Saturday, September 27, 2014

Rebooting the Blog: Introduction/King Crimson Concert Review

Have you ever looked up the definition of a word that you already know what it means, just to see what the actual definition is? I just did that with “reboot” and the definition was “boot again.” I guess it serves me right. After all, my life philosophy is “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” (a line by Bob Dylan), which to me has always meant, “have faith in your own instincts and intelligence, you don’t need an authority to tell you what’s clearly obvious to you.”

So why did I bother in the first place? Because I am rebooting my blog and I thought it would be fun to do it dictionary-style. I was wrong. And I may be wrong about rebooting my blog but since most of my readers are probably people who found it by accident, it doesn’t really matter. But to me and to anyone who has actually popped by with any regularity over the last few years, it does matter, or it should.

From the get-go, my blog was intended to be one way of building what the dying publishing industry calls a “platform” – an established area of expertise one has, along with a built-in following who might be interested in purchasing one’s books. The platform I chose – perhaps more accurately, it chose me – is music. After all, my first novel, The Grave & The Gay*, was based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, while the second one I am currently struggling mightily with was inspired by a song by jazz singer Cassandra Wilson.

Maintaining a blog is no easy deal, as I soon found out, and I have frequently written posts that have nothing to do with music. That may prove to be true as well in the future, but to help invigorate my blog and infuse it with meaning, I have decided to reboot it primarily as a concert and CD review site. I have plenty of both to get me started, but if you are reading this and you have a CD you’d like me to review, please contact me via my website – – and I will tell you how to send it to me.

I should note that I have a particular interest in prog and jazz, but am a fan of rock, pop, soul, and folk, as well as ethnic/world music and anything that doesn’t fit neatly in the dying music industry’s various marketing labels. I also write CD reviews and features for Progression magazine, and reviews and articles for the Arts Fuse online magazine and Musicovation blog, so I’m not a complete dodo.

Before I launch into my first review, I want to remind/inform my readers (intentional or accidental, you both are welcome here) the meaning behind the blog’s title, Dove Nested Towers. It is a typically inventive phrase by Van Dyke Parks that is part of the lyrics to the Brian Wilson masterpiece composition “Surf’s Up.” Originally written in 1966 for the Beach Boys’ aborted Smile album, the song eventually appeared in 1971 as the title track of the band’s LP offering that year. Brian did his own version in 2004 on Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, and five different versions appear on the 2011 Smile Sessions boxed set. It is my favorite song.

Any band still going that started out in the late '60s by now will have experienced any number of lineup changes. Typically these are due to death or the intentionally vague “musical differences” and they tend to involve a single player. King Crimson is anything but a typical band. When they have a lineup change, it usually means everyone but the guitarist has been let go. Indeed, Robert Fripp, the seated lead guitarist who dresses and appears as composed as an accountant but plays like a zombie slayer, has been the one and only constant in what has now been eight different lineups since 1969.

These lineups have included a trio, quartet, quintet, and a double trio composed of two drummers, two guitarists, and two bass/Stick players. The eighth lineup may be the oddest one yet: seven musicians, including no fewer than three drummers who are set up in the front of the stage (Gavin Harrison, Bill Rieflin, and Pat Mastelotto), with two guitarists (Fripp and Jakko Jakszyk), bassist/Stick master Tony Levin, and sax/flute guru Mel Collins comprising the second line.

One reason for the many lineup changes (the band has accommodated a total of 21 full-time musicians in its history) is that it periodically breaks up and reforms. The first hiatus was from 1974-1981. By 1974, the band had endured three lineup changes in five years. The 1981 lineup had a successful three-year stint before ceasing operations until 1993, when the double trio was introduced. Two more hiatuses take us to the present day.

With each tour, Fripp takes pains to warn fans not to arrive at the venue with expectations that anything from prior lineups will be played. Typically, some older songs are included in the set lists, but the idea of a “greatest hits” repertoire is anathema to Fripp, who regards Crimson as “a way of doing things” rather than as an ongoing jukebox.

So it was that I arrived at the Emerson Colonial Theatre in Boston to experience how King Crimson would be “doing things” after 45 years of stops and starts. In spite of Fripp’s warnings, lineup #8 did seem to suggest that a retrospective approach to song election was possible. After all, Harrison was with the band in 2008; Jakszyk performed in a Crimson alumni band and has collaborated with Fripp, Collins, and Harrison; Mastelotto and Levin have done a few stints with Crimson together and apart, and Collins goes as far back as 1970.

What transpired was beyond all my expectations and, dare I say, fantasies. It should be noted that my favorite era of King Crimson was 1973-74; that three-album span featured my favorite rock-oriented drummer, Bill Bruford, as well as bassist/vocalist John Wetton, a brilliant player who seemed ever to be in search of fame and finally found it in 1983 in the band Asia. That era was particularly well-represented, and in fact the set’s opener (“Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One”) and closer (“Starless”) came from those albums, along with four other songs (“Red,”, “One More Red Nightmare,” “The Talking Drum,” and “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two”). That, for me, was well worth the price of admission.

The rarely acknowledged Islands album from 1972 (the last of three that Collins appeared on) surprisingly offered two songs, “The Letters” and the jazz-metal instrumental workout, “Sailor’s Tale.” Collins was also proud representative of the 1970 tune “Pictures of a City,” blaring on sax with the force of a Peter Brotzmann (look him up). Collins, whom I saw on Roger Waters’ first solo tour in 1984, was one of four MVPs of this show, playing soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone sax in addition to flute.

Of the eight remaining songs, six date from after Bruford left the band, at which time I took my own hiatus from Crimson’s only-constant-is-change gyrations. As such, I was not familiar with them, though the level of musicianship was consistently amazing throughout the show. As a final encore, the band rocked through the touchstone tune, the opener on Crimson’s 1969 debut album, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” which featured an astounding drum solo by Harrison, who was another MVP, as was Tony Levin, who played three different basses and Chapman Stick and had the unenviable responsibility of anchoring the heavy, complex playing of this seven-legged sea monster.

The final MVP I would give to Fripp himself, who says nothing on stage and yet says all there needs to be said on his guitar. It could well be said that Robert Fripp is also a way of doing things, and like the band he has carried on through thick and thin, there is no one who does it anything like he does. As for the three drummers, I feel that Harrison could have done the job himself (as, indeed, Bruford could have done, and maybe would have if he and Fripp were not currently as close as Ray and Dave Davies).

It is inevitable that this lineup will cease to exist and another hiatus will begin. But Fripp is 68 now and one has to wonder how much more of this he can take. One night was powerful enough for me; imagine being in the midst of it night after night. He has finally plumbed the depths of the King Crimson catalogue and past lineups so if there is a ninth lineup, it will be a challenge to make it a surprising one. But setting up and facing challenges is ultimately what King Crimson is all about; indeed, it is what it does best.