King Crimson Brings Musical Circus Act To SoCal


KING CRIMSON plays Humphrey’s By the Bay Jun 19 and Greek Theater Jun 21; press photo

King Crimson is in the midst of their 2017 U.S. tour intriguingly called the “Radical Action Tour” perhaps as a nod to the three-part song of the same name. They’ll be stopping at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles which is somewhat of a homecoming.

“I know King Crimson used to play there way back when I joined the band in the 80s,” bassist Tony Levin recalled. “That was our L.A. venue.

“It’s a sophisticated audience and we have a lot of fans there.”

Concert Guide Live spoke with Levin about the fascination of watching three drummers perform, cell phone taboo, David Bowie and a whole lot more.

CONCERT GUIDE LIVE: So, was last night the first night of the U.S. tour?
TONY LEVIN: Yes and no. Really the first concert is tonight. But last night, as we usually like to do with King Crimson, we like to do a full-dress run-through concert. We call it a friends and family show. In essence, it’s a real show but it’s not public. So here in Seattle we had more than a few friends and family, I think there were 600 people. It was a full show in every sense but it wasn’t the beginning of the tour.

Like everything with King Crimson the answer is not the normal.

CGL: It sounds like it went well, did you get enough sleep?
TL: I did get enough sleep, thank you, and it did go very well. It went a little long, it was over three hours. I’m guessing that we’re going to shorten the show a little bit from tonight on but we’ll see. Actually, Robert Fripp, our leader, makes up the set list each morning and presents it to us in the afternoon because we have a wealth of material that we can do. We like to do a lot of it but we can’t do all of it each night so I won’t know what tonight’s set will be like until this afternoon when I arrive at soundcheck.

CGL: I was going to ask if you were going to play pretty much the same set each night, but I guess not!
TL: No! For sure not. This tour we’re doing a lot of one-nighters. I think even with one-nighters we’ll change it from night to night. I don’t mean the set will be completely different. As I said, we have a lot of material to consider presenting.

CGL: Does the band take a break during the set or play on through?
TL: I can’t say what the show in Los Angeles will be like but here where we have time to do the full three hours that we want to do, there is an intermission in the middle.

CGL: In regard to the current live lineup, is it an eight piece and are there 3 drummers?
TL: Yes, it is an eight-piece and yes there are three drummers. In a way, there are four drummers [laughs]. We have four drummers in the band but this tour we’re only having three of them play. Bill Rieflin, a drummer who also plays very good keyboards, is playing keyboards on this tour.

For one reason is we have to figure out a way to get four drum kits on the stage. And for another reason, all of the drum parts over the last few years have been very elaborately devised to be divided among three drummers. So, it’s going to be a major re-write to have four drummers but we might do that in the future.

But right now, there are three drummers and they are presented in the front row of the stage so when the audience looks up they see drums across the entire stage. And on a riser behind them are the other five of us. If it sounds like a circus act it is a musical circus act.

I know I can’t help but watch the drummers. It’s a fascinating thing to see the way they’ve divided up the parts. They really don’t pound out the same part ever. They have a number of strategies. Even within one song, they have a number of very interesting strategies and the audience can easily follow along even if they’re not paying attention to the rest of the music which is also pretty special, I think.

We have a lot going on and what I really value about the Crimson show is all these things are very different than other bands. It’s not easy even if you’re a progressive band, quote/unquote, it’s not easy to do things that haven’t been done before, that a lot of bands aren’t doing. King Crimson really is involved in trying very hard to do that in all ways with our music.

Even if King Crimson is presenting a lot of classic King Crimson material from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, and 2000s, and also some new material and also some improv, even though we’re doing that we’re doing that in a way of not just playing it the way it was. We’re trying to re-interpret it and do everything as if it’s new music being played by a band that really is progressive and forward-thinking.

