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.

LIVE REVIEW: Blake Mills @ The El Rey 9/18

by Ethan Sherman

The biggest takeaway from Blake Mills’ show Thursday night at the El Rey Theater for this listener was that he’s managed to make old new again. 

The second show of Mills’ first headlining tour as a solo artist– so far, he’s made his mark mostly as a sideman guitarist and record producer for artists such as Fiona Apple, Lucinda Williams, Sara Watkins and Julian Casablancas– was in support of his new album, Heigh Ho, and left a sold-out crowd in awe for just under two hours. Mills sat center stage, a phalanx of guitars (which he switched to and from between nearly every song) and amplifiers behind and to his left, surrounded on all sides by an amazing band including violinist Rob Moose, keyboardist Tyler Chester, bassist Sebastian Steinberg (the only one standing), drummer Stuart Johnson, and percussionist Griffin Goldsmith. They all seemed genuinely grateful to be there.

Mills mostly played songs from the just-released Heigh Ho, as well as a couple covers and radical rearrangements of songs from his first album, 2010’s Break Mirrors. When I say “make old new again”, I’m not just referring to these creative presentations, but to Mills’ overall aesthetic as a singer, songwriter, guitarist and bandleader. Even though much of his approach to making music comes out of various traditions, he synthesizes elements of these traditions together in a truly compelling way.
Take the guitar playing, for example: while Mills is clearly indebted to players such as Lindsey Buckingham (he barely used a guitar pick all night) and Ry Cooder (indeed, one of his guitars seemed to be a near-replica of Ry’s famously modified Fender Stratocaster, down to the gold foil and steel guitar pickups– guitar nerds, take note!), his playing also exhibits the expressive qualities of sonic innovators like Jeff Beck– literally sounding like a human voice, or perhaps another musical instrument altogether. The most amazing thing about all of this is that it appeared to be second nature, as if the guitar was Mills’ second mouth, helping him speak.

One of the highlights of the night– both personally and judging by the whoops and cheers from the audience– was the surprise guest appearance by Mills’ sometime employer and collaborator, Fiona Apple. Apple sings on two songs from Heigh Ho, both of which were performed at the El Rey, as well as a cover of indeterminate origin (if anybody who was there knows the name of that song, please comment below!). Her presence seemed to invigorate Mills and his band with an energy that lasted after she left the stage through to the end of the set; their duet on “Don’t Tell Our Friends About Me” was a personal favorite.

All in all, if you like songs, sounds, or guitars, this tour is not to be missed. Blake Mills is truly on to something great, and I recommend that you see it for yourself. If you can’t, at least buy his new record. Heigh Ho was recorded at LA’s famed Ocean Way studios in a room once used by Frank Sinatra and Brian Wilson, and Mills hired some of his musical heroes– musicians such as Jim Keltner, Don Was, Jon Brion and Benmont Tench– to back him up on it. The result is, in this writer’s opinion, nothing short of phenomenal, not unlike Thursday night’s show. Thank you, Blake.


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