"I Wonder If That's Really It"
Rose Music Center in Huber Heights, Ohio
September 2, 2021
As the last reverberations of “21st Century Schizoid Man” settled, triggering a merry, mutual photo session between King Crimson and its audience at the Rose Music Center, a bittersweet sentiment sifted through the crowd. It was reflected very matter-of-factly by a patron sitting next to me.
“I wonder if that’s really it.”
The remark reflected widely circulated (meaning rumored) scuttlebutt that the mighty Crimson’s current North American tour will be its last. Of course, the band has issued no official statement on the subject. It’s a good bet, in fact, the musicians themselves don’t definitively know what the future holds. But if this was indeed part of the last-go-round for Robert Fripp and company, then they are going out on a jubilant note – well, a whole lot of jubilant notes.
Like the near annual treks Crimson has undertaken since reinventing itself in 2013/14 as a seven (and sometimes eight) headed beast fronted by three drummers - Gavin Harrison, Jeremy Stacey (who doubled on keyboards) and longtime Crimsonite Pat Mastelotto - this performance was a stunning presentation of living history.
The 15 tunes making up the concert covered eight different albums spanning five decades. But the specific “whens” didn’t really matter. All of the material was presented with an almost symphonic electricity.
The drums didn’t just establish grooves, they played off them, orchestrated them and at times even harmonized with each other during specific passages. Mel Collins’ turns on flutes and various saxophones enhanced the color of more pastoral moments while turning more open-ended passages into jazz joyrides. Guitarists Fripp and Jakko Jakszyk proved a daredevil tag team, especially when their dizzying runs locked horns with the drums. And then there was Tony Levin, who navigated the same treacherous rhythmic waters as his cohorts on bass and stick while also providing each workout with subtle, flexible but substantial foundations.
In other words, the technical command of Crimson remained stunning with a repertoire covering a half-century that in no way resembled a collective museum piece. Whether it was through works from the 1969 debut album, “In the Court of the Crimson King” (in particular, the still-elegantly ruminative “Epitaph) or comparatively newer instrumentals composed by the current Crimson lineup (the roaring percussion/guitar workout “Radical Action II”), this is a modern thinking unit.
For instance, the pastoral sweep of “Islands” remained rich and warm, reflecting the concert’s quietest set of dynamics. Credit Jakszyk’s vocal lead and Collins’ saxophone flights for making the piece sound fresher than any supposed “prog” song from 1971 has a right to. Similarly, a comparatively recent (if you want to call 2001 recent) excursion like “Level Five” remained a stirring blend of electro/acoustic percussive ingenuity and warp-speed guitar fire. If there is a single piece that best reflected the sound and strength of this current Crimson incarnation, “Level Five” gets the prize.
Also, for an ensemble with so many moving parts, this seven-member crew performed expertly as an actual band. A drum break from Garrison during “21st Century Schizoid Man” and an earlier serenade by Levin on electric upright bass were among the only unaccompanied solos performed during the show. But the members all soloed generously through the evening within a band context.
Everything coalesced with the set-closing “Starless,” a still-stirring 1974 composition that swept in like an evening fog before a middle section broke away for an ominous ensemble groove that slowly gathered intensity and dimension with guitars and drums both anchoring and playing against the groove. The tune also allowed for the show’s only visual indulgence, one that gradually bathed the band in blood red lighting.
So if this performance was, in fact, “it” – meaning, the show was part of the concluding Stateside chapter in the 50-plus year saga of King Crimson – then the band is leaving with more than a mere bang. It is exiting by illuminating nearly all its creative history with the vitality and invention of the here and now.