King Crimson at Ruth Eckerd Hall

Philip Booth on July 30, 2021
King Crimson at Ruth Eckerd Hall

photo credit: David Singleton

Robert Fripp never stints on audacity and ambition when it comes to his compositions and performances, no matter which ensemble he heads. And the guitarist’s new King Crimson tour, with musicians on three side-by-side drum sets fronting a group of virtuosos drawing from recordings going back a half-century, is no exception. 

More than 18 months after the band’s last concert, and after about a week of rehearsals in the Tampa Bay area, King Crimson launched its Covid-delayed 28-date US tour with 100 minutes’ worth of rousing melodies, raging riffs and astonishing displays of ensemble playing. It’s highly challenging music played expertly and joyfully, an important and convincing reminder of just how much impact Crimson has had on rock, particularly on the prog genre.  

Unlike some other acts of similar vintage, Crimson doesn’t simply roll out audience favorites and stick as close to the recorded versions as possible. Instead, Fripp, journeyman bassist and Chapman Stick player Tony Levin, singer-guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, saxophonist/flutist Mel Collins, drummers Pat Mastelotto and Gavin Harrison, and drummer-keyboardist Jeremy Stacey take the opportunity to stretch and reinvigorate each song with new arrangements, practically turning some into suitelike versions of the originals.     

The show, on the heels of a similarly thrilling dress-rehearsal concert two days earlier, blasted open with the long, thrashing lines, underscored by bari sax, of “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One” before moving to “Suitable Grounds for the Blues,” with its scattershot piano opening, frenetic alto, and steady upward modulations. It continued with the playful sounds, extended alto solos and big-top imagery of “Cirkus,” the martial drumbeats of “Epitaph,” and “One More Red Nightmare.” Set one concluded dramatically with the pulverizing five-note hits and shrieking interlocking lines of “Indiscipline,” one of several pieces that opened up into a veritable master drum expo, with Mastelotto, Stacey and Harrison sometimes playing perfectly in unison and sometimes engaging in remarkable three-way trading passages. If synchronized drumming were an Olympic sport, these guys would be gold medalists.   

The second set was intoxicating, too, with highlights including the anthemic “Neurotica,” a majestic, flute-spiked “In the Court of the Crimson King,” the gorgeous, mellotron-enhanced “Starless” and a closing, hard-hitting “21st Century Schizoid Man,” with Collins’ throwing in a quick reference to Ellington’s “Take the A Train” during his frenetic alto solo.

Crimson’s tour, apparently the first post-pandemic trek in the US by a major UK outfit, could be the band’s last extended outing here, Jakszyk told the publication St. Pete Catalyst, as Fripp is now 75. If so, they’re going out with a nuclear-sized blast.  

The Fripp-affiliated California Guitar Trio, with Paul Richards and Bert Lams on effects-enhanced acoustic guitars, and Tom Griesgraber on Chapman Stick (filling in for Hideyo Moriya, who reportedly encountered travel issues) opened with a scintillating set of beautiful textures and cross-cutting lines. They capped the 35-minute performance with a sprawling take on Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” that left the audience wanting more. Looking forward to their next headlining tour.