King Crimson at the London Palladium, 2nd November
Most bands don’t stand the test of time: when they’re 72, The Chainsmokers clearly aren’t going to be drawing crowds at the London Palladium. But for those that do, the question is this: How do you evolve with the times? How do you avoid a slow descent into mediocrity and disdain? Some bands aren’t able to give a satisfactory answer – mention Axel Rose, and most people will grimace; Mick Jagger is still wailing across the globe. No such worries for King Crimson.
Landing somewhere between Twin Peaks’s red room and the fiery gates of hell, Robert Fripp’s reinvented eight-piece line-up re-arranges, re-interprets, and improvises over Crimson’s entire discography, creating a two-set wall of sound that’s over three hours long. Playing an unexpected setlist of classics, lesser known gems, and what appeared to be spontaneous, unrecorded musical arrangements (who knows), An Evening with King Crimson is a surreal, mystical, thrilling concert that’s a wonder to behold.
In an all-seated audience, with a strict no-phones or photography rule, the London leg of the Uncertain Times tour weaved an at times hypnotic, at others fist-pumpingly energetic show that managed that most enigmatic of je ne sais quoi: feeling genuinely special. In particular, improvised free-jazz white-magic renditions of classic Crimson tracks stood out as particularly satisfying – so thrilling and organic in their freewheeling, maddening idiosyncrasy that the audience couldn’t help but gasp at the innovation on show from a band who cemented their place in musical history with 1969’s In the Court of the Crimson King.
The three-drummer line-up of Pat Mastelotto, Jeremy Stacey, and Gavin Harrison executed a number of mind-blowing, satisfying, almost dangerous call-and-response drum solos, which felt like they might collapse at any moment, whilst remaining thrillingly intact through ridiculously complicated rhythms and backing tracks. With three percussion members, and a huge line-up of eight, one would certainly expect the complex music of King Crimson to sink into a heap of incomprehensibility but the sheer, gobsmacking skill of Fripp’s comrades is so stratospheric that everything works against almost all the odds. A particular solo from Harrison proved to be so potent and fierce that the crowd ignited into spontaneous applause.
Jakko Jakszyk’s vocals remain absolutely impeccable – clear, crisp, and earth-shakingly powerful. One of the greatest strengths of Crimson tracks is how they use the voice like an instrument in a way that allows the frontman to channel the full force of all eight members through his voice. The effect, especially on the more rip-roaring pieces, is absolutely electric. And, of course, Tony Levin’s bass and Chapman Stick skills remain absolutely top-notch, especially in a triumphant solo segment, whilst Mel Collins’s ecstatic saxophone refrains blew the roof of the London Palladium on several occasions.
A woozy, dreamy edition of ‘Easy Money’; sounding like Pink Floyd replaced Rick Wright with Angelo Badlamenti and including a luscious extended segment that I could’ve mistaken for the intro to ‘Money For Nothing’ (coincidence?) was a particular hit, as was hearing a triumphant rendition of fan-favourite ‘Starless’ (which now opens the spectacular Mandy, my favourite film release of 2018). But, as I had hoped, all the tracks blended into each other on the night to create a single, continuous sonic mood-scape that captured the hearts and minds of the (mostly middle-aged) crowd in its own distinct universe.
Playing out on a back-breakingly intense second-encore ’21st Century Schizoid Man’, King Crimson proved once again that they’re at the forefront of progressive rock (despite what they themselves might claim). In 1969, I wonder if the band contemplated that they’d be here, in 2018, playing a track that still feels relevant, zeitgeist-capturing, and daringly experimental nearly 50 years after release. As Stacey, Harrison, and Mastelotto grabbed their cymbals to silence the maelstrom of noise, the audience leapt to their feet for the fourth and most rigorous standing ovation of the night; long may the reign of the Crimson King continue.