LIVE: King Crimson with The Zappa Band @ SPAC, 08/23/2021

The “seven-headed beast” (Robert Fripp’s description) that is King Crimson roared into the Saratoga Performing Arts Center Monday night, destroying all in its path.

Well, that’s a tad melodramatic, but it’s certainly safe to say that witnessing this incarnation of the legendary British progressive rock band is an intense experience.

Now in their 53rd year of existence, Crimson, led by the enigmatic, (mostly) benevolent dictator and guitarist Fripp, shows no signs of coasting into retirement. Their amazing canon of work, with Fripp the sole constant member in numerous lineups, is one of the richest and most diverse in music, any kind of music.

King Crimson
Photo by Glenn Kaplowitz

From the mellotron drenched grandeur of their 1969 debut “In the court of the crimson king” (which Pete Townshend hailed as “an uncanny masterpiece”) to the hard-hitting “Red”, on to the dizzying gamelan influenced polyrhythms of “Discipline”, material from most of the Crimson decades gets an airing in the 2-hour plus set.
What is truly unique in this version of the band is their powerful 3 drummer frontline. Their kits are set out at eye level, facing the audience.

From left to right we have Pat Mastelotto (ex Mister Mister), center stage the burly, bearded, bowler-hatted, Bonham lookalike Jeremy Stacey, and then ex Porcupine Tree percussionist Gavin Harrison. The rest of the band (Mel Collins – woodwinds, Tony Levin – bass, Jakko Jakszyk – guitar and vocals, and Fripp) are set up behind the percussionists on a raised level.

The tone is set right from the start with the 3 drummers playing “Hell Hounds of Crim” a steadily building pattern, before the rest of the band crashes in with “Pictures of a city”.

It was some time during the Rite of Spring on steroids- like jackhammer riffs of “Red”, or perhaps “Lark’s Tongues in aspic part 2,” with the drummers relentlessly carpet bombing the audience with explosions of percussive mayhem, that I realized that this smartly attired league of gentlemen (3 of whom are septuagenarians) are actually heaviness personified.

The Zappa Band
Photo by Glenn Kaplowitz

After an emotive and stately “Starless,” the band left the stage. They encored with perhaps their best-known song, “21st Century Schizoid Man”, whose heavy metal bebop crescendo brooks no argument. A maelstrom of guitar and sax skronk whirled, the drums surged again, and then …. silence, leaving the crowd stunned. It is rumored that this may be Crimson’s last tour. Hopefully not, but if so, they are not going quietly.

Opening in support was The Zappa Band, an outfit of former sidemen of the late iconoclast. Led by Mike Keneally on guitar and keys, and fronted by the soulful Ray White, they turned in an excellent set, relying heavily (to my delight) on Zappa’s mid-seventies output. It was great to hear such defiantly weird songs as “Andy”, “Florentine Pogen” and “City of tiny lights” in a live context again.

  1. Matthew G. says

    I attended the Crimso concert here in Scottsdale, Arizona a few weeks back and I’m glad I did, if in fact this is the “Last Live Show” to quote the ad hoc title given by 1974-era bootleggers to a rough recording of the 1 July ’74 gig in NYC, which proved to be the last for several years at that time.

    However, after having spent exactly 3 decades obsessively tailgating this band and its uneven history, I found myself sitting there (comfortably, it was) thinking to myself, “it’s all a bit much for some of these older tunes, isn’t it though? For pieces of music that were originally conceived, gestated, and born in the spirit and intention of being presented (expressed?) to the universe using just 3 or 4 basic instruments…

    It just seemed overproduced. I’ve seen this band (and a few associated Crimson-connected acts) perform live at least a dozen times in over twice as many years. Many of King Crimson’s most majestically alchemical moments occur whenever the opportunity for fully-participatory improvisation presents itself. This gives the musicians the chance to really listen to each other fully note-by-note (frame by frame?) and respond in direct measured harmonious spontaneity with each or every other band member.

    I think that I can almost count on one hand the total number of minutes out of about an hour and a half when this spirit leaned over and took the band into its confidence. It was simply a bit disappointing. We heard a plethora of tracks culled from the group’s over-half-century-old repertoire, which, I will say, was a pleasant-enough roll down Memory Lane, but the bulk of the new music from this particular line-up consisted of dense and, (I must admit) occasionally convoluted percussive work-outs from the “3-headed Rhythm Section” (I believe that is Fripp’s own term for the drummer/percussionists). They were certainly entertaining enough, but when providing the engine-and-boiler-room foundation for “Red”, the whole thing sounds a little top-heavy, overloaded, even overproduced. I mean, compare a recent 7-headed-beast arrangement of “Red” with the original 1974 Olympic Studios multi-track mix of the “Red (trio version)” where its just Fripp, Wetton, and Bruford as the ‘minor power trio’, a less dense but more aggressively nuanced ‘3-headed beast’ in all of its nastiness clothed and dolled-up in grandeur and decorum as only 1970s British Rock can deliver. I’ll always feel inclined to take the latter over the former in this case.

  2. William Adams says

    Truly an amazing show.
    It had been moved indoors to the Springfield Symphony Hall from the original venue, outdoors at Look Park in Northampton Mass, which by itself is an awesome ampitheater to experience any sort of show.
    The years have done well with this arrangement of tunes, and the present assortment of players did a remarkable job of presenting them.
    I would personally believe that every person in attendance was awestruck with the delivery.
    The Zappa Band also was a true crowd pleaser, with the only complaint noted was that “they didn’t play enough” for some people, having only graced the stage for an hour.

  3. Zeeheart says

    I’m 54yo but not a big “prog” fan, although I have seen bands like Yes, Rush and Emerson, Lake & Powell live. But I never got into King Crimson because I just never *HEARD* any King Crimson (are they ever played on the radio? of course not). But, I’ve heard the legend and know they’re highly innovative and revered, so when this latest tour took them to within 5 minutes of my house AND with LiveNation offering $20 off on the ticket price, it seemed someone was telling me it’s time to go see this band.

    And boy am I glad I did. I have seen all kinds of legendary bands over the 40+ years I’ve been going to shows and this one just blew me away. Right up there with the likes of Jeff Beck and Rush for sheer talent, and yet KC is clearly its own thing, especially with Tony Levin on bass and 3 world-class drummers. I can’t stop talking about them enough that a friend from Michigan who also knows next to nothing about KC is going to see them in Detroit and one month after I saw them, I have several studio and live albums that I’m enjoying every day. I have literally listened to nothing but King Crimson since I saw them!

    Rumor is that this will be their last U.S. tour, so if you get a chance to go see them, whether you’re a fan or not, definitely go check ’em out.
    It’s a one-of-a-kind musical experience that I wish I could go see again. Fingers crossed they make it back to the states one more time!


    Nothing but love for this show, my first, though I have been a huge fan since the Red Album. Can’t say I wasn’t disappointed that there was almost no composition representation from the Belew, Bruford, Levin era, (save Discipline), though Jakko and Mel evoked days of old listening to Larks Tongue in Aspic in my college dormitory with a bong and a throng of new Crimson fans! So happy I was finally in reach of a show before the final curtain call.

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