Nearly 52 years after its first-ever show in South Florida, King Crimson again appeared before a capacity crowd at the outdoor Pavilion at Old School Square in Delray Beach on July 23.
And while the performance wasn’t as historic as that of guitarist and guru Robert Fripp’s original lineup — which included future Emerson, Lake & Palmer vocalist/bassist Greg Lake and Foreigner multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald — it certainly matched its intensity for the current seven-piece incarnation’s 21st Century schizoid fans.
Yet it was a stark contrast to the chaotic mob scene of the three-day Palm Beach Music & Art Festival at Palm Beach International Speedway in Jupiter in November of 1969, in which Crimson was surrounded by bigger stars like the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, and Grand Funk Railroad.
This time around, the British band that’s since ascended to progressive rock royalty status headlined for 1,400 sparsely-masked, well-behaved fans (less than half of the venue’s regular capacity because of socially-distanced, four-chair “pods” and reduced overall seating) after an opening set by the California Guitar Trio.
Together for 30 years, Bert Lams, Hideyo Moriya and Paul Richards opened a hundred shows for Crimson in 1995, including at the Sunrise Musical Theater. The three have practically reshaped the possibilities of an instrumental acoustic guitar trio through their compositional prowess, use of effects, and knack for choosing ear-grabbing cover tunes. Some of their music was even chosen as soundtrack material for the astronauts aboard NASA’s Space Shuttle Endeavour.
Moriya was absent this time around; his place taken by Tom Griesgraber, a Chapman stick player who’s recorded with the trio, and whose tapped lines on the 10-stringed instrument ranged from bottom-heavy bass lines to harp-like chimes. Surviving an equipment malfunction that caused a delay within the first few minutes of its 35-minute set, the trio performed classically-tinged pieces from its new recording, Elegy, before closing with a recognizable crowd-pleaser as attendance swelled from three-quarter to full socially-distanced capacity.
“Echoes,” the title track from the CGT’s 2008 album and culled from Pink Floyd’s 1971 release Meddle, featured Lams’ strong rhythm playing and creative chordal interplay, Griesgraber’s glue-like accompaniment, and Richards’ effects-laden, underwater-sounding dolphin voices a la Floyd guitarist David Gilmour and keyboardist Rick Wright.
“Hello, it’s Robert Fripp,” the Crimson leader announced over the PA system 20 minutes later in his professorial British accent. “It’s great to be out playing live again. The world is a different place, but expect fireballs of rock fury!”
It didn’t take long for Fripp and company to prove that point. Drummers Pat Mastelotto, Jeremy Stacey and Gavin Harrison opened the set with “Drumsons,” their unaccompanied, dizzyingly-synchronized set of polyrhythms. All three were set up at the front of the stage, with saxophonist/flutist Mel Collins (an off-and-on Crimson alum since 1970), bassist/vocalist/Chapman stick player Tony Levin (who first joined in 1981), vocalist/guitarist Jakko Jakszyk (2013), and Fripp on a riser behind them, the opposite of most stage setups. It’s the latest of the Crimson leader’s multiple decades of ideas to set his band apart from the pack.
That extended drum-orchestra intro segued into “Pictures of a City,” from Crimson’s second album, In the Wake of Poseidon (1970). Collins, a force all evening on soprano, alto and tenor saxes and flute, recreated his soloing from the original version before the track’s middle cacophony and late staccato accents. And, as he proved repeatedly, Jakszyk’s voice was a near-dead ringer for that of Lake and his eventual replacement, singing bassist John Wetton.
“The Court of the Crimson King,” the lush, dramatic power ballad from the band’s 1969 debut In the Court of the Crimson King, was another case in point, featuring his vocal harmonies with Levin amid Collins’ flute playing and Mastelotto’s punctuating drum fills.
Unlike other prog-rock bands, and bands in general formed during the Woodstock era, Fripp has kept Crimson relevant by, at times, rendering it irrelevant and disbanding. His original lineup didn’t last long, followed by mix-and-match personnel on the next few albums until the group solidified with the additions of Wetton, violinist/keyboardist David Cross, and drummer Bill Bruford from 1972-1974 before an extended disbandment.
Yet Fripp, the only band member present throughout Crimson’s 53-year history, is driven by methodology. As light rain drove a small percentage of the audience under the covered area to the Pavilion’s west end during the opening 50-minute set, Stacey played more on the keyboards situated to his left than his drum kit on newer ballads like “Suitable Grounds for the Blues” and “Radical Action II.” The band’s newest member, recruited by Fripp in 2016, has since proven invaluable through his multi-instrumental status.
