrison and their personalized ‘cyclops’ drumkits. An impressive, ehrm, sight. Together they produced an almost terrifying sound. I was seated in row three, at eye (and ear) level with the kick-drums. And boy, it felt like being trapped in a thunder cloud.

Whether it was justified to enlist three drummers? No doubt about that. Each one brought his own strengths to the table. Harrison proved to be the conductor and metronome of the drum department, while bowler hatted Jeremy Stacey crafted a more sober counterweight and played mean mellotron, and Mastelotto reshaped the percussive inventions of ex-KC maestro’s Jamie Muir and Bill Bruford. The result? A highly musical polyrhythmic jigsaw puzzle.
King Crimson European Tour 2016 Antwerp

The unmoved mover

Meanwhile, Robert Fripp sat quietly in the background. Mastermind of all this tricky music. Personification of Aristotle’s ‘unmoved mover’. Guitar innovator in every conceivable way.

He recalled old cohorts Mel Collins (flute and saxophones) and bass player Tony Levin to duty. And lent the singer/guitarist spot to lifelong zealot Jakko Jakszyk, who played a PRS guitar with a striking ‘ITCOTCK’-print.

The combined careers of all these players reeds like a who’s who in rock music. Fripp famously played guitar on Bowie’s Heroes, Mel Collins provided the sax solo on Miss You by the Rolling Stones and featured on Dire Straits’ live album ‘Alchemy’, Tony Levin seems to have played with everyone but Elvis, … But there’s probably no bigger challenge for them than playing King Crimson.

King Crimson 2016

The Antwerp setlist was like a wet dream (see below). There were quite a few songs from the earliest incarnations of the band, which frankly I hadn’t heard in ages. Jakko Jakszyk did a terrific job interpreting the original vocals by Greg Lake and Gordon Haskell, and even John Wetton (Easy Money and Starless).

The lack of eighties material was remarkable. It’s not unlikely that Adrian Belew’s jerky voice stylings were too much of a stretch. Even more since Jakko replaced the spoken word sections of Indiscipline with a vocal melody, which worked astonishingly well.

King Kong Crimson

The new material – there’s quite a lot of it, including two drum-only instrumentals – blended in nicely with the rest of the set. 60’s, turn-of-the-century or present-day Crimson? It all shared the same forward-thinking spirit, delicacy and King Kong-like power. At times it felt like the earth trembled underneath the Antwerp Stadsschouwburg. It reminded me of the thundering intensity of a Swans gig.

In fact, the first half of the show was a bit much to take – can’t tell you why – and I felt like I needed a pause as much as the band did. Somehow the Crimson machine ran smoother in the second half. Or was it my ears, that had ultimately surrendered to the onstage gunfire? I clearly wasn’t prepared for this. And that’s probably why the concert keeps ringing in my brain.

I don’t really feel like analyzing every player’s virtues. What would be the point? The most important thing is that this seven-headed King Crimson is a force of extreme unity. And unity makes strength. All hail the mighty King Crimson!

Highlights

  • Easy Money
  • Indiscipline
  • Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two
  • Starless
  • the finale of Banshee Legs Bell Hassle and 21st Century Schizoid Man
  • and Mel Collins cheekily citing St. Thomas by Sonny Rollins during one of his solos

Full setlist – King Crimson, Antwerp 3 Nov. 2016

Set 1

  • Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One (‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’, 1973)
  • Pictures of a City (‘In The Wake of Poseidon’, 1970)
  • Lizard (The Battle of Glass Tears – Dawn Song) (‘Lizard’, 1970)
  • VROOOM (‘Thrak’, 1995)
  • Cirkus (‘Lizard’, 1970)
  • Hell Hounds of Krim (new)
  • Peace: An End (‘In The Wake of Poseidon’, 1970)
  • Radical Action (To Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind) (new)
  • Meltdown (new)
  • Epitaph (‘In The Court of The Crimson King’, 1969)
  • Easy Money (‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’, 1973)
  • Radical Action II (new)
  • Level Five (‘The Power to Believe’, 2002)

Set 2

  • Indiscipline (‘Discipline’, 1981)
  • The ConstruKction of Light (‘The ConstuKction on Light’, 2000)
  • The Court of the Crimson King (‘In The Court of The Crimson King’, 1969)
  • The Letters (‘Islands’, 1971)
  • Red (‘Red’, 1974)
  • A Scarcity of Miracles (‘A Scarcity of Miracles’, 2011)
  • The Talking Drum (‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’, 1973)
  • Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two (‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’, 1973)
  • Starless (‘Red’, 1974)

Encore

  • Banshee Legs Bell Hassle (new)
  • 21st Century Schizoid Man (‘In The Court of The Crimson King’, 1969)

Fripp frenzy

It’s been Fripp frenzy here at Unearthing Music HQ since the show. Here’s the evidence:

Fripp frenzy after King Crimson show Antwerp Nov 2016

Meet Donny McCaslin: star of Bowie’s ★!

