On the back cover of Live at the Orpheum, the seven members of prog mainstay King Crimson that convened for a fall 2014 tour appear in black suits and ties, looking more like a hip corporate board than a pack of learned rock vets.
Inside, of course, is where the newly reconstituted Crimson gets down to serious business. With a front line of three drummers and a back line led by guitarist/founder Robert Fripp, the band discovers astonishing new life within vintage compositions, some of which no Crimson lineup has played live in over 42 years. But a nostalgia ride Live at the Orpheum is not.
The current band roster boasts returnees from Crimson lineups spanning each of the past five decades, along with one fresh recruit. Although the songs, aside from two brief instrumentals, aren’t new, the playing is ripe with reinvention.
Take the one-two punch of The Letters and A Sailor’s Tale, originally from 1971’s Islands but absent from the band’s performance repertoire since 1972.
The return of ‘70s saxophonist/flutist Mel Collins and the advent of the drum trio (Pat Mastelotto, Bill Rieflin and Gavin Harrison) on The Letters sets up a feel that falls between operatic and psychedelic. The mood is completed by new guitarist/vocalist (but longtime Crimson ally) Jakko Jakszyk, whose singing adds an almost Gothic drama to the piece.
A Sailor’s Tale is a revelation. Initiated by the drummers with shimmering and eventually propulsive percussion, the tune’s fuse is lit by Collins’ free-jazz accents on sax along with the dual guitar melodies of Fripp and Jakszyk. The music later swells to a thundering crescendo piloted by longtime Crimson bassist/stick player Tony Levin.
From a comparatively newer court of this Crimson king comes the title tune to 2000’s The ConstruKction of Light, retooled as a mischievous instrumental distinguished by flute and sax runs from Collins and the continually playful groove of the drum team.
Completing the setlist for this sadly brief 41 minute live document are two works from 1974’s Red cut after Collins left the band even though he contributed greatly to the record. One More Red Nightmare, which Crimson never played live prior to this tour, leaps to life with plump guitar riffs and percussive bounce. The album-closing Starless, again with remarkable coloring by Collins and grounding by Levin, is a requiem that opens with icy calm before building, layer by layer, into rhythmic frenzy.
How permanent will this Crimson be? Hard to say. The joyous aspect of such wonder, though, is that even if the band disappears, we have this volcanic document of when the King shook the world again.
King Crimson bassist Tony Levin will perform with the California Guitar Trio on Jan. 31 at the St. Xavier Performance Center, 600 West North Bend St in Cincinnati (7:30 p.m.; $36, $41). Call (513) 484-0157 or go to www.gcparts.org.