King Crimson’s Tony Levin Recalls a Blockbuster Performance … Backstage
Watching King Crimson’s intricate two-hour-and-40-minute concert last month at The Egg in Albany, New York, I could only wonder whether any other rock band touring today could top the eight-man prog juggernaut.
King Crimson is an unabashed dynamo with three drummers in the forefront backed by five members on a riser, including a seated Robert Fripp, the group’s leader, founder and guitarist. The outstanding drummers — Jeremy Stacey, Gavin Harrison, and Pat Mastelotto — are the primary focus, playing counter rhythms that ensure they are never playing the same parts together.
In Albany, Fripp shared guitar leads with Jakko Jaksyzk, whose strong, expressive vocals often evoked memories of the group’s original lead singer, Greg Lake. Jaksyzk’s guitar riffs were powerful and exciting, providing counterpoint to Fripp’s extended squalls. Stacey and Chris Gibson played keyboards with aplomb; Mel Collins, standing behind an acoustic shield, seemingly blew his brains out on saxophone and flute, and King Crimson veteran Tony Levin deftly created the bass lines on electric bass and Chapman Stick.
The group’s precision rivaled a well-trained classical orchestra, and, though the volume was far too loud, the sonic assault produced an intricate, complex wall of sound combining rock, prog and jazz that was alternately foreboding, exciting and wondrous. Most of the songs the group played were from King Crimson’s earliest albums released from 1969 through 1974. Highlights included “The Court of the Crimson King,” “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part 1,” “Islands,” “Starless and Bible Black,” and “21st Century Schizoid Man.”
A perfect way to get a dose of King Crimson’s unique wall of sound is to pick up the band’s new double CD, Live In Chicago, June 28, 2017. It is an exhilarating album that captures a masterful performance and vividly displays the talents of Fripp, Levin, and the rest of the Crimson crew.
Levin has been an integral part of King Crimson’s sound for many years. He was in the band from 1981 until the late 1990s, rejoined the band for a short tour in 2008 and is back today. So I ask him for his view of what his skills have added to the band’s music.
“I don’t think about my skills particularly,” he responds. “The focus for me in Crimson is on the challenges I face musically — trying to open up my playing to be different than it used to be, and, when we tackle the classic Crimson material, I have a lot of latitude with the bass approach. But I want to keep what’s great about the original parts, while making it somewhat my own in some ways. That’s often a big challenge and one that keeps me engaged even after quite a few shows — continuing to fine tune those bass parts.”
Photo by David Singleton
I ask Levin what he has learned from Fripp after playing so long with the guitar wizard.
“His musical sense is what determines the direction the band goes in,” Levin responds. “Through the years, I’ve seen a lot of changes, and, in fact, musical movement is one of the constants from King Crimson. But also there’s a dedication to making the music as good as possible, to working very hard on the ensemble, to challenging ourselves as a band and as individual players.”
Levin has released solo albums, played on numerous musicians’ records and been in many bands, including stints with Peter Gabriel and Lou Reed. So I ask him to name his musical heroes while growing up.
“I listened to a lot of classical music growing up and my older brother’s jazz records,” he says. “The jazz bassist Oscar Pettiford was prominent on those records. Though I didn’t think of him as a hero at that time, I realized later how I was influenced by his choice of notes and feel whether I’m playing jazz or not.”
Pettiford was acknowledged as the one of the top bassists in the 1940s and 1950s — in the same league as Charles Mingus. He was a bebop pioneer who was credited with discovering Cannonball Adderley and being the first major jazz soloist on the cello.
Levin says he doesn’t like to name favorite or best concerts he has attended but will attempt to do so because this column’s prevailing theme is Best I’ve Ever Seen.
“Back when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in South Africa, there was a huge celebration concert (on April 16, 1990) at Wembley Stadium in London.” Levin says. “I was there with Peter Gabriel but sharing the backstage area with a lot of African, English, and American bands. The concert was great, of course, but the most special moment to me happened backstage: We were informed that Mandela was going to visit backstage to thank the musicians.
“An area was cordoned off for the bands, and a wait ensued while Nelson Mandela made his way, with heavy security, from the stands. The African singers started a chant, ‘Man-DEL-a, Man-DEL-a, and the many dancers began to move. We, in Peter’s band, did our best, very non-African attempt to join in on both. Then, after a while, the American singer Patti LaBelle began to scat sing over the chanting, in her own inimitable gospel R&B style. That kicked things into a much higher gear, and the excitement was extraordinary as it built to, finally, the man arriving. In a lifetime of performances, that was, for me. perhaps the most memorable moment.”
Levin says he can’t name one concert that most influenced him as a musician.
“I’d say that I’ve been influenced by most of the concerts I’ve been to, as well as many of the albums I’ve heard,” he says. “I don’t just focus on the bass part being played, though I’m certainly aware of that. I can glean some lessons from the quality — or lack of it — of the overall music, the phrasing of the singer, or the placement of the drummer’s time. So, lots to learn, and, like any music fan, lots to enjoy listening to.”