A few months ago, fans of King Crimson had reason to rejoice when the amusingly-named Two of a Perfect Trio tour was announced – an extensive North American tour that would feature Adrian Belew and Tony Levin with their respective bands, Adrian Belew’s Power Trio (AB3 for short) and Stick Men. Many of those fans (including myself) had been waiting in vain for a full-fledged 40th anniversary tour, and in 2009 news of its cancellation had caused widespread consternation among the ranks of those who had been unable to attend any of the four 2008 concerts. Even if the release of A Scarcity of Miracles earlier this year brought some respite to the starved Crimson fans, the lack of live action and the uncertainty about the future of the band were discouraging to say the least.
Not surprisingly, about a week before the event, tickets for the date in the Washington DC metro area were already sold out . While other dates of the tour had been booked in medium-sized theatres, the DC gig was slated to take place at a rather unlikely venue, considering the relative fame of the artists involved. In fact, the Jammin’ Java (as its name suggests) is a café/bar that doubles up as a music club with a regular schedule of evening concerts. Incidentally, Adrian Belew’s Power Trio had performed there in the summer of 2009 (a week or so after the near-legendary performance of Eddie Jobson’s U-Z with Marco Minnemann, Simon Phillips, Greg Howe and Trey Gunn), so the venue was a known quantity at least to one of the artists involved.
Anyway, though rather unconventional and far from capacious, the Jammin’ Java is very conveniently situated for anyone living in the DC metro area, and also quite pleasant and full of character – even if the dim, cellar-like lighting does not allow for a lot of social interaction. For the occasion, though, the venue had been redesigned in order to allow as many people inside as possible: the seating had been removed, with the exception of the small, fenced “VIP area” and the bar benches at the entrance for those who were partaking of food bought on the premises. On my two previous visits to the club, the volume of the music had approached eardrum-shattering proportions; this time around, however, the sound system operated at a manageable decibel level, rendering the use of earplugs unnecessary even when standing very close to the stage. To be perfectly honest, I would have enjoyed the concert even more if I had been able to sit down, but the music was so incredibly good (and plentiful) that even the mild discomfort of having to stand up was considerably lessened.
The morning before the concert, as a warm-up, my husband and I had played the complete “red-blue-yellow” trilogy, and were expecting an evening to remember, encouraged by some of the comments already available on the Internet. However, the concert exceeded those expectations, with nearly three hours of incredible music and a very warm, friendly atmosphere – and that in spite of its rather stripped-down nature. With no gimmicks or special effects besides a few well-placed lights, the two trios relied only on their considerable experience and creativity – letting the music do the talking, as clichéd as it may sound.
Though the music associated with King Crimson projects an aura of intellectualism and near-unapproachability, and is often indicted of being very “masculine”, lacking the necessary melodic quotient to attract women, there was quite a fair number of ladies crowding around the stage, and none of them appeared to be suffering. Personally, I believe that melody is a very important component of music, and do not generally enjoy “noise” for its own sake. However, King Crimson and its related projects simply transcend any specious conflict between “accessible” and “difficult” progressive rock. Indeed, the concert proved once again that King Crimson’s music possesses a freshness and cutting-edge appeal that have not been dimmed one whit by time. Not surprisingly, the music of both trios is indebted to the “mother band”, though not in an overtly derivative way, but rather as a form of development. I firmly believe that, while it is perfectly feasible to sound identical to Yes or Genesis (check the latest Wobbler album for confirmation), sounding exactly like King Crimson is next to impossible – due to the fluid, ever-evolving nature of the band’s musical output.
The concert was opened by Tony Levin’s Stick Men, introducing their new member Markus Reuter, who had replaced Michael Bernier earlier this year. Levin’s warm, gracious interaction with the enthusiastic crowd subtly complemented the sheer intensity of the music – as did his vocals, definitely not “beautiful” in any conventional sense, but still an oddly successful fit for the band’s sound. Alongside tracks from his 2007 solo album Stick Man and the trio’s latest release, Soup, Levin surprised the audience with a blistering version of “VROOM” that anticipated what would happen in the last half an hour or so of the show. The trio’s astonishing rendition of Stravinsky’s Firebird suite proved once again progressive rock’s affinity for the works of the great Russian composer; while the rap intro and funky suggestions of “Soup” were also warmly greeted by an audience clearly more open to all sorts of contaminations than the average fan of traditional prog. Markus Reuter, his serious mien occasionally softened by a friendly smile, with his touch guitar (designed and built by himself) offered a perfect foil for Levin’s acrobatic excursions on the Chapman stick – which included using a bow, Jimmy Page-style, as well as his famed “funk fingers”. With the supreme ease and confidence born of a long partnership, Pat Mastelotto provided an impeccable backbeat, meshing with the riveting patterns woven by the two string instruments, and creating textures of astounding beauty.
