Date Submitted: 26-Jan-98
Submitted By: Robert Cervero (robertc at uclink4 dot berkeley dot edu)
A Crimson-Weekend in New York: The Night Watch Playback and
Wetton/McDonald at the Bottom Line, January 17 & 18, 1998
Once again there was a New York follow-up to the London playback of a King Crimson live performance of years past and once again yours truly -- the standard bearer of Crimson playbacks -- was there to record the proceedings. As far as I can tell, only three people on this globe have attended all four playbacks -- Mssrs. Fripp and Singleton, and myself. I say this somewhat embarassingly, for I don't live in my parents' basement and I indeed have a life beyond King Crimson. Yet circumstances once again had me on the east coast during a Crimson playback. Hearing that John Wetton would be performing the following night, accompanied by Ian McDonald, piqued my interest in making it four out of four. The offer by Dan and Toby to be ET's -- quote, unquote -- "official correspondent" for this event sealed the deal. Even Robert Fripp greeted me with, "oh no, not again". Yet he seemed appreciative of fan loyalty. He called me over twice to chat, and even gave me his HMV cap, with autographed brim.
Enough on my odyssey. This review -- what will be my last, for the two versions of Crimson I absolutely adored have already done their thing -- chronicles the Crimson-themed weekend of January 17-18. As was also the case in London, the turnout for New York's Night Watch playback was about 50 percent larger than for the Epitaph playback. This is probably fairly representative of the fan base for these two bands -- the first line-up was astonishing but short-lived, while Fripp-Cross-Wetton-Bruford ensemble was equally accomplished but also had a three year go at it, seemingly light years in the annals of Crimson. And these guys put albums out three years in a row, which these days seems mind-boggling seeing how much the current crew has sputtered at bit.
As Crimson circa 73 entered the bowels of HMV to a thunderous applause, the line of dedicated fans snaked up and down the CD-laced aisles, stretching a good eighth of a mile or so. Temperature-wise, at least it wasn't the sauna I recalled from the NYC playback last May. This affair was relatively efficient: a short Q&A session and strictures about getting things signed -- CDs purchased on the premises got first priority; anyone wanting albums and other memorabilia had to go through the line for a second or third time.
Here's the 10-minute dialogue that took place before the 2+ hour-long procession of autographing and band-fan commingling began. As the foursome stood briefly for a flurry of flash photographs and loud applause and cheers, Robert Fripp took to the microphone. "Good afternoon, and welcome to the 1973 combination of King Crimson. We have several anniversaries to commemorate. December the 24th of last year was my 40th anniversary of being a guitar player. January 1st was Bill's 30th anniversary being a professional drummer, and last Tuesday was the 29th anniversary of King Crimson. We are currently presenting to you one night in November 1973 when four young men played in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. You may know the music, at least in partial form from your many bootlegs in which earnest young men, often with spectacles and facial hair, concealed within the intimacy of their bedrooms while applying head phones." My immediate thought was this guy Fripp is a natural born comic. He's hilarious, poised....a real cut. So why's he so mute on stage? I recall he similarly interacted with audiences during the 71 tour, less so in 72, and became virtually incognito while on stage ever since. My guess is the entrepreneurial instincts of Fripp prompted him to warm up the audience on this occasion -- after all, this was part celebration, part retailing.
Fripp continued. "Well here we are. This is for us a privileged position. Is there anyone who would like to ask a question to any of the four men at the table?" The first query was, predictably, "when are you playing again". Robert's reply: "John's playing at the Bottom Line tomorrow and I'm in Massachusetts tomorrow. The four of us have no plans to play together as such but here we are as old chums at the table." In contrast to the Epitaph playback where Fripp seemed to at least leave the door open for a re-gathering of the 69 band, this time he was unequivocal -- it won't happen. Pointing to the rear, Fripp quipped: "The earnest gentleman with the spectacles." Then this turkey with spectacles asks "when we going to see Asia again?" My immediate thought was this would be a short Q&A, which proved correct. After a few chuckles and boos, they moved on without answering (dignifying?) the question. Next was asked: "is the current King Crimson going to play again?". Fripp's quick reply was: "Yes", to a roundhouse applause. He continued: "The current process for the six members of the current King Crimson is as follows. My suggestion is we fractalize, that is we break into a series of fractals, or small projects, which act as the Research and Development department for the greater Crim, there currently being two of them." Is this guy cerebral, or what? He goes on: "ProjeKCt 2 was the first and its double-album will be released at the end of March, called Space Groove. ProjeKCt 1 played at the Jazz Café in London in December for four nights and the recording of that will be released later in the year. When the various projects generate the next period of King Crimson music, King Crimson might well undertake a week tour of Nashville.....however long one week is and whenever Nashville might be ready."