CGL: I noticed you’re playing the Greek Theatre and Humphrey’s in San Diego which are both outdoor places, will there be a light show or stage show, as well, or is it just music?
TL: How shall I put this? [laughs] It’s unusual. There isn’t a big light show in fact there’s a noticeable lack of light show but there is a lighting change. One. So, yes and no. Yes, there is a light show but in a way there isn’t a light show.

I think the nature of this band is there’s a lot to listen to and there’s a lot to watch in the interaction among the players and of course the drummers in the front row. But we’re not trying to distract the audience with production.

I think also in a way it’s kind of unusual that we do what bands would like to do, but don’t often do – we insist that the audience not take pictures with cell phones and videos and not lessen the experience of the other people in the audience by distracting them with their cell phones. We have a pretty well-enforced rule – no taking pictures and no videos – until the very end when I pick up my camera, because I love to take pictures of the show of the audience.

I can tell from looking at my pictures every night of the audience many of them are waiting and very happy to take out their cameras at the end and take pictures of us. That’s what I see in my pictures – a whole lot of people taking pictures of me.

It hasn’t been an easy road trying to insist that the audience do that but it’s been very worthwhile. We try to do our best to have our music at the highest level we can and it’s a good feeling to know it’s not being utterly messed up by somebody holding their camera in front of somebody else.

CGL: King Crimson recently covered Bowie’s “Heroes”, just curious what that song means to you personally?
TL: For me, of course it was a rough year losing David Bowie and I had played on a couple of his albums most recently The Next Day. So, like all fans that was a big emotional thing last year.

Last year Robert decided to add “Heroes” as a surprise encore to our German shows. And for those who don’t know that song “Heroes”, the original recording had a very distinct guitar solo by Robert Fripp. It’s the only piece we do that wasn’t written by King Crimson. Musically it’s quite a big surprise because it’s so simple compared to the very complex King Crimson pieces that we do.

It was a nice counterpoint and wonderful to hear live and in person Robert doing that sound and that wonderful distinctive thing that he had done on that record so long ago.

CGL: Speaking of Bowie, you worked with him as well as Lou Reed, what was it like working with them? How did they differ?
TL: Very different. I only worked with Lou Reed when I played on the Berlin album in one of those typical studio situations that’s not the most gratifying. I didn’t even meet him, he wasn’t there when I played bass on a track or two. A producer brought me in. I’m pleased to have been on that record but it wasn’t a musical interaction of any kind.

Later I met him when I was part of a movie, a Paul Simon movie that Lou Reed was in. I met him and interacted with him and that was great.

With David Bowie however, like I said, I played on a couple of albums and I was just so impressed with what a good musician he is. In addition, of course, to being a great performer, a great artist, a great writer. You wouldn’t know it, necessarily, seeing him on stage because he’s focused on his singing. But a really excellent pianist and he can really run the band.

The way he brought in that material to that album The Next Day he just laid it down for us. He played it perfectly each time and sang it perfectly. And as a side man or a musician collaborating on a record that’s what you want. You don’t want to be searching for the tempo and the feel. When it’s all given to you and all you have to do is find your part, everything moves along smoothly and well. That happened very much and it’s a testament to his talent that he could do that in addition to all the other things.

CGL: Considering your longevity in the music industry, what advice do you have for bands that are starting out today?
TL: That’s a challenging question. I’m more inclined to get advice from people who are doing well [laughs]. I treasure the playing and the directions of people who do things different than me. I’m not a band who started out and succeeded as that. You are correct, I do have longevity in the music industry but I’m very much a bass player.

I know as a musician there are many ways to do it. But what I have in common with a lot of the musicians that I work with is that we always, only, wanted to play music. That was the only option for us. And I think some other people who have other options, have in their journey gone off to the other options.

Even though music is very satisfying and gratifying, there are a lot of challenges and there’s a lot of disillusionment on the road to becoming successful as a musician.

And what I’ve experienced is it’s a wonderful career, a wonderful thing to do just to go around and share your music with people as a living and being able to do that your whole life. I consider myself a very lucky person to have been able to do that.