LIVE REVIEW: King Crimson @ The Orpheum

words by Ethan Sherman

“I saw King Crimson Tuesday night.” 

Up until a year ago, for those words to be said by anyone seemed to be a distinct impossibility. Guitarist and founder Robert Fripp’s announcement last September that King Crimson would return to active service with a North American tour this fall came as a welcome surprise for fans and enthusiasts, as Fripp has publicly and privately indicated in recent years his decision to step back from work as a performing musician. 

The one thing any King Crimson fan can count on is that every time the band comes together, it’s going to be completely different than the last time, and this incarnation is no exception in its lineup, repertoire, and approach.

This week’s two-night stand at the Orpheum Theatre featured a seven-man lineup consisting of members from Crimson’s entire history as well as newer faces: Fripp; saxophonist/flutist Mel Collins, a member from 1970-2; bassist/Chapman stickist Tony Levin, in Crimson on and off since 1981; and “new guy” guitarist/singer Jakko Jakszyk, who fronted Crim alumni group 21st Century Schizoid Band and collaborated with Fripp and Collins on 2011’s “A Scarcity of Miracles” album. 

In keeping with the Crimson axiom of doing things differently, these four musicians were lined up on a riser across the back of the stage, while the “front line” was occupied by THREE (yes, 3!) drummers and their respective kits: Pat Mastelotto, a member since the “double trio” of the 1990s; Harrison, best known for his work with Porcupine Tree, joined up in ’08; and Bill Rieflin, another new member best known for his work with R.E.M. and Ministry, who’s previously collaborated with Fripp in groups such as The Humans and The Hellboys.

The band’s overwhelming power, as well as their incredible capacity to restrain and orchestrate that power, was immediately apparent, throughout both this song and the remainder of the two-hour set. The three drummers rarely played the same thing at the same time, distributing the parts equally, with each drummer taking on different roles. Notably, Mastelotto’s approach often channeled Crim ‘72’s Jamie Muir, who included in his approach a wide variety of unconventional– in rock music at that time– percussion instruments and found objects. Crimson classics were re-orchestrated to feature the new front line: “Level Five” and “Red” stick out as highlights, as well as Harrison’s face-melting solo during the encore, the rarely-played and eternally ballyhooed “21st Century Schizoid Man.”

Fripp, by the way, is still no slouch, having essentially created his own singular idiom within the otherwise traceable history of rock guitar, an idiom which was on display in top form at the Orpheum. He also appeared to be greatly enjoying himself, unusual for someone who once described life as a professional musician as “a joyless exercise in futility.”

While Tuesday night’s show at the Orpheum began as an exceptional group of musicians playing classic music on a high level, it concluded– to these eyes and ears– holding strong the presence of King Crimson. While this run of concerts has provided longtime Crim fans to see and hear this music one more time, it’s also given fans of my generation a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience one of the most influential and impactful rock groups of our time, one we thought we were born too late to ever witness. For that, Fripp, Jakszyk, Levin, Collins, Rieflin, Mastelotto and Harrison deserve a big THANK YOU. Here’s hoping for more.