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Return of the King —
King Crimson in San Francisco 1995

Man, was it hot! Saturday, the 24th of June was the hottest day of 1995 in San Francisco. As the temperature outside soared to 100 degrees, a group of us eagerly awaited outside the Warfield Theater for what, to us anyway, was the concert event of the year. It had been just over 11 years since King Crimson last performed in the Bay Area. Saturday night was the first of three consecutive sold-out performances at the Warfield. Initially, I pondered which of three shows to attend. Would the sound or performance be better the second or third night as the band and crew got used to the venue? Should I wait and go Sunday or Monday instead of Saturday? I wonder... No, it had to be the first show. I had to be there for the return of the King.

by Mike Grimes, Published 1995-11-01

What to wear to a King Crimson concertWaiting in line, I saw it all — an original Starless and Bible Black shirt, psychedelic poster art from the first San Francisco Crimson show when they played with The Nice, a custom hand-painted shirt of Fripp. These fans were serious! The people who were waiting for this show weren't out for a casual Saturday evening concert with a blind date. This crew was for real. I think most everybody in that line would have rather parted with a few teeth than with their ticket to the show. And for those who might not know the Market Street area of San Francisco where the Warfield is located, let's just say that you'd have no trouble finding trouble there. On this particular occasion, the region was more intriguing than normal. The intense heat combined with the nearby blockades associated with the President's visit to San Francisco for the celebration of the U.N.'s anniversary made the sidewalk in front of the Warfield a crazier place than normal. Just as I was drifting away into a retro state of mind while reminiscing about the King Crimson of old, a loud voice broke my concentration. I looked up to see a pitchman slithering up and down the queue and it brought me quickly back to the present, reminding me of the high tech world we now live in — he was selling computer hard drives! I swear. My thoughts quickly returned to the present time and the present Crimson.

A few hours later, just as the heat was letting up, the doors opened and the adventure we were all anxiously awaiting was about to begin. I had thought that my general admission ticket was going to relegate me to a standing position, sandwiched uncomfortably between mobs of berserk Crimson fanatics. I can't possibly convey how elated I was when I discovered that rows of seats had been placed on the main floor! The pit at the Warfield lined with chairs? Impossible! This was unheard of! None of the other (which is several) times that I've been there have there ever been seats on the floor, but the gods were smiling down at us for this one. It was our fate to sit in the second row, dead center.

Show your love for ThrakThe hour wait until the opening band appeared was filled mostly with utter amazement and conversation about how we got such great seats. It was truly a miracle. Prior to the gig, I had purposely tried to avoid learning any details about the show. I didn't want to know ahead of time what the set list was. I wanted to be surprised by the stage set-up — who was going to be where. I wanted it to be like the old days (there I was reminiscing again) when you didn't know anything about a tour until you saw it in person. I wanted... too much. Much to my chagrin, I had seen the basic set list, an ASCII map of the stage, and knew what color shirt Belew would be wearing weeks before the actual concert that I was attending — all thanks to the wonders of the internet. Unsolicited information just kept appearing in my mailbox. There was so much controversy surrounding the fact that Fripp literally remained in the darkness for most, if not all, of the performance that I couldn't keep up with it all. Should he have a spotlight on him at all times? Was he the most important person in the band? Did he have the right not to be illuminated? Frankly, I wasn't too concerned about the whole issue. I knew that there would be plenty to see and hear, regardless of whether Fripp was easily visible or not.

California Guitar TrioI was looking forward to hearing the opening band — California Guitar Trio. I had seen them earlier in the year touring with Fripp, and they were a really fun band to see. Their music covered a lot of ground, ranging from baroque (Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor") to spaghetti western (Morricone's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"). They closed with some tasteful surf music and exited amidst substantial applause, especially given that they were the opening act. My main gripe about them was that their set was quite short. Just over half an hour wasn't enough for these guys. I think most of the audience would have loved to hear another song or two. At any rate, with the support act finished, it would only be a short while longer until King Crimson took the stage.

King Crimson - Thrak coverHere we go... When the lights dimmed for Crimson to take the stage, there was a roar of thundering applause. I think the two loudest people in the place were immediately on either side of me. Music from Thrak opened the show. The event had begun. I won't post the complete set list (I'm sure you've all seen it somewhere by now anyway), but it was basically: Thrak (the album), a few tracks from Discipline, "Red" (the song), and "The Talking Drum/Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part Two." Of course, there were also the standard improvs and jams that no Crimson performance would be without. It was reassuring that they performed mostly new material, though I didn't expect anything less. Recent "reunion" tours by other pioneering progressive rock bands like ELP, Yes, etc. have suffered from the band relying primarily on older material for the show — playing two, maybe three tunes from the current album. I found it refreshing to hear Crimson come out and play all their new stuff, throwing in just enough old gems to remind the listener that they are a band with a history. One of the things I like the most about Fripp, Bruford, and Co. is that none of them are very nostalgic. They're not the types that would want to go out and play all the old stuff over and over. What's the point? It's been done. This is the present. This is King Crimson.