The remaining questions were pretty much about future gigs. From the rear was asked "where are you playing in Massachusetts", to which Fripp replied "The Iron Horse in North Hampton". Next asked, "Bill, are there any plans for another release?". Mr. Bruford's response: "No, I have no immediate plans, if it's with Ralph Towner and Eddie Gomez you're referring. They both are more or less busy, and have no need for further drummers. However, I think I can offer you, if you care to come, Tony Levin, David Torn, Bill Bruford, and one of your country's greatest trumpet players, Chris Bottie, in Manhattan in late April, but that's about the best I can do." A loud applause followed. David Cross, who has changed most in appearance of any but seems a warm, friendly guy just the same, chimed in: "If you enjoy the Night Watch, I have an album that's called Exiles, and it's out with contributions from Robert and John." I was glad David, generally the most forgotten member of band, also got a nice applause. It was also nice that Fripp and Wetton applauded David's effort.
Next question: "What about U.K.?", to which Wetton replied: "It's still under way, I'm afraid. It's the longest album in history. It's taken three years and we have two songs." Bruford ponders: "Are they any good?", to which Wetton responds amid background chuckles: "you should know, you played on them".
Someone next asked, "Robert, Gates of Paradise?". Robert replies, "It'll be released the end of March". From the front, "Robert, who's your favorite Spice Girl?". Robert's response: "Scary Spice...I think Mel B has the best singing voice". Sensing things were beginning to deteriorate, Robert brings this phase to a close, stating: "We have a cut off period of 5 o'clock. For the first pass, we will be signing purchased records of the Night Watch or any other Crim. For those of you with vinyl collections which you have in a bag which you wish us to sign, that will please wait till the second pass.....Alright, may the fury commence!" With that, the Night Watch performance suddenly blared through the speakers, and business got underway. Unlike the previous playback, there was no closing photo session with the band mates arm-and-arm. This occasion was much more somber and business-like.
OK, so how do they compare? In short, all four playbacks were quite different. The London gatherings were much more substantial occasions, and came off a bit more as celebrations. While London gatherings were billed as Listening Parties, in NYC it was purely a playback and autographing gig. In London, there were on-stage performances, discussions of the re-mastering/re-construction process, memorabilia, media interviews, snacks, and even a mellotron to test drive. However, London had no Q&As, as in New York. I guess with DGM running the show, the London occasions were predictably more interactive and informative. With HMV calling the shots in NYC, the name of the game was mainly CD sales. Thus in hindsight, I don't regret having traveled to London twice in a year for these special occasions. I would more have regretted making special trips to NYC for the two HMV playbacks. Good fortune simply had me in the neighborhood both times, but for me, the NYC gatherings were less memorable.
A few other tidbits.
1. Got to meet fellow ETers, including Rich Mlinar, Mark Kaucher, and others. I had my family in tow, thus couldn't partake in pre- and post-affair pub gatherings. There should be a forum for fellow ETers to get together for such occasions. There's nothing like attaching a face and smile to cyber-messages.
2. Tony Levin made a cameo appearance at the rear of the store, and was immediately swarmed by admirers. With a laptop hanging by his side, he snapped off a few photos and quickly split. Tony's got to have a photo book in the works. He's chronicled Crimson, post-1980, closer than anyone.
3. Besides CDs and vinyls, among things I saw autographed were clothes, large posters, past photographs, drum skins, and a violin.
4. According to Dave Singleton, there's a video on the history of King Crimson in the works. Supposedly, a French source has footage of Crimson's show at the famed 69 Hyde Park concert that will be included.
