Tuesday, March 10, 2020

21st Century Schizoid Men: King Crimson at the Budweiser Stage

Sometimes the stars align and permit two lucky bastards the opportunity to see a band from a bygone generation before their final bow and ultimate encore. This very same fortune smiles upon me today, those selfsame stars sending me to Toronto with Davindra to see the immortal King Crimson celebrate 50 years of sonic geneses.

The drive from the capital is blessedly uneventful; as any other owner will tell you, a nigh-twenty year old BMW has a penchant for sometimes spontaneously blowing the top off its cooling system, but after playing whack a mole with its parts—not to mention my bank account—Betsy is compliant and calm the entire ride, a recently-pulled electric radiator fan from a local junkyard replacing the stock mechanical one (well-known to grenade when its water pump bearing decides it’s had enough and quits at three to four thousand RPM.) As we make our way down the DVP, we pass a BMW, only a few years younger than my own, that’s had its entire front end crumpled in, coolant forming a small lake between it and the other car it pursued too doggedly. “Jesus,” Davindra says. “Idiot,” I grunt.

Welcome to the jungle, friends: Toronto in the summer.

We arrive at our hotel with plenty of time until the show, and promptly dumping our accoutrements and scoping out the area, decide to prowl around Kensington Market, Davindra desiring new additions for his wardrobe. Producing a bottle of Czech absinthe from his bag, coupled with a bag of combustible tricks, we dose up and head to the market, swimming amongst the throngs of people busily basking in the sunny Saturday afternoon. The military surplus store yields no shortage of sights, but ultimately nothing tempts Davindra sufficiently to pull the trigger. After downing an unctuous bowl of ramen on Spadina, we meander to the nearest LCBO and grab an assortment of tallboys to continue bolstering ourselves for the sheer mindfuckery soon approaching. Returning to the hotel, we chug away and get our affairs in order: my eternal concert jacket (black leather, a decade old, violent pink polyester lining starting to descend into tattersall shreds) conceals a flask filled with Broker’s gin, coupled with a tallboy for the road; Davindra pockets a box of government pre-rolls complemented with a few of our own handiwork. A princely Uber is summoned (black Mercedes C300), and no small euphoria beginning, we’re whisked to the venue in a grand total of ten minutes.

Arriving at the venue, lines of people are already gravitating to the entrance. Davindra rocks a covert piss while I pound back a brew to the sound of scalpers discreetly flipping out their signs and singing their chorus, advertising their wants and wares. After he relieves himself of his short-borne burden, we queue for security, which is where we notice the staff wielding handheld metal detectors—my flask is, of course, metal. “Shit,” I mutter to Davindra, who echoes a curse. However, the couple in front of us shed their jackets and, holding them outstretched from their body, only have their torsos scanned by the less than studious security guards. In this moment I realize the gin is saved; I mimic the couple as I go through, my jacket unmolested by the metal detectors. The next staffer asks for our tickets, and studying my cellphone screen for a moment, says, “Go see my colleague over there—400s are getting comped up.”

Waggling his eyebrows at me conspiratorially, Davindra and I do just this, and are promptly handed a ticket—paper tickets, that most wonderful of memorabilia, now only available at an extra cost—for a seat in the 300s. Giddy from the good luck, we’re smiling ear to ear, the chemical ablutions and kismet undeniable. We grab another tallboy apiece, light a lance, and only then make our way to the new seats. “I guess they want to fill up the seats closer to the stage?” Davindra suggests. “Maybe they’re filming? They recorded a whole live album in Toronto in the past,” I muse.

Finding out seats, I point out where our seats would have been to Davindra, and we grin again and give each other a cheers. Scant seconds after being seated, the lights dim—the royalty approaches; we’ve arrived not a moment too soon. Three separate drum kits line the front of the stage, with amplifiers, keys, and all the other assorted tools of the trade spanning the width of the stage a short distance back.

