in performance: king crimson

King Crimson: Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison, Jeremy Stacey, Mel Collins, Jakko Jakszyk, Tony Levin and Robert Fripp.

Anniversary tours for rock ensembles are tricky enterprises. In many instances, they become a ploy to pin a price tag on nostalgia regardless of the current performance vitality of the artist in question. Up the anniversary milestone, which means you’re also upping the median age of the players involved, and the proposition gets even more problematic. After all, no level of rock nostalgia can uphold the faulty sound and imagery of elders trying to recapture a past glory.

Then there is King Crimson, currently in the midst of a tour honoring its 50th anniversary that included a performance at the MGM Northfield Park just outside of Cleveland on Wednesday evening. An institution among prog audiences, the band has been notorious for existing in an ongoing state of reinvention, shredding lineups and repertoires as new ideas surface with founding guitarist and chieftain Robert Fripp as the lone constant.

That summation suggests Crimson, which was reactivated as a seven (and sometimes eight) member troupe in 2014 was never much for nostalgia. Yet Fripp’s current incarnation flips the entire concept of rock legacies on its ear. With a roster that boasts members introduced over past decades (saxophonist/flutist Mel Collins in the ‘70s, bassist/Chapman stick ace Tony Levin in the ‘80s and drummer Pat Mastelotto in the ‘90s along with some comparatively newer recruits), the present day Crimson seeks out portions of its back catalogue that have been left dormant for ages and presents them in programs with a smattering of new compositions. The result: a resurrection of a prog rock past that sounds anything but prehistoric.

As the Northfield Park concert emphasized, the real bottom line with the current Crimson is that it’s made up of monster players with an extraordinary level of onstage communication. Sure, the lineup sports three – count ‘em, three – drummers, all with their kits placed at the front of the stage. That revealed an immediate level of physicality as the show-opening “Hell Hounds of Krim” had all three players (Mastelotto, Porcupine Tree alumnus Gavin Harrison and Jeremy Stacey, the latter doubling as an industrious keyboardist) playing a unison melody with two sticks in each hand. The resulting rumble sounded more like the Royal Drummers of Burundi than a prog troupe.

But there were all kinds of instances where the cues and communication onstage were as fascinating to experience as the extraordinary musicianship. Case in point: an atomic reading of “Level Five” that became a juggling act between warp speed runs from Fripp and Levin (on stick) and the drummers’ almost tribal groove that played off them. But what was spellbinding was the finale: a glimpse of Stacey, on keyboards, eyeing Fripp for the final guitar riff that stopped the whole massive skirmish on a dime. Of all the vintage fare Crimson has explored since its return five years ago, no other composition has been made so completely its own as “Level Five.”

There were loads of more subtle delights, too, like hearing the haunting keyboard intro to “Starless” wash over the crowd like a fog, watching Stacey admirably echo the great Keith Tippett during the keyboard dashes on “Cat Food” and hearing Fripp’s ridiculously treacherous guitar runs erupt out “Larks Tongues in Aspic, Part Four.”

A personal highlight: the title song from 1971’s “Islands,” one of the many forgotten ghosts of Crimson past rescued from oblivion. It offered a respite from the guitar/drum-dominate adventures for ballad-level reflection highlighted by guitarist Jakko Jakszyk’s subtle vocals, Stacey’s patiently paced keyboard lead and especially Collins’ exquisite colorings on flute and, as the tune headed for home, soprano sax.

All in all, a nearly three-hour (including intermission) journey that seemed far less like an anniversary soiree or more like the rediscovery of an exquisite prog catalog manned by the kind of musical battalion capable of bringing it back to life.

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