Ditto Jakszyk, whose only vocal weakness during the evening proved to be his inability to capture the quirky, upper-register delivery of fellow singing guitarist Adrian Belew (with Crimson from 1981-2009) on “Neurotica,” the experimental, improvisational, jazz-tinged piece from the 1982 release Beat. It’s likely the reason this lineup avoided another signature track featuring Belew, “Elephant Talk,” from the 1981 album Discipline.
Fripp’s original hiatus for Crimson stretched from 1974 to 1981, when he and Bruford returned to join Belew and Levin for a run through 1984 that leaned more into experimental pop, African rhythms, and New Wave directions. A 10-year lull followed until Fripp regrouped with Bruford, Belew, Levin, hybrid Warr guitarist Trey Gunn, and Mastelotto for their unrelenting “double trio” series of recordings and tour stops from 1994-1997.
A downsized quartet version of Crimson returned in 2000 after the departures of Bruford and Levin, resulting in elements of metal and industrial music on Crimson’s last studio release, the incendiary The Power to Believe (2003), before another hiatus. Fripp started expanding the lineup in 2008 to commemorate the band’s 40th year of existence, eventually resulting in the current iteration.
After a 25-minute intermission, the even stronger second 50-minute set opened with the instrumental “Level Five,” the orchestral barrage of power chords from The Power to Believe. Like an actual classical orchestra, Fripp has always presented Crimson as a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts, including his own signature lines, whether sustain-filled single notes or intricate tapestry patterns. “Epitaph,” the dramatic ballad from the band’s debut, was another highlight, with a stirring Jakszyk vocal as he, Fripp, Levin and Stacey formed the string ensemble; Harrison and Mastelotto the percussion section, and Collins delivered a soaring soprano sax solo.
As for Levin, there’s a reason he’s situated center-stage on the back riser, because it’s practically impossible to take your eyes off of him. Tall and lean, with a shaved head and mustache, he looks 20 years younger than his actual age of 75. He was, in fact, guitarist John McLaughlin’s first choice for the bass chair in a seminal new jazz/fusion band he was starting in 1971 called the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Had Levin not just signed on for a stint with vibraphonist Gary Burton and had to decline, his history would’ve been different, but likely just as historic.
The bassist strapped on the Chapman stick for the riotous “Indiscipline,” from Discipline, with passages from Nelson Riddle’s theme to the 1960s TV show The Untouchables. Levin also added vocal harmonies as Jakszyk wisely avoided comparisons to Belew’s original spoken-word phrasing and sang the lyrics instead, all after the three drummers traded opening phrases like fighter pilots over the remaining personnel’s rhythmic vamp.
Back on bass for “Starless,” the gorgeous track from the 1974 release Red, Levin, Fripp, Jakszyk and Stacey again proved orchestral as Harrison laid out, Mastelotto drove the band as the lone drummer, and Collins again starred on soprano. A microcosm of what makes Crimson so unique, the 10-minute-plus opus starts as a symphonic whisper and builds over 10 minutes toward a polar-opposite, odd-time signature, jazz-approved improvisational midsection, all before a furious, metallic climax.
The encore, of course, was “21st Century Schizoid Man,” the famed lead track off of the debut album. Jakszyk’s distorted vocals were spot-on; Collins’ sax breathed fire, Levin used practically every fret on the neck of his bass, and the drummers’ six-handed attack was given an exclamation point courtesy of Harrison. The writer of the band’s pinpoint drum arrangements, which often involve all three playing different parts to function as a hellacious whole, the London-born firebrand got a thunderous, unaccompanied late solo in which he channeled influences from jazz giants Buddy Rich and Tony Williams to prog-rockers Neil Peart (Rush) and Terry Bozzio (Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck).
For the sake of the Pavilion at Old School Square, hopefully Crimson’s appearance isn’t a precursor of the fate of venues where the band played previously.
The former Speedway in Jupiter is now Palm Beach International Raceway, and focuses solely on road and drag racing. The West Palm Beach Auditorium, site of a 1973 appearance, is now owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Hollywood Sportatorium, 1974, is now a Sedano’s supermarket. The Sunrise Musical Theater is now a church called the Faith Center. And the Carefree Theater in West Palm Beach, suffered a roof collapse in 2005 after hurricane damage and is now a vacant lot.
All left in the wake of Fripp, leader of prog-rock’s true 21st-century schizoid band.