When it comes to historic progressive rock royalty, only one band wears the crown.
King Crimson formed in London in 1968 and emerged with its groundbreaking 1969 debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, which reached the Top 30 on the American album charts, the Top 5 in the U.K., and even replaced The Beatles’s Abbey Road at No. 1 in Japan.
The group has since remained surprisingly relevant into the 21st century through a series of hiatuses, reformations, and lineup shifts through every decade from the 1970s through 2010s. All were orchestrated by guitarist, keyboardist and leader Robert Fripp, the only band member present throughout.
“King Crimson lives in different bodies at different times, and the particular form which the group takes changes,” Fripp has explained. “When there is nothing to be done, nothing is done — Crimson disappears. When there is music to be played, Crimson reappears. If all of life were this simple.”
The current seven-piece lineup of Crimson (Fripp, vocalist/guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, bassist/vocalist/Chapman stick player Tony Levin, saxophonist/keyboardist Mel Collins, and drummers Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison and Jeremy Stacey, who doubles on keyboards) appears at the Pavilion at Old School Square in Delray Beach on July 23 on its Music Is Our Friend 2021 tour of North America.
The band’s longevity is no small or simple feat. Consider that other British prog contenders like Yes, Jethro Tull and Genesis also formed in the late 1960s, yet maintained an outsized creative presence only through the early 1980s before each became nostalgia factions. Canadian trio Rush had a lengthy run from the mid-1970s until the health of drummer Neil Peart (1952-2020) took the band off the road in the mid-2010s, yet they were influenced by Crimson, Yes, Genesis and Tull. Ditto any subsequent American applicants, from Kansas to Queensryche and Dream Theater.
Levin first joined a reunited quartet lineup of Crimson (with Fripp, drummer Bill Bruford, and vocalist/guitarist Adrian Belew) for its breakthrough 1981 comeback LP, Discipline. Also known for his lengthy tenure through original Genesis lead vocalist Peter Gabriel’s subsequent solo career, as well as for his sci-fi film extra-looking shaved head and facial hair, the ageless 75-year-old bassist has been lured back into the fold through the Tao of Fripp multiple times since.
“It’s a very special band,” Levin says by email from his home in Kingston, N.Y. “presenting unique musical challenges and opportunities. There aren’t many bassists who wouldn’t be happy to be in it.”
The 65-year-old Mastelotto, formerly a member of pop group Mr. Mister and currently part of the Chapman stick-and-drums concept group Stick Men with Levin, first joined another reunited Crimson six-piece “double trio” lineup (with Fripp, Bruford, Levin, Belew, and hybrid Warr guitarist Trey Gunn) for the explosive 1994 EP Vroom and 1995 CD Thrak. The drummer also appeared on Crimson’s latest original studio release, an equally stunning quartet bookend minus Levin and Bruford to In the Court of the Crimson King called The Power To Believe (2003).
“It’s one of the things I love about playing with Crimson — you don’t get to fall back on your laurels,” Mastelotto says by email from his home in Dripping Springs, Texas. “The hiatuses allow me and the other Crims to work on other projects, and that expands my musical vocabulary. I’m a longtime King Crimson fan, so it’s great to work with musicians like Gavin, who don’t have Crimson in their DNA like I do. Or Jeremy and Mel, who have jazzier roots. We all approach the songs from a different perspective. It’s great.”
Crimson’s sound has always been a unique blend of elements including metallic rock, psychedelia, classical music, and jazz-approved improvisation. In that regard, the uniqueness likens them more toward strange bedfellows like the Allman Brothers Band, the enduring Southern rock act that lasted from the late 1960s through 2014 while mixing blues, jazz, rock and psychedelics. And Weather Report, the defining jazz/fusion group of the ’70s through mid-’80s in which co-leading keyboardist Joe Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter constantly mixed and matched its remaining personnel.