Taking their spots, the band begins with “The Hell Hounds of Krim” from their live 2016 album, Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind. Already Davindra and I are beginning to giggle from the sheer prowess of the three percussionists battering away in tribal tandem, but are doing our best to keep it together. Davindra—the poor bastard—has missed the signs advertising strictly no photography, and it’s around here that he whips out his phone to snap a picture for posterity and pleasure. A security dick quickly descends on him and demands he delete the photo and refrain from further pictures. Apologizing gentlemanly, Davindra makes an oopsie face to me, and I grin in return. Some Boomer-Hippie behind us leans forward and asks Davindra “What did you tell them?”, to which Davindra says he just wanted a photo to remember the show with, and B-H, utterly bemused, stares at him, eyes wide and wild as he intones, “Remember with your mind, man!”, and I am buzzed enough at this point in time to find this both painful and hilarious. Davindra maturely de-escalates, and I gesture to empty seats two rows ahead, which we crawl over to, despite the possibility for further security discipline, and escape the mouthbreather behind us. (A few minutes later, an elderly gentleman to our right will repeat this mistake with his iPhone—to no protest from B-H before he ultimately shuffles off to another seat.)

“Neurotica” is next, off of Beat, their ’82 studio album, wild licks warbling from Robert Fripp’s fingertips, the trilogy of jazzy drums carrying the semitonic shifts in the guitar. Unsure of the possibility for a break, I conspiratorially wink at Davindra and gesture for the box of pre-rolls; he hands me one and masterfully discreet, I light it in the penumbra of perspective furthest from security, passing it to Davindra on the DL between puffs.

“Suitable Grounds for the Blues”, also from Radical Action… follows, and although these rarities are heretofore unknown to us soi-disant millennials, every accent and trill is a novel delicacy. “Red” from the eponymous ’74 album follows, Fripp leading the intro up into its pinnacle before the band belts out in full tripartite percussive fury, his tone godlike and his command masterful.

Somewhere in the middle of Red, the lance reaches its end, and so extinguishing it by my feet on the concrete of the amphitheatre floor, I grin at Davindra anew. It’s precisely at this moment that from out of nowhere security descends again, the polite but wholly assertive young lady telling me point-blank, “You can smoke weed here, but you have to go to the smoking section by the food stands.” I cough a small cloud of cannabis out as I apologize with true Canadian abandon. Security departs, and Davindra, smirking, nudges me and says, “Quick, pass me the flask!”, laughing. In this, we are most perfectly and utterly textbook ooluu, stoned and rolling (to steal a phrase from Omega and its Mechanical Animals).

The unorthodox hammerings of “Indiscipline” from ’81’s Discipline is next, guitar leads flowing fluid over the alternated upbeats and complementary crashes of each kit, followed by “Moonchild Including The Dream and The Illusion”—the first song of the night from their immortal debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, Fripp’s vibrato scorchingly beautiful and hauntingly plangent (frissons creep up my neck as I remember this performance so many months later, writing this account).

“Islands” from the eponymous ‘71 album emerges in the quiet that follows, gentle and intimate after the electrified aether of “Moonchild”, and I am truly thrilled one of the songs off this unconventional—even by King Crimson’s standards—album has made an appearance in the setlist. “Cat Food” is next, from the 70’s In the Wake of Poseidon (also more or less unknown to me and Davindra, but the sheer insanity of all the instrumentation onstage makes knowing all the songs frankly irrelevant; the live recreation of these songs is inherently and simply jaw-dropping to witness); with no small amount of funky sax swagger and frenetic time signature shifts, this is another absolute rarity of a song to witness live.

