By Paul Robicheau
Both King Crimson and The Zappa Band made the best of treating old catalogs as historical repertory.
Starting in the late ’60s, Robert Fripp and Frank Zappa forged reputations as two of rock’s most visionary, idiosyncratic and finicky bandleaders, sharing disdain for the industry and a knack for drafting talented associates. Zappa died in 1993, leaving others to carry his legacy, while fellow guitarist Fripp continued to recast and dissolve lineups of King Crimson, hatching its current septet incarnation in 2014.
After a year’s pandemic delay, King Crimson performed at the Leader Bank Pavilion on Friday with the Zappa Band (an estate-sanctioned, alumni-based unit), and both ensembles made the best of treating old catalogs as historical repertory.
The Zappa Band couldn’t do much else, though some songs in its 50-minute set (“Alien Orifice,” “Andy”) were less-than-obvious choices. It was hard to top the kickoff of “Zombie Woof” and “Peaches en Regalia,” where drummer Joe Travers tightly anchored the contrapuntal charms of that instrumental — before he gave Crimson’s Jeremy Stacey a brief turn at the drum kit for “Village of the Sun.”
“City of Tiny Lights” saw bassist Scott Thunes lock in with the winding unison guitars of Mike Keneally (a soloist of quicksilver runs and knotty angles) and Jamie Kime, an alumnus of Zappa Plays Zappa, whose leader Dweezil ran afoul of family blessings. Zappa Band lead vocals were capably handled by guitarist Ray White (notably in “What’s New in Baltimore?”) and keys/sax honcho Bobby Martin. But despite its efficient play, the sextet lacked the focal presence of one Frank Zappa.
King Crimson benefits from co-founder Fripp still lording over his charges from a seated rear-corner perch. But he spreads the sound around six other musicians, dominated by three drummers across the front of the stage. Fans may joke that the three don’t equal the one of revered Crimson drummer Bill Bruford, but the percussive trio gives the current group its most distinctive characteristic.
No surprise that the 105-minute set began with bells-and-whistles basher Pat Mastelotto, the versatile Stacey, and fluid ex-Porcupine Tree virtuoso Gavin Harrison trading turns in three-way rounds of tightly spaced drumrolls and cymbal chokes. The same approach was used to showcase a later high point, “Indiscipline,” the only number from Crimson’s early ’80s edition, where singer/guitarist Jakko Jakszyk refashioned its Adrian Belew spoken lines into melodic verse.
Jakszyk — and the rest of the band — otherwise stayed fairly faithful to recorded versions in a repertoire expanded to dawn-of-’70s Crimson albums left untouched for 40 years until the current outfit. That includes 1969’s impressionistic debut In the Court of the Crimson King, represented Friday by its title track (Fripp turning to mellotron parts while Mastelotto and Harrison lightly divided drum and cymbal hits) and “Epitaph,” where Fripp’s humming guitar was undercut by the resonant bass notes of Tony Levin, now a recurrent Crimson veteran for 40 years. Jakszyk sang both in an effective echo of the late Greg Lake, though the more reflective “Islands” verged on suggesting musical theater given his melodramatic delivery of nature’s metaphors for love and solitude. Stacey stuck to piano as the ensemble pulled back and that era’s original saxman Mel Collins sweetened the closing.
The drummers’ ability to divvy up duties and mostly stay out of each other’s way accented the orchestral approach of this Crimson, which proved more controlled and less improvisational than brasher editions since the mid-’70s. The band still tapped the dark intensity of 1974’s Red as the drummers’ escalating fills pushed “One More Red Nightmare,” laced with Collins’ sax. His sax and flute were more superfluous on that album’s title track, which also sounded a bit cumbersome with multiple drummers, though Levin’s high bass helped ratchet the tension.
The more recent instrumental “Radical Action II” suggested a rehash of “Red” with its menacing chord progressions. But the musicians were playfully demonstrative, as the three drummers each raised a stick in the air at the end of a joint flourish and Fripp marked the piece’s final note with a raw pick slide up his guitar neck. “Larks Tongues in Aspic, Part Two” provided another showcase for the band to gnash.
Fripp split the initial sinewy guitar buildup of “Starless” with Jakszyk over tick-tock woodblock sounds from Mastelotto and Stacey before Harrison attacked his wide kit with finesse to close it out. Harrison also shined with an ambidextrous drum solo in an encore of “21st Century Schizoid Man” that brought the roller coaster waves of that proto-prog warhorse to the night’s final bow.
Only then, with the music over, did Fripp — removing his headphones to reveal the mohawk he teased to make punk/metal videos during lockdown with his singer wife Toyah Willcox — give his blessing for fans to film or take photos. After all, he and Levin had been permitting themselves to take pictures of the audience. In another likely Fripp rule, the venue’s video screens only showed a wide shot of the entire band without closeups throughout the show — from a distance that made the members look larger onstage than they did on flanking screens. So, fans were encouraged to watch the actual musicians, a treat if this could – as hinted – turn out to be Crimson’s last U.S. tour.
That seems doubtful with Fripp in such great spirits with this version of Crimson, though he’s 75 now. You never know. He used to periodically shake things up. But while the group’s song selection hasn’t even changed much over the past few tours (and Friday focused on the classics), his hairstyle oddly did.
Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at the Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.