5. ProjeKCt 2 is going to tour the west coast during the last week of March. Stops include two in the Bay Area (yeh!) -- Santa Rosa and San Francisco. The two other California venues are Santa Barbara and LA. See you fellow California ETers there!
6. I had a fairly lengthy discussion with Robert about mellotrons. Surprisingly, he asked me if I was interested in buying one of his. He then said he's going to sell all five of his mellotrons from the 71 to 74 era. I asked why. He said he wanted to funnel proceeds into DGM. I asked does this mean no more mellotrons on future Crimson releases, and to which he nodded yes. When it came to prices, he hesitated and said he'll probably handle the sales through Martin at Streetley electronics. They'll probably be auctioned off this year. Thus, if you're in to mellotrons and want the ultimate Crimson trophy, save your 10k's.
7. Why were there no announcements about the playback to be found anywhere in and around the HMV store? The storefronts were adorned with posters of rappers and technos, but not a peep about Crimson. For me, it was a reminder of where this band stands in minds of mainstream music's marketeers, if not the broader public.
8. Hotel space has been reserved in London for next January 13, Crimson's 30th anniversary. Might a Crimson bash be in the works? Better start saving those frequent flier miles. How about it, ETers. What are we going to do for this occasion? Might it not be the right ocassion for the mother of all Crimson get-togethers?
The evening following the playback was reserved for that subset of Crimson fans who appreciate Wetton's solo work. I was surprised a small fraction of those in attendance of the playback turned out for the show, despite its occurrence being announced by Fripp. Knowing that Wetton would be playing old Crimson tunes, accompanied by Ian McDonald, I opted to attend both the early and late shows.
I joined Rick, Mark, and others in a gathering of ETers for the first show at the Bitter End, a nice, quaint little venue near NYU. Unfortunately, it wasn't one of John's best (which he acknowledged in the second show). Not having a keyboard accompanist made a difference relative to his last US performances in May. Ian filled in admirably on flute for five songs, including Book of Saturday, Starless, and a nice improv. John also played his solo version of EZ$ and the Night Watch for the first show. I was surprised the place was only half filled for the first show, and there were all of 40 folks for the second one (to whom Wetton referred as his "small but loyal fans"). For whatever reason, the second show was nonetheless far superior -- Wetton seemed to ease up as the night went on, and the music became more soulful.
I video-taped the shows (no one seemed to care), thus here's the Crimson-relevant dialogue and tidbits of the evening. The one thing I appreciate about John is he's very personable on stage. He likes to keep things upbeat, and enjoys jabbing back and forth with the audience. For the first show, after starting with "Battlelines" and "You're Not the Only One" from his solo years, he announced: "I'm going to play one from the King Crimson era that I was in." <Big applause> "Yeah.....you'll be questioned on the way out as to who was in which band. There's a lot of cross-fertalization in King Crimson...... I don't mean that!" Ian steps in from the back. Wetton announces: "Yes, a very good friend. We went to separate schools together." Ian notes: "At different times", to which John replies "Yes, same school at different times....We'll carry on with a song from the same school that we went to. It's called Book of Saturday. It's a song about sex!" Ian's flute complemented John's acoustic runs nicely, though surprisingly John flubbed up on some of the lyrics....though in all fairness, we're talking some 26 years since that song was recorded. Played next in succession were "Ema" (which he noted was written for his god daughter, not the Spice Girl), "Arkangel", and "The Smile Has Left Your Eyes". Next was "Easy Money". In introducing the song, he remarked: "This song went through so many variations before it became engraved on plastic. It had more lives than a cat." Upon completing this somewhat funky-sounding rendition, he noted: "I try to bring you the songs how they were written, not how they were recorded. I don't have 80,000 high watts behind me. You get the spirit what that song's about." John next introduced "Help Me Now" as an "important song that marked the stepping stone from Asia to a solo career". On the ninth song of the set, "Heat of the Moment", Ian again accompanied Wetton, both on flute and backing vocals. John introduced it as "a song that we actually performed last time in New York, I think." Ian noted with a smile: "yes, John, the very same stage." John: "For those of you who missed it last time, here we go.... Oh yeah, we also performed this in Tokyo (Genesis Revisited Tour, with Hackett), though I promise, we won't sing this in Japanese."
