Forget the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory. The heaviest elements on Long Island Monday night were the sonic booms reverberating right between the walls of The Paramount in Huntington when the legendary prog-rock band King Crimson hit the stage with three top-notch drummers pounding their complex polyrhythms into the center of our brains.
And that was just for openers. The three-hour show, with barely a 20-minute intermission, covered a lot of ground, ranging from crashing power chords to ethereal melodies and celestial harmonies. Considering there’s almost 50 years of material to choose from, they had to make up for lost time—and they never once wavered.
Formed in 1968 in the United Kingdom by virtuoso guitarist Robert Fripp—who went on to work with such luminaries as Brian Eno, David Bowie and Peter Gabriel—King Crimson debuted its first album in 1969, “In the Court of the Crimson King,” a title track that became a staple on FM radio as protests against the Vietnam War took a harder turn.
Over the years, with the band’s membership in flux, Fripp reportedly didn’t want to dip back into his early King Crimson catalog, preferring to forge ahead. But not on this tour, and we fans were well rewarded with vintage work infused with a renewed intensity. Fripp dipped into the group’s classic playbook, performing several tracks from their first album like “21st Century Schizoid Man” with a powerful reinvention that had the standing-room-only crowd roaring with approval. The music stood the test of time well. Especially “Epitaph,” with its apocryphal lyrics: “The fate of all mankind I see is in the hands of fools.”
Fripp has reportedly been calling this current eight-man lineup the “Double Quartet Formation,” joining long-time collaborator Tony Levin on bass and Chapman Stick (a 12-stringed instrument that almost looks like a sitar), Chris Gibson on keyboards, Mel Collins on saxophone and flute, and Jakko Jakszyk deftly handling vocals and guitar. They stood in the back row, while drummers Pat Mastelotto, Jeremy Stacey and Gavin Harrison dominated the stage with their astounding dexterity and breath-taking precision.
These serious musicians, in their white long-sleeved shirts, dark gray vests and black ties, could pass for retired accountants. But there’s no easy way to sum up the complex sounds they make when they’re on full throttle. One minute they evoke a Space Age chase soundtrack full of sci-fi suspense. Then the music evolves into a kind of cosmic carnival, a death-defying spiral of sonic dissonance and engaging rhythms. There’s power and stillness, darkness and light. It’s not too hard to see how King Crimson laid the foundation for grunge, alt-rock, and heavy metal. Funk and soul, they are not. Yet when Levin soared on his bass solo, he truly channeled avant-garde jazz, paying homage to their roots.
The band came back for one encore, a fitting rendition of 1973’s “Easy Money,” with its cutting refrain: “Getting fat on your lucky star/Just making easy money.”
Doing it simple just wouldn’t cut it for these gentlemen. And for those of us gathered at the Paramount, basking in its perfect acoustic setting, it was a night we’ll long remember when uncompromising rock music ruled the day.