British drummer/keyboardist Stacey is the newest face in the Crimson lineup, situated center-stage between the California-born Mastelotto and British firebrand percussionist Harrison. Stacey first took the drum chair of the since-deceased Bill Rieflin (“An incredible and robust human,” Mastelotto says, “and I’ll always be grateful for the time we shared”) in 2016. That’s when Crimson briefly became an octet as Rieflin, previously drummer for bands like Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, and R.E.M., valiantly continued on as a keyboardist during the eight-year battle with cancer that ultimately took his life at age 59 last year.
“He’s such a great pianist,” Mastelotto says of Stacey. “His piano talents opened up all sorts of new possibilities. He’s an octopus; like a friggin’ Rick Wakeman [famously of Yes]. ‘Jez’ will play drums, mellotron, piano and taurus pedals, all in the same song and at the same time.”
“Jeremy is superb,” adds Levin. “When you think about it, it’s pretty hard, after slamming the drums for a piece or two, to suddenly have a delicate touch for a ballad on the keyboard.”
Through alternate tunings and chord progressions, Crimson has influenced numerous additional rock acts in its wake, through styles progressive and otherwise, including Tool, Primus, Black Flag, the Rollins Band, and Mars Volta.
Bruford, a founding member of Yes, left that band at the height of its popularity in 1972 to join Crimson for the next 25 years in search of a darker and more improvisational sound. Original Crimson lead singer and bassist Greg Lake went on to form popular progressive rock trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer with keyboardist Keith Emerson and drummer Carl Palmer, and 1971-1972 bassist/vocalist Boz Burrell would find fame shortly thereafter as part of blues-based rockers Bad Company. His replacement, singing bassist John Wetton, was an integral part of Crimson from 1972 to 1974 before a Fripp disbandment. Wetton then became part of the progressive supergroup UK and later pop sensation Asia.
Wetton and Bruford became one of the quintessential rhythm sections of the ’70s, appearing on banner releases like Lark’s Tongues in Aspic (1973), Starless and Bible Black (1974), Red (1974, and featuring 1970-’72 and current member Collins as a guest on soprano sax), and the live album USA (1975) with a lineup that also included Fripp and, intermittently, violinist/keyboardist David Cross and percussionist Jamie Muir.
Levin and Bruford repeated that feat in the ’80s, beating the odds in a decade otherwise largely dominated by insipid pop video stars. Post-Discipline releases with Fripp and Belew included Beat (1982) and Three of a Perfect Pair (1984) before Fripp pulled the plug once again. That foursome’s live prowess was captured on the last evening of its final tour together, July 11, 1984, in Montreal, and released as the double-live CD Absent Lovers in 1998.
It, and subsequent Crimson recordings, were released on Discipline Global Mobile (www.dgmlive.com), the independent recording label Fripp founded with producer/online content developer David Singleton in 1992 while the group was on hiatus between that quartet and its future double trio lineups. Multiple more recent live, plus older and archival recordings, are also available there. Just no new studio work.
“The old method of bands spending months in a studio is a bit old-fashioned,” says Mastelotto. “Out live shows travel with a state-of-the-art studio, and we record every show. Crimson has always been a very powerful live experience, and we’re very busy touring and capturing ‘takes.’ If you’ve seen this incarnation live, you know it isn’t a nostalgia act. So the release of these live shows is what DGM has been focused on.”
“To plan a hiatus to write, and then a recording period, and then a half-year wait for the release,” Levin says, “is the way we used to do things. But we fell into this other way of presenting the music, and it’s working for us.”
Belew was the first guitarist other than Fripp to join Crimson, and his Beatlesque lead vocals and harmonies with Levin, and guitar tapestry with Fripp, made him an integral part of the band through 2009. Jakszyk, previously with pop act Level 42, is its second guitarist other than Fripp, and was recruited while he was part of the alumni of 21st Century Schizoid Band that featured early Crimson participants like Collins, bassist Peter Giles (from Fripp’s previous group, Giles, Giles & Fripp), Michael Giles, the original drummer for both that act and Crimson, and original keyboardist/wind instrumentalist Ian McDonald, who’d later help form rock band Foreigner.
