Robert on the bus

Not-your-father’s version of King Crimson

King Crimson (from left to right): Robert Fripp, Jeremy Stacey, Bill Rieflin, Tony Levin, Gavin Harrison, Pat Mastelotto, Jakko Jakszyk and Mel Collins.

Discipline Global Mobile, known on the interwebs as DGM, is King Crimson founder and self-admittedly pitiless autocrat Robert Fripp’s label and media organization, responsible for control and release of all things Crimson and related, and cheerfully counterintuitive to the guitarist’s long reputation as fiercely reticent and retiring from such shabby pursuits as self-promotion. It has blessed the KC community with regular updates and snippets of life-on-the-road videos with the rebirthed (now eight-piece) band as it winds its way into its third year as a re-energized franchise.

One of my favorite little clips features the band striding from their hotel in Wisconsin a couple of years ago, onto their not-terribly-plush tour bus and taking a trip to, not kidding, Walmart. Fripp explains with a sly smile he’s only making the trip to pick up some mineral water, a few others on the bus concede sheepishly that they’ll be on the hunt for more caloric indulgences. And the clip ends with a shot of Fripp, the “Yoda of prog guitar” as he’s been incautiously if not terribly inappropriately termed, exiting the escalator, grabbing a cart and disappearing into a Midwestern Walmart in search of bottled water, a cheerful “hello shoppers” recording resonating thinly overhead.

That Crimson is back on the road again is remarkable enough given Fripp’s chronic struggles spanning the last five decades: self-satisfaction over what the band should be, what it has at various times failed to be, how it should remain true to its principles in a ruggedly unprincipled music industry, and how (or whether) it should posture before the stifling expectations of its aging and period-partisan audience. (Notwithstanding the fact that Fripp is 71, and is said to be not terribly fond of tour travel anyway.) Only a few years removed from his statement to the Financial Times (in 2012) that his “life as a professional musician is a joyless exercise in futility,” Fripp is taking his franchise across selected dates in the U.S. in what the esteemed music writer for the New York Times Jon Pareles suggests “may well be rock’s longest-running feat of misdirection.”

In another clip on the DGM website, recorded in a hotel room last fall in Monaco, Fripp cautions in achingly precise detail, that “unless you’ve seen this King Crimson live, you don’t quite have the right to hold an opinion about it.” Further, “and unless you’ve seen this band live three times, your opinion is not likely to be substantial.” And in the enviable but unlikely case you’ve already passed the first two tests, Fripp concludes his cautionary admonishment by saying, “if you have seen this band even three times live, but you see it through a prism of spending many years of long hours in your personal rooms, listening to bootlegs, early live recordings and so on — if you experience this King Crimson through a prism of the past — your opinion will be undermined by expectation.”

Which supposedly is Fripp’s way of saying, “We’re not your father’s King Crimson; we’re probably not even yesterday’s version of King Crimson.”   

Which is not to trivialize what Fripp is doing with this three-drummer, two-guitar lineup, deeply invested in counter-rhythms, and tightly drawn knots of precision dueling against spasms of rainmaking improvisational chaos. While he may be loathe to admit it, Fripp is also in some ways promoting Radical Action To Unseat The Hold Of Monkey Mind, the three-CD set of live recordings released last fall culled from late 2014 and 2015 shows, complete with DVDs and a smidge of liner note from Fripp himself.

The catalog of tracks captures re-imagined arrangements (some reasonably faithful, others less so) drawn largely from the 1969-1974 period, a deeply beguiling exploration into the same past from which Fripp himself tries to warn away his 2017 audience from using as a benchmark. Boulder audiences may recall Crimson’s propulsive, Adrian Belew-led set at the Fox in 2001, ostensibly a warm up to the next day’s twin bill with Tool at Red Rocks.

More than a few casual Crimson fans are likely to point to those two periods of the band’s past — ’81-’84, and ’95-’05 — when Adrian Belew, gleeful fracturer of post-wave pop, stood as frontman for the group, Fripp curling his insidious guitar algebraics while Belew alternately doubled and lacerated them with his own spontaneously disruptive sonics and angular songwriting. That was a grounded King Crimson, Fripp presiding over a uniquely challenging form of pop music that, for the most part, worked brilliantly, and which, for some, shamed the efforts of period contemporaries’ similar efforts to sustain their careers by easing away from the be-caped and be-glittered baggage of ’70s-era prog.

But like pretty much everything else from Fripp’s past, those were creations of the moment, or of the times, and its time passed, and now this is King Crimson. And after this tour, sooner likelier than later, it will be gone as well.

This of course is all part of the plan. Fripp’s belief that every performance is a product of its own moment, and not of any other, makes any sort of judgment about 2017’s version of King Crimson a challenging task. He knows as well as anyone that there is no such thing as an expectation-free audience, that the completely open mind is a unicorn, and that King Crimson, as a band, an idea and a relentless challenge, exists in more than the here and now. We bring our own imperfections to Fripp’s proving ground, and he dares us to come out a little better than when we went in.

“Come into the moment; you are most welcome,” he concludes in the clip. And into a void of wonder we go, pushing our squeaky-wheeled cart through aisles of plenty.


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