For me, the next song was the evening's highlight, an improv that John called "Noodling in A minor". Wetton took to the baby grand piano with Ian the opposite side of stage left. They proceeded to improv sounds reminiscent of the 70's era Crimson. The song was meant to be a segue into "Time will Tell", however John then played a melody of ItCotCK, beginning with the vocals, "...The rusted chains of prison moons", before busting into laughter, upon which Ian began to play, note for note, parts of his memorable flute interlude from In the Court. The audience, myself included, started shouting, "Do it! Do it!". I and others had high hopes these guys would proceed with this Crimson classic (afterall, they did perform it together with Hackett in December 96), though it was not to be. Still, it was a fun exchange that added some levity to things, if not a brief glimpse of Ian masterpiece of 69. "Time will Tell" and "Rendevous 6:02" followed.
In introducing the 13th song of the set, "The Night Watch", here's what John had to say: "There's a King Crimson album out this very weekend that's called The Night Watch. And it was written by Robert Fripp, myself, and Richard Palmer-James. At the time, nobody really took much notice of it. It's about a painting that hangs in a museum in Amsterdam called the Night Watch. And we have an album out this week which we are promoting -- I say "we", as in the now-defunct King Crimson, of 8000 years ago, writing songs when the pyramids were being formed......this was written as the paint was drying on the Night Watch painting, just 300 years ago." <Wetton often recalls the past in epochal terms.> "It's funny about the four guys that sat in the same room......No one changes. You always think, oh, he's going to mellow out, but nah." To which someone from the audience yelled out, and Wetton repeated, "It's always the drummer." <Yep, poor Bill, everyone's favorite target.> Wetton then mused: "I remember thinking at the time, an odd combination. There were three Tauruses and one Gemini, and two left-handers and two right-handers....and I don't mean that in a sexual sense....<it sounded better at the time.>.....Both Robert Fripp and I are left-handed people who play the guitar right-handed.....He plays it a lot better than I do, but I've got a nicer voice than he has." The place burst into laughter -- definitely the evening's best punch line. "So if you'd like to hear it, this is how it was written." I like Wetton's solo version of the Night Watch a lot. It's not as polished and baroque sounding as the album cut, however it's more heartfelt and polyrhythmic.
Ian joined John for the encore, "Starless", which John noted "was one we actually played together on". It was pleasant enough, with John on acoustic guitar and Ian adding his trademark flute riffs, however the song suffers without a live keyboard. For me, the keyboard back-up recordings just don't work as well.
Getting to hang around the bar and chat with both John and Ian between shows made the second set well worth it. I asked John why he didn't actually continue playing "In the Court", to which he wisely replied, "I would have if Mike Giles was around". I talked to Ian the longest. He confirmed, as Giles mentioned to me at the London playback, that another "MacDonald and Giles" was in the works, but couldn't pin down a release date. He took interest when I discussed my mellotron with him, though I was surprised to hear he hadn't owned one for a good quarter of a century. He did let on that he keeps up with the Internet's mellotron site. He once again expressed appreciation for all the accolades I was foisting upon him about the 69 band.
The second set was shorter but far stronger. They played the same Crimson tunes as before, except no Night Watch this time around. There was similar banter between John and Ian about their Crimson days. The Starless encore, which by this time was about midnight, was probably the evening's most powerful performance, despite the absence of live keys. After a brief farewell to Ian and John (there were only some ten folks mingling around after the show), I stepped into the drizzly, bitter cold New York night and grab a cab back to my hotel in midtown.
All and all, this weekend in New York was a very good start to the New Year
for an aging yet dedicated Crimson enthusiast like myself. I hope it's a
harbinger of what's to come -- a year chalk full of Crimson, past and
present. I'll be signing off with this review, for I've promised by wife
and kids it's my last. I hereby pass the torch to other ETers to continue
chronicling these special occasions, which I hope there will be many more.
All photographs courtesy of Robert Cervero