After a short break, Adrian Belew and his cohorts – Julie Slick on bass and Tobias Ralph (who had replaced Julie’s brother, Eric) on drums – took to the stage for some more humour-laced mayhem. Belew, ever the genial host, looked in excellent shape, his voice still capable of delivering the goods with confidence and flair, while the instrumental firepower unleashed by the three musicians was quite awe-inspiring. In some ways, AB3’s music has an even sharper edge than Stick Men’s, as amply proved by the almost 10 minutes of e, the title-track of the trio’s latest recording effort. Adrian’s twangy, trebly guitar tone, like his voice, may be an acquired taste, but makes for a gripping listening experience, especially when assisted by such an impeccable rhythm section – redefining the old warhorse of the power trio in thoroughly modern terms. As far as I am concerned, however, the real focal point of the trio’s performance was Julie Slick, a monster bassist with an uncanny sense of rhythm, perfectly integrating with Tobias Ralph’s powerful yet restrained drumming– and a refreshing example of a new generation of women artists who are in the business of making great music rather than flaunting their physical charms. Though a very attractive young woman, with her bare feet and mop of curly hair, Julie is a musician first and foremost, who amply deserves all the respect due to any musician as skilled and dedicated as she is.
And then it was time for the “extended Crim-centric encore” everyone in the audience had been waiting for. Though I am usually a bit harsh on people whom I perceive as “living in the past” – failing thus to appreciate the excellent music put out by modern acts – I will proudly admit to not practicing what I preach when it comes to anything King Crimson-related. Having never been so lucky as to see them perform live (when they played in Rome in 2003 I had to give the concert a miss because I was not feeling well), this was the closest I had got to “real” Crimson live action. Moreover, unlike some more conservative proggers, I am a staunch fan of the Eighties trilogy, and Discipline ranks as one of my all-time favourite albums – so I was understandably stoked at the very idea of witnessing a live performance of some of those classic songs.
The third part of the show began with only the three tenured KC members on stage, effortlessly running through the funky pace and engagingly nonsensical vocals of “Elephant Talk” (in which the influence of Talking Heads’ take on afrobeat was hard to miss) and the more laid-back strains of “Three of a Perfect Pair”. When the trio was joined by Reuter, the audience was treated to a barnstorming rendition of the iconic “Red”, beefed up by the distinctive contribution of the touch guitar. The infectious “Dinosaur” and the angular “Frame by Frame” had the crowd eating out of the two combined trio’s hands; while the eerie soundscapes and double-drum spot of “B’Boom” (the latter reminding me of Simon Phillips and Marco Minnemann’s drum duel during the Eddie Jobson set in 2009) and the soothing, almost seductive “One Time” laid the groundwork for the show’s white-hot climax.
Though women are not generally expected to like such stuff, “Indiscipline” ranks as one of my all-time favourite King Crimson tracks, so you can imagine my delight when I heard Levin (assisted by Slick and Reuter) sketch the song’s unmistakable intro – this time stretched into an almost unbearable build-up of tension and false starts, then exploding into a maelstrom of slashing, wailing guitar. Heavier than the heaviest metal, and totally mind-blowing, the song oozed with the pure beauty of chaos. After briefly bowing out, leaving the audience wrung out but deliriously happy, the two bands came back on stage and got everyone to dance and sing along with the irrestistible “Thela Hun Ginjeet”. Who said you cannot dance at a prog gig?
If I wanted to nitpick, I might say that I missed some of my favourites – particularly “Level Five” and “Sleepless” with its killer bass line – but I suppose that, after such a performance, quibbling would sound a bit excessive. Almost three hours of music at that level of quality and intensity are anything but an everyday occurrence, and the two trios delivered everything their dedicated fans were expecting – and then some. They made music written over 30 years ago sound as fresh and relevant as if it had been released today, reaffirming King Crimson’s essential role in the continuing evolution of progressive rock.