“EleKtriK” from 2003’s The Power to Believe follows, mournful organ tones weeping in its interlude before dropping down into fat, fuzzy guitar and bass bleats (the handiwork of Adrian Belew in the studio version; Belew was set to perform on NIN’s Hesitation Marks tour, of which Davindra & I attended the MontrĂ©al show thereof, but ultimately departed before the tour started due to creative differences with the ever-egoless Trent), Fripp’s own legato and mellifluous shredding running over top of Tony Levin’s mechanical bass buzzing. After that, “Epitaph Including March For No Reason And Tomorrow And Tomorrow” from In The Court of The Crimson King begins, slow, downbeat drums met with a gentle bass line and slowly swelling synth organs underscoring Jakko Jakszyk’s pitch-perfect vocals, reverberating into the summer night air.

The lights come up; Davindra wonders if that’s it for the night, but knowing the calibre of musicians in question, I tell him it’s definitely just the intermission. Adjourning to the refreshment stands, we light another lance, take another slug of gin, and despite ample evidence we’re well on our way to overindulging, another tallboy apiece before returning to our seats. When the lights drop once more, we let out a raucous cheer, the band beginning with “Drumzilla”, which is exactly what it sounds like, proto-Slipknot-esque in its sheer, over the top percussive orchestration and demolition. “Discipline” from the eponymous album is next, Davindra particularly thrilled and whooping with enthusiasm at the appearance of one of his favourites (also cited by Adam Jones of Tool for its influence on his own handiwork).

However, it’s the next song that has me whooping with glee: “Larks’ Tongue in Aspic (Part IV)” from The ConstruKction of Light (also featured on Happy With What You Have To Be), the hocket-heavy song beginning with a briefly ascending shimmer from Fripp and Jakko before descending into the calamitous cacophony of the three kits blasting away, Fripp and Jakko echoing each other impeccably before reaching the song’s zenith, Fripp then going full-on god mode, shaming the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen, John 5, Buckethead, and more, despite the seventy three years of age—and undeniable mastery—beneath his fingers. As he begins the breakdown, I am all ears, raptured, giggling, stoned, utterly delighted and outside of myself (I’ve lain awake at night, sleepless, hearing this absolute insanity looping endlessly in my mind—no word of a lie), Fripp’s hands and arms barely even moving, his signature fifths-based tuning system permitting him to gently fly across the fretboard without the slightest hint of exertion or effort required. By the end of the song Davindra and I are dewy-eyed from the mad beauty and sheer giddiness imparted by this deific rendition.

“Cirkus” from Lizard (1970) is the poor song that follows the debauchery of “Larks’ Tongues”, quiet and more folksy than the rest of the night’s offerings, but still undeniably King Crimson. “Easy Money” from the original Larks’ Tongues in Aspic album (1973), bumpy and raucous qua Pink Floyd’s “Money” in some base fashion, dissonant, jazzy chords over a plodding bass line and marching band-style drums, Jakko singing true to the original, this number a brief breath after so much musical madness, ringing out into the now well-darkened night sky.

“Radical Action II”, also from—predictably enough—Radical Action… is next, another oddity with low, braying guitars melting into the horns before soaring upwards with Fripp’s signature searing arpeggios blending with Jakko’s countermelodies effortlessly, alternating between major and minor movements. “Level Five” from 2003’s The Power to Believe follows, the initial guitar incantation invoking the beginning of the assault, Levin’s bass steely and thick like a piano key lower than any grand can afford, Fripp and Jakko ping-ponging sonically off of one another like some kind of supercolliding pinball machine barfing out balls like it’s free play night at the local arcade.

The band then launches into the brooding “Starless” from ’74’s Red, and it is in this moment that I’m struck by just how absolutely, hauntingly beautiful the band’s compositions are, writ large: the masterful command of every shade of all the minor scales and modes, their tempo, counterpoint, and tone are proficient as only a lifetime of consummate and consistent pursuit of perfection can afford. Jakko croons through the thirteen minute long charming dirge, horns gently fluttering like moths at cathectic lights, a void opening up on the shores of the lake as they dive down into the k-hole bridge, Levin’s bass gong-like and tolling, Fripp’s slowly dying, diminished leads creeping upwards (again invoking to me a proto-Slipknot claustrophobia that precedes and predicts the emergence of heavy rock and then industrial/nu metal, three decades after Red’s release).