But Belew’s signature vocals and guitar histrionics had made him a Crimson focal point for nearly three decades over several different lineups. Fripp, true to his nature, had an alternative vision with this seven-piece band, which debuted in 2014.
“Robert wanted to go in a different direction,” Mastelotto says, “one more orchestral and less front man-oriented.”
The current Crimson concert lineup is, like practically anything associated with the band, unorthodox. Its three drummers are situated up front, with the remaining band members on a riser behind them — the opposite of most stage setups, where the drummer or drummers are set up behind the front line.
“It’s quite a show they put on,” says Levin. “It’s really fun to have a bird’s-eye view. I need to hear them all well, but we use in-ear monitoring, and have individual controls to mix the band as we play. So I’m able to hear it all clearly, and even pull up the drummer I need to lock in with in any particular section. Gavin has a very big role in the band. He arranges the three drum parts, so his progressive approach, and knowledge about many drum options, has helped give the band the flavor it has. The drum arrangements result in a single drum part, though a very complex one. Kind of like an orchestra that sometimes goes wild.”
“It’s very hard to get used to,” Mastelotto says of the novel configuration “Under normal circumstances, we drummers see the whole band, but when you’re in front, your sight line is limited. It creates new logistics. And you’re exposed during the entire show. No dark stage. But gang on — it’s not just any two other drummers, it’s none other than Gavin and Jeremy, so outrageous (stuff) is going on every night.”
That seven-piece configuration was set to play at Mizner Park Ampitheater in Boca Raton last summer before the COVID-19 pandemic. The opening act would’ve been the Zappa Band, composed of alumni from several different bands led by vocalist, guitarist, and composer Frank Zappa (1940-1993), perhaps the singular leading progressive rock figure ever.
The Zappa Band will open dates later in the year for Crimson, while the Old School Square show features openers the California Guitar Trio. Paul Richards, Bert Lams and Hideyo Moria were students of Fripp’s, and toured with his side group, the League of Crafty Guitarists, before forming their own far-reaching trio in 1991. The CGT opened for the double trio version of Crimson at the since-defunct Sunrise Musical Theater in Broward County in late 1995.
“They’re good friends,” says Levin. “And it’s nicely historic that they are again opening for Crimson, as they did for a hundred shows back in the 1990s.”
Similar to the outdoor stage at Mizner Park, the Pavilion at Old School Square seats 3,500 people. Yet with the COVID-19 era blessedly waning, there are still nonetheless rules and reminders in place. Seating takes place in separated, socially distanced “pods” (gated areas with tables and chairs for only four people), and masks must still be worn on the grounds everywhere except within those designated pods — including visits to the card-only, cash-free food and beverage stands.
Being forced off the road in 2020 and the first half of 2021 by COVID-19, though, doesn’t sound exactly like a curse for the most veteran of Crimson’s three drummers.
“I have a studio here, so I never really stopped working,” says Mastelotto. “I slept in my own bed every night for over a year with my wife. And pets nestled at our feet. Incredible. On the other hand, drumming with my pals live is what I’ve been doing since I was 15 years old, so my natural habitat is on the road.”
As for what material fans can expect from the band’s diverse and lengthy catalog, Mastelotto advises attendees to be open to a blend of the expected and unexpected.
“A full range,” he says, “of old, new, and in-between, from about 35 songs on the list for this summer.”
One track almost certain to be played is In the Court of the Crimson King’s opener, the metal-meets-jazz/fusion anthem “21st Century Schizoid Man.” Composed by original Crimson members Fripp, Lake, McDonald and Giles, its words were written by initial Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield.
With references to napalm, Sinfield’s lyrics were reportedly a statement about the United States’ involvement in the war in Vietnam. But in retrospect, given that King Crimson’s leader has helmed the band through several dizzyingly-different formations over the course of more than 50 years and multiple centuries, perhaps he was referring to Fripp himself.
If You Go
King Crimson, with special guests the California Guitar Trio, will play at 7:30 p.m. July 23 at the Pavilion at Old School Square, 51 N. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach.
Info: 561-243-7922; oldschoolsquare.org