Bowie’s ★ is out. I haven’t received my copy yet. Not my fault: pre-order shipping delay at Warner’s … Luckily, the man who once fell to earth already offered a glimpse of his new directions. He released the title track and Lazarus as singles and paired them with deeply unsettling videos. You wouldn’t necessarily expect a well-established NY jazz combo to play a major role in Bowie’s new sound. But it does. So let’s focus on Donny McCaslin. Who is he? How did he appear on the Thin White Duke’s radar? And why should you track down his work?

In short: Donny McCaslin is an insanely gifted, soaring saxophone player, based in New York, just like David Bowie nowadays. When the news of ★’s imminent launch broke, I immediately delved into ‘Casting for Gravity’ (2012). The album sees McCaslin his extraordinary band – including force of nature and Brad Mehldau collaborator Mark Guiliana on drums and electronics – combining all kinds of influences into a strange-yet-familiar jazz melange. Notice their brilliant reworking of Alpha and Omega by Boards of Canada, a performance even Bowie used as a reference during the ★ sessions:

Closer-than-close-knit

Bowie did not just recruit McCaslin. He wanted the entire band. And you don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to understand why. McCaslin, Guiliana, Jason Lindner (keys), Tim Lefebvre (bass) and ace guitarist Ben Monder are excellent instrumentalists in their own right, which is just part of the story. Together they create an abundance of ideas and form a closer than close-knit unit.

When McCaslin’s gang reaches for extatic heights, as in Praia Grande, it doesn’t resort to cheap tricks. Instead, it surfs the harmonic waves skillfully and with telepathic ease. The band is equally strong in the angular metropolitan territory of Bend (not too much unlike overlooked Japanese fusionistas Machine & The Synergetic Nuts)

Eno, Fripp, Grohl

Bowie was never really a lone rider. He’s been scouting the country’s and the world’s top musicians for decades. The names of Mick Ronson and Brian Eno, Robert Fripp and blues master Stevie Ray Vaughan will resonate the most. Not to mention one-off guest spots for John Lennon (Fame), Dave Grohl (on Neil Young cover I’ve Been Waiting for You) and Pete Townshend (well, two times … on Because You’re Young and Slow Burn twenty years later).

And what about the excellence provided by lifelong companion Tony Visconti, and by the likes of Gail Ann Dorsey (her Under Pressure vocals on the Reality Tour were spell-binding), Mike Garson (hear his avant-garde soloing on Alladin Sane) and Carlos Alomar (listen to him layering funky guitar with Earl Slick on Stay).

So when Bowie is going to hire a jazz band, you know it’s not going to be some run-off-the-mill combo that never looks beyond Georgia On My Mind or Autumn Leaves. He needs lieutenants who bring their own vision to the mixing table. And that’s why Donny McCaslin’s band, which released the excellent ‘Fast Future’ in 2015, is such a great catch.

Not “Bowie with jazz combo”

Last december, both ‘Mojo’ and ‘Uncut Magazine’ reported on how McCaslin was instrumental in the making of ★, follow-up album to jack in the box comeback ‘The Next Day’ (2013). Bowie met McCaslin while recording fierce 10″ single Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) with the Maria Schneider Orchestra. McCaslin took the lead in the hefty brass parts, which sounded more forward-looking than anything on ‘The Next Day’, a fine, but fairly conservative album, measured by some of Bowie’s 70’s and 90’s standards.

As the story goes, Bowie dived into ‘Casting for Gravity’ at home, took notes and invoted the entire band into the studio, early 2015. But as McCaslin clarifies in Mojo, it’s not “Bowie with jazz combo”. A claim that’s been intensified by pre-album singles Blackstar and Lazarus.

McCaslin’s star is rising

Donny McCaslin’s involvement in Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ is great in many ways. It transports Bowie to yet another reinvention of himself. Besides, McCaslin is a frontrow witness of Bowie’s current work ethic. A spokesman role he shares with Tony Visconti, while Bowie mysteriously stays out of the limelight. McCaslin’s studio story even reached – somewhat bizarelly – British tabloid ‘The Sun’.

At the same time, McCaslin’s Bowie liaison will no doubt boost exposure for his own work. In a perfect world, he’ll be playing ‘Casting for Gravity’ and ‘Fast Future’, truly great albums, somewhere near you soon. In a surreal world, he’s supporting Bowie minutes before joining him for his long-awaited return to the stage.★