After “Starless” winds down, the final bleats from the sax blasting against Levin’s bass and Rieflin’s Mellotron, Davindra and myself are now well, fully, hopelessly hypnotized. It’s only then that the iconic kick drum pattern and first bar erupts from “The Court of the Crimson King Including the Return of the Fire Witch and Dance of the Puppets”, and we, the whole crowd are transformed, resurrected once more, instantly somewhere back in 1969, at the beginning of this great watershed moment in prog, rock—the fucking history of music itself—when five men came together and maieutically brought something forth out of the vacuum of the Void to forever mark a moment in the eternal evolution of the musical craft.

After what feels an eternity of rightfully won applause and a brief disappearance from the stage, “21st Century Schizoid Man Including Mirrors”, the opener of their debut album is the thunderous encore, another crescendo of a cheer erupting from the crowd, the swelling guitar and horns cresting on the triple kits front and centre. Fripp’s iconic chords bleating on the beat (doubtless inspirational to a young Tom Morello decades down the line in “Killing In The Name Of”), the horns singing leads above below and beneath Jakko and Fripp’s rapidly convoluting leads, only to jump back upwards after surgical rests and accents between all instruments, the final iconic jarring riff of the chorus never more apropos than here at the end of a decade: a torch thrown to failing hands in the new, stark clime of music and creative and human endeavours, one utter, contemptuous middle finger to the entropy and flow of time, a primal cry, an immemorial yawp unstifleable by any conceit, doctrine, or form of control extant, or to come. (My indulgences here truly begin to catch up with me, both in the moment of perception and recollection simultaneously.)
Davindra's hard-won photo at the end of the set
As the band departs from the stage, I squint one final time at Fripp as best I can; to me, he is the absolute paragon of what a musician can—or should—be: achieved beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, prolific as the day is long, destructive and creative as any heavenly alpha or omega yet known. A silent orison leaves my lips, the sequel to one that left my lips at the peak of Misen-yama on Miyajima, an invocation, a rite for greatness and success, for divine favour from any plane yet unknown, and Fripp—he is an emissary of this universal drive that manifests it in the chosen few, the Davidic artists, the kings among men and women and androgynes alike.

I look over to Davindra, and looking at his face, realize he’s utterly fucked, followed shortly by the cogito ergo sum realization: so I am. Vacating the amphitheatre, we summon an Uber and return to Spadina, opting for a dinner encore, a bopping Beijing-style restaurant, we the only non-Han inhabitants. We quickly order and then devour three or four entrees, breathless. Paying at the end of the wordless inhalations of stir-fried delight, walking back to the hotel, we light one final lance on the way, shortly succumbing to the fatigue of the night.

The next morning I reconstitute myself after a shower and some moss; we down a hearty breakfast in the Market before returning to the hotel and checking out, luggage secured in Betsy’s trunk. Making short work of the DVP, the prophesied rain descends, and by the time we hit Port Hope, the deluge has begun. Davindra and I relax in the leather seats and let the tunes shuffle across the cones of the Harmon-Kardon. After a pit stop off the highway for fuel, some four hours later find ourselves back in the capital. Delivering Davindra to his apartment, we high five our lucky stars one final time.

When I return to my own apartment, something in between apprehension and awe settles on me anew, the same feeling from the concert returning with a vigour. This must be what Moses felt like, coming down from Sinai (it’s a hell of a drug, I imagine him saying): enlightened as Buddha beneath his tree, articulate as the Oracle of Delphi. (This is a gauntlet thrown down from one generation to another: this is where we brought the floodwater to; can you summon such a calamity as we? YES, I whisper to myself. THIS IS ONLY THE BEGINNING—WE WILL DROWN THE WORLD ANEW.)

The summit of Misen-yama—seeing the curvature of the Earth itself, the endless ocean, continents kissing as tectonic plates collide, subsume one another; the genesis of a new dawn, the sun setting on another.