King Crimson - Discipline coverThe inclusion of four tracks from the Discipline album and none from either Beat or Three of a Perfect Pair is not surprising considering Fripp's remarks from interviews after the "break up" of the second band singling out Discipline as the best 80s Crimson album. Apparently, his thoughts on the matter haven't changed since then — and neither have his choices for pre-1980 material. "Red" and "Larks' Part Two" were the only "old" songs played on the Thrak tour and eleven years earlier on the Three of a Perfect Pair tour (at the Greek Theater, Berkeley show anyway). OK, they did play "The Talking Drum" this time, but that's meant to go together with "Larks' Part Two" so it's kind of part of the same piece. I'm certainly not complaining about those choices. I agree with Mr. Fripp that Discipline is the best 80s Crimson album, and if I had to name "Five-of-the-most-Crimson" Crimson tunes, it would be hard to leave out either "Red" or "Larks' Part Two." By a considerable margin, "Red" received the most applause of any track they played all night — a standing ovation. I had a friend remark that when they played "Red" that night, it was the greatest moment of his entire life!

King Crimson 1995 from Thrakattak coverSo, what's up with this "double trio" thing anyway? That's what I had been wondering before the show. I was pretty sure when I heard drums that it was either Bruford or Mastelotto, but beyond that, I wasn't sure about much. With the crazy guitar sounds Belew and Fripp use, and not one, but two Stick players in the group, the sonic possibilities were almost limitless. Listening to the album, I often wondered who was responsible for particular tones. I was really hoping that seeing them live would help me decipher who was playing what. To a certain extent, it did. But, in some of the busier sections, it was still tough to figure.

Warr GuitarFripp sat on his trademark stool, center stage towards the back, sandwiched between the two drummers. Belew was front and center flanked by the two Stick players. Technically, one of them wasn't playing a Stick. Trey Gunn was sporting the new Warr Touchstyle Guitar (I'm sure both this name and the Stick name are trademarked) in its Bay Area premier (to my knowledge anyway). This recent instrument is similar to the Stick in the technique used to play it, but looks more like a "regular" guitar and has several sonic and functional differences compared to the Stick. Gunn played this all night long and got some really nice tones out of it. Tony Levin alternated between Stick, electric bass, and upright bass (a cool-sounding, bamboo-looking small thing). Adrian Belew covered most of the quirky tones with his modified, Day-Glo Stratocasters. Only Belew would have guitars that had RS-232 ports instead of 1/4" jacks. I guess you need that fancy setup to change between strings and elephantosity on the fly. Robert Fripp was, according to another friend, the calm in the eye of the storm. I think that this is an appropriate metaphor. While clearly contributing his share to the overall sound, Fripp's playing definitely was not more featured than any other member — maybe even subdued in some spots compared to what I was anticipating.

Bruford and Mastelotto get some pressThe drums deserve their own paragraph. It was great to see Bill Bruford in his element. While I love his playing with Yes, UK, and all the others, King Crimson is his home. That is where he belongs. He seemed to be having such a great time on stage and was the highlight of the show for me. I can still remember the pounding feeling on my chest every time he hit his bass drum. His playing was simply incredible. I was very impressed too with the obvious teamwork, cooperation, and choreography between him and the other drummer, Pat Mastelotto. While Bruford was clearly the drum commander, Mastelotto surely contributed quite a bit. He avoided the trap of merely mirroring Bruford's parts, and did quite a bit of interesting playing of his own. It's hard to imagine that Bruford might not have been part of the current King Crimson. Initial rumors had Jerry Marotta as the other percussionist on board with Mastelotto. What a crime that would have been. Nothing against Marotta, but this was absolutely Bruford's gig. Fortunately, for all of us, he got it.

King Crimson 1995The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This statement holds true for all the best bands, including Crimson. Although the sound approached what can only be described as hectic at some points, there was always something to hold on to, even if it was moving around at a high rate of speed. The musicians teamed together wonderfully, playing off each other to create songs. There were no underfed egos needing nourishment. No one was afraid to stop playing when the moment called for it. That is professionalism. That is a group.

It was reassuring to see so many people showing enthusiastic approval for the group's current material. Although they only played a handful of their older tracks, I didn't feel neglected as a long-time fan and didn't leave the show wishing that they had played or not played certain songs. That says a lot. For a group that created arguably the first progressive rock album to still be touring 26 years later and still be presenting something fresh and exciting is admirable. The impressive success of the Thrak tour indicates that several others think so, too. I'm confident that if they choose to continue making albums for another 10 years, King Crimson will still be interesting and innovative, just as they were in 1969. I wish all bands could continue to grow like Crimson has. Long live the King!

Filed under: Concerts, Issue 8

Related artist(s): Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford / Earthworks, Robert Fripp, King Crimson, Tony Levin, Pat Mastelotto, Trey Gunn, California Guitar Trio

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