A Scarcity of Standing Room
One of the great consolations afforded by the Crim's vast eclectic output is that even at their most willfully impenetrable, piously abstruse or drippily soporific, they are seldom predictable and at the very least their abject chaff is some of the most harvestable chaff available. Discipline Global Mobile's ever growing silos of repatriated bootlegs and official live recordings are testimony to our voracious appetite for what can be some extremely indigestible fodder. Kudos are therefore due to 'this Fripp' winning a seemingly losing battle against the institutionalised exploitation of musicians and their lack of protection from copyright piracy that he has waged for nigh on 40 years. By his own account, Bob has described this as a dispiriting and ruinously expensive fight against the legal obfuscation of his previous management and the complicity of a judiciary swayed by precedents set by industry practices that have never been sufficiently challenged or subjected to any form of rigorous scrutiny. Similar to those exorcists who have expelled demons and prevailed, all will testify that every victory is accompanied by the death of yet another little portion of their human soul. Bob Fripp has never done 'safe', his courtiers are never allowed to 'tread water' and despite his measured urbane mildness and inscrutable candor his sworn enemies have always been mediocrity and conservatism.
Why then has he granted royal assent to the release of 41 minutes of the most anodyne and tame Crimson to have hit the shelves since erm...In the Wake of Poseidon? (another pale imitation of a former glory in their discography)
There's a danger here in falling into the trap of judging this record by what it does NOT contain i.e. as if it were a clumsily truncated souvenir of a much lengthier statement of intent that featured performances of Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part I, The Light of Day and the title track from A Scarcity of Miracles, VROOM, Level Five, Pictures of a City and what is becoming the increasingly revisionary encore 21st Century Schizoid Man
I'm at a loss as to the reasons for such zealous editing unless there were fidelity issues with the available recordings, but that being the case, wouldn't they have been able to reassemble the entire performance from other shows on the itinerary? Either way, it's a very 'white bread' choice of material that gazes longingly in the rear view mirror while straying perilously close to stalling in the middle of the road. Second guessing the Frippmeister is invariably futile but I suspect that what has been dubbed the 'Seven-Headed Beast of Crim' will prove to be about as feral as Mr & Mrs Fripp's agoraphobic pet white rabbit 'Willyfred'
First of all, new boy Jakko Jakszyk is a demonstrably fine guitarist and decent singer who cut his teeth in the '21st Century Schizoid Band' but if you wanted fresh young blood to forge the way ahead consistent with a progressive mandate, would you recruit from a Crimson tribute band? (that's like asking a historian to read your palm) His voice is hopelessly unsuited to the otherwise excellent One More Red Nightmare where he's about as convincing as a chunky beggar who commutes to work. On the up-side, his vocals and guitar on Starless are excellent and merely serve to confirm that perhaps his tonsilry is more comfortable within the ballad realm.
What's always struck me as rather indefensible is the rough ride that the outgoing Adrian Belew was routinely shown by large swathes of the Crimson fanbase. What other member of a 1st Division Prog band was still perceived as the 'new boy' 20 years after the fact? For me, his vocal, guitar and compositional abilities dwarf those of Jakszyk but I seriously doubt that the jury will still be out on the latter 20 years hence. Maybe Uncle Bob just wanted a lower profile front-man?
Similarly, one of the conclusions begging to be drawn from this line-up (inferred or otherwise) is provided by the flute and sax contributions of Mel Collins who featured originally on four of the numbers included here. Notwithstanding Mel's impeccable credentials and unswerving good taste, at 67 years old, this seasoned session luvvy is never gonna be charged with Lese-majeste. Check out his solos however on Construktion of Light which shed some unprecedented erm..light on that rather unjustly neglected new millennium Crim issue.
There are three drummers on this album but scant evidence to justify their inclusion. (Does Robert harbor designs to eventually have his entire touring band seated in the manner of a Rock orchestra?) For those sad hirsute plankton in our midst, you are advised that Pat Mastelotto is mixed on the left, Gavin Harrison on the right and Bill Rieflin in the centre. The only track where a twelve limbed percussion critter is audibly present is on Construktion of Light where they do weave an attractive composite rhythm apportioned across the stereo spectrum.
The inclusion of Sailors Tale is a treat as I think it a vastly undervalued track in the Crim's output. Levin's visceral and guttural bass adds an even more pressing urgency to the propulsive groove and Bob conspires to replicate his sublime thrashing detuned strumming 'solo' (albeit in shortened form). The Letters is every bit as as overwrought and unwittingly comedic as that of the studio original. Sinfield's cod Gothic approximation of Lord Byron selling fish from a big frilly shirt has not aged well in the interim.
Unfortunately what new material is on display offers very little clues as to what the future holds for King Crimson: Banshee Legs Bell Hassle and Walk On, Monk Morph Chamber Music are but two wispy and perishable ambient scooby snacks the likes of which we have heard countless times before. I went to see the Crimson ProjeKCt (sic) last year in Brisbane, Australia which boasted a paltry TWO drummers and have to report that the entire ensemble of Adrian Belew, Tony Levin, Pat Mastelloto, Julie Slick, Tobias Ralph and Markus Reuter in their various permutations, provided more evidence of progressive intent and innovation that anything on Live at the Orpheum The foregoing is not sufficient cause for abdication just yet, but with every passing year, Toyah Willcox is starting to approach the mantle of a post-Punk Wallis Simpson.
You have to wonder who this release is aimed at as I fear there is too little novelty to stir the hard-nose Crimhead from his lair which leaves the tenuous 'Crimson virgin' demographic. If you belong to the latter then you are getting a well played and well recorded bite sized selection of no-brainer material culled from the years 1971 to 2000. From that perspective this album starts to make sense and might come to resemble USA from 1975 which perhaps served as a little appetiser for the considerably more expansive (and expensive) the Great Deceiver box set. We can but wait to see what type of main course will follow the aperitif represented by Live at the Orpheum
Robert Fripp is 68 years old and as far as being dragged through the digestive tract of a music industry's irritable bowel goes, has paid his dues several time over. If he wishes to see out his time as a performer by playing an unimpeachable back catalogue with his mates to critical and audience acclaim, who am I do deny him this thoroughly merited succour?
Just don't expect me to ask you to read my palm Bob.