Concerts

King Crimson Mines Five Decades of Music for Its Fiddler's Green Gig

King Crimson performs at Fiddler's Green Amphitheatre on Monday, August 2.
King Crimson performs at Fiddler's Green Amphitheatre on Monday, August 2. Dean Stockings
In 1981, bassist Tony Levin played his first gig with a newly formed lineup of King Crimson at Moles, a small club in Bath, England. Levin remembers that the band, which was billed as Discipline at the time, played in the corner of the room. If anyone in the club needed to use the restroom, they had to walk between guitarist Robert Fripp, who'd founded the prog-rock band in the late 1960s, and guitarist and singer Adrian Belew, and past drummer Bill Bruford.

In the months leading up to that gig, the members of the quartet had sequestered themselves in Dorset, a quiet county in the south of England, writing material for what would become the King Crimson album Discipline.

“We were pretty tight to what we were doing,” Levin recalls. “And even though the Discipline music we were playing was radical, we didn't think about it that way. It was just, ‘Here’s what we're playing,’ and it wasn't so technically difficult that we were getting nervous about the show, because we were quite capable of doing it. I think the excitement and maybe apprehension was to see what the audience would think about it.”

Levin, who's also a photographer, documented that first gig with his camera on a tripod and a foot pedal that he used to release the shutter. He even managed to capture a photo of the very first note of the first song, the title track from Discipline. Photos from that gig and countless others that Levin has played with King Crimson as well as Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Sting, Peter Frampton, Stick Men, Levin Brothers, L’Image, Tony Levin Band and more appear in his new coffee-table book, Images From a Life on the Road.

For years, Levin had wanted to compile a book of photos from his more than four decades on the road, but he didn’t get the chance until the pandemic put a halt to touring and he finally had time to sift through tens of thousands of photos he’s taken from the stage and backstage.

“I'm lucky that when I tour, I've always taken pictures on the road in addition to playing,” Levin says. “But I have a vantage point that other people don't usually have — being on stage. So, for instance, when Peter Gabriel started floating out into the audience in the early ’80s in what later [was] called crowd-surfing, there I was on stage, taking pictures of him. And it was pretty special. So it's rewarding to be able to finally share all of the best of those pictures.”

Levin’s book also has photos of the latest incarnation of King Crimson, which is quite different in scope and instrumentation from the group that Levin joined in 1981. In its current form, King Crimson is a septet comprising Fripp, the sole constant member of the band; Levin; saxophonist and flutist Mel Collins; guitarist and vocalist Jakko Jakszyk; and drummers Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison and Jeremy Stacey, who also plays keyboards.

“We have three drummers in the band, which is a very unusual setup,” Levin notes. “They’re unusual in that they have elaborately devised strategies for playing the three drum parts. It’s not just a bunch of guys clattering or even playing the same part. They break up the very creative parts among the three of them.”

The three drummers are set up on the front of the stage as kind of the main act, while the other four members are on a riser behind them. “I'm fascinated every night when we do the show to watch what the drummers do, [watching] some drum fills go across the stage from right to left and other intricate approaches to playing the drum part,” Levin says.

“The presentation is a little bit like an orchestra concert,” he explains. “The music isn't orchestral, but it's a little bit formal and it's very exacting, and you can tell that we've worked months and years on this material on presenting it as well as we can. We're backstage practicing all day, each of us trying to reach the best heights we can as individual players and with the band.”

While King Crimson’s tours have landed primarily at indoor venues over the past few years, the band’s current tour, which stops at Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre on August 2, is mostly made up of outdoor gigs, which Levin says can sometimes necessitate shorter showtimes. The band is also bringing California Guitar Trio on the road, its first opener act in a long time.

“Frankly, I don't know how many hours we're allowed to play,” Levin says. “We'll pick the best of our material instead of doing a marathon three hours of King Crimson. Hopefully, we're satisfying and giving the audience what it wants to hear about our music and presenting it the best we can.”

Levin says the band's members have rehearsed fifty songs from King Crimson's five-decade-plus catalogue of music, spanning many versions of the group. Fripp, with headphones on, works out a set list while having breakfast; he’ll look to see what the band played in a particular city the last time it performed there or mix up set lists if the band has multiple shows at the same venue.

“He creates pretty much a fresh set list every day,” Levin says. “And we don't know what it is until about 11 a.m. or noon, so I can never predict, even the day before, what it is we’re playing. But it seems to me to make sense that it's Robert’s sensibility that determines which pieces we're going to play, because his sensibility is really what King Crimson has been about since he formed it in the ’60s.”

Fripp’s instructions to current bandmembers for playing older material, such as songs from the ’70s, is to approach the songs as if they had just been written. “So, really, especially because we have three drummers, we haven't rewritten the form of these pieces,” Levin says. “But we are free to interpret them as this band, not as the band that originally did them — and that's partly why we're not a cover band playing the old King Crimson stuff the way it was.”

While Levin has been part of many King Crimson lineups over the past four decades, one thing has been constant since the mid-’90s: Fripp's pre- and post-show rituals in which bandmembers stand in a circle and raise their fists before a set and then stand and lower their fists after it. There are pictures of this in Levin’s book.

When he was compiling photos for Images From a Life on the Road, Levin asked Fripp why he'd started these rituals; Fripp said that he couldn’t remember. Levin thinks it might have had something to do with energy.

“It’s kind of building up our energy, and then, at the end, letting go instead of going back to the dressing room with all this energy from a great concert and show and pouring a bottle of wine and eating sandwiches," he suggests. "This is my interpretation, and frankly, I'm only making it up right now, but it's a way to release and put to rest some of that energy you come on stage with.”

King Crimson, with California Guitar Trio, 7 p.m. Monday, August 2, Fiddler's Green Amphitheatre, 6350 Greenwood Plaza Boulevard, Greenwood Village. Tickets, $49.95-$160, are available at Axs.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon