Wheels, Rails, and Hikes: My Last(?) King Crimson Concert Adventure

When King Crimson came to Chicago (okay, Highland Park, IL) on August 29, I wasn’t planning to be there. I’ve seen the band more than a few times, and the focus of this group — primarily the material from 1969 to ’74 — wasn’t necessarily my cup of tea. Let someone who relishes that period (and who was no doubt disappointed by that music’s absence from previous tours) take my seat and enjoy themselves.

The music gods, it would seem, have a sense of humor. The words I put on social media explaining why I wouldn’t be going were still floating in the air when a message hit my inbox. “Hey,” it said, “Do you need tickets to the show? I can get you a pair.” My mysterious benefactor (who shall remain nameless) came out of absolutely nowhere. I had spoken to no one about getting tickets, and it’s not in my nature to actively seek freebies. I know how hard these bands work, and how little they receive for their efforts.

I asked my benefactor not to go out of the way to make such a thing happen, but it was very nice to be asked. “You need to see this band once more before it’s done,” I was told. “Give me a bit. I’ll see what I can do.” Less than two hours later, it was done. I had tickets to see King Crimson, with the Zappa Band serving as the opening act. And the show was just a couple of days away.

So, now I was going to the show. I suppose that says a lot about how easily I can be bribed into doing something I didn’t plan on doing. I reached out to a friend and offered him my “plus one” seat. He agreed and the wheels were set in motion.

The show was at the Ravinia Pavilion, a venue I’ve never visited. It was some 26 miles north of me, and I don’t trust my driving chops in Chicago the way I did in St. Louis. I’ve gotten pretty much everywhere by bicycle, mass transit, or Uber. I didn’t see a 26-mile bike ride in my future, and Uber was WAAAAYYY too expensive. So, mass transit it is! No big deal … I actually don’t mind the CTA and the Metra rail here.

I’m not one to believe in omens, but I found myself constantly watching the weather up to the day of the gig. It was supposed to rain on the 29th, and I wasn’t 100 percent sure whether my seats would be under the Ravinia pavilion (which is covered) or on the lawn where I would see the band on a video screen (and is most definitely uncovered). It clouded up badly the morning of the show and rained just a bit throughout the day. I had no idea what would happen.

The show started at 7:30. I planned to be there an hour before, as is my habit. The Google map route I was given (which included my transit connections) would have me at the venue in 90 minutes, which meant catching the bus by 5. Just to be certain, I walked out of my building at 4:40, armed with the knowledge that a bus would arrive ten minutes later.

Thus began the adventure.

The sky began to darken as I stepped outside. I wasn’t out of my building’s shadow when a heavy rain began to fall. My umbrella went missing during my move, so I had only a baseball cap to keep my head dry. (To my credit — I think — I packed an extra shirt in my backpack in case the one I was wearing was soaked through.) My bus stop is covered and less than 20 yards away, so I figured I merely needed to make it there to dry off. Naturally, the wind picked up and was blowing east … DIRECTLY into my covered bus stop!

I stood there soaking in the rain, giving serious thought to calling it a day before things really went downhill. But something wouldn’t let me quit that easily. Maybe it was knowing someone else was expecting me. So, I stood there.

The music gods took pity, and the rain stopped shortly after it started. But I wasn’t getting off that easy. The bus I had been waiting for approached me … then promptly drove on PAST me with an “out of service” notice flashing where the bus’s destination should have been. I would have to wait for the next one, which was due in 15 minutes. Once again I considered bailing. Once again I held fast, and I waited.

And waited. And waited. And waited some more.

Fifteen minutes became 20, 25, then 30. I should’ve been at the Metra station by now. Here I was, still looking at my building.

Finally, the bus showed. I hopped on and we made our way down Lakeshore Drive. Some five minutes later, the bus stopped. Not at a drop-off/pickup point, mind you. We just stopped. I looked out in front of me.

Traffic. We were stuck in traffic.

Traffic is nothing new in Chicago. This I knew. But this was something different. Of COURSE it was! I needed to be somewhere relatively soon, so why shouldn’t THIS be the day everything gets stacked up and nobody goes anywhere? What could I do but wait.

And wait. And wait.

By the time we finally got moving, I had missed my connecting bus that would take me to the train station. I had to wait for another bus, which was ALSO running late. Of course! Why NOT?

I finally made it to the transportation center (which I had to look around for, as I had never been there), found the train I needed, and plopped down in a seat — only slightly damp — by 6:10. The train ride was scheduled for 50 minutes, so I would be there by 7. Irritating, but tolerable. So I tried to relax. There was only one problem:

We weren’t moving. We just sat there.

And sat. And sat some more.

At 6:35, the train FINALLY started to move. I was planning on being at the venue by 6:30. I was just leaving downtown! To know me is to know how much I DETEST being late. I’m sure a few people could see the steam coming out of my ears.

I let my friend now I was running behind. What I thought would be a 7:00 arrival now looked closer to 7:20, at best. But this is where we were and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Having thoroughly tested me, the music gods decided to cut me a little slack.

My friend took the initiative and got hold of our tickets. We not only had pavilion seats, but pretty good ones about 14 rows back, center-left. I breathed my first sigh of relief. The train stop was right outside the venue, as opposed to the 1/3 of a mile walk I was planning for, but not looking forward to because of my back issue. A second sigh of relief.

The security checkpoints were painless and we moved through efficiently. My friend was waiting for me right where he said he would be. More sighs. It’s my ritual to get to the gig early enough to take in the venue, check out the merch table, and have a beer before making my way to my seat to await the opening act. None of that happened this time. Instead, I was plopping my (slightly) damp bottom into my seat just as the Zappa Band played the opening notes of “Zombie Woof.” Talk about timing!

How was the show?

Oh, yeah! That …

First of all, I can’t say enough about the skills of the Zappa Band. They were INCREDIBLE! These alums took their task seriously while appearing to have an absolute ball doing so. Ray White sang with power and earnestness, depending on what was needed, bringing the classic Frank Zappa songs to life. Bassist Scott Thunes was locked in from Note One, bringing highly dexterous thunder as he did so. Joe Travers’s drum grooves never wavered, and his fills were spot-on and highly skillful. Robert Martin and Jamie Kime shined from their keyboard/sax and guitar positions, respectively. And not enough could be said about Mike Keneally, who juggled complex guitar, keyboard, kazoo, and vocal duties as comfortably as taking an evening stroll through the park. Simply put, there were no weak links to be found.

As someone who never got to see Frank Zappa perform live, this was a glorious experience on par with seeing Dweezil Zappa’s band play his father’s material a couple of years back. Personal highlights included “Peaches en Regalia,” “City of Tiny Lights,” “Alien Orifice,” and “Andy.” Honestly, an authorized recording of this band from the Zappa Family Trust wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen in music.

Photos are permitted at the end of the show, so …

As for King Crimson, my intense study of this band’s output between 2014 and now saw to it that there were few surprises, save for the relatively short length of the set. It clocked it at around 90 minutes, where “Evening With” performances ran nearly three hours. That being said, there was never any doubting the skillset of this band, starting up front with the three drummer configuration.

While all three shared drum duties, Gavin Harrison came across as the primary drummer, with Pat Mastelotto serving as percussionist and Jeremy Stacy doubling as drummer and keyboardist, depending on the tune. Watching the three weave their way through “Hell Hounds of Krim,” which opened the show, and “Indiscipline,” was fun for both the drummers and the audience.

Mel Collins handled his woodwinds with his trademark dexterity and skill, while Tony Levin reminded us why he is considered a living legend on bass and Chapman Stick. Jakko Jakszyk was in fine vocal form, making the songs in the classic Crimson repertoire his own while also playing a solid guitar.

Ringleader Robert Fripp finally appears to be enjoying the spotlight (even if he does position himself to far stage right), landing one classic riff after another with a sense of joy and poetry. Must be the Mohawk. It’s clear this is the band he wants to go out with, whenever that day might be.

For those who have clamored for the ’69-’74 Crimson classics, this was the gig for you. While not my favorite era of Crimson, there’s no denying the skill and gusto that went into performing these tunes, from “Pictures of a City” to the closing “21st Century Schizoid Man.” These are spectacular musicians playing brilliantly skilled versions of classic songs Fripp left in the musical attic for decades.

My gripes with the arrangements have been consistent through the years. I wish Mel wouldn’t play the flute during “Red,” as it sucks the “heavy” right out of the middle section. The middle section of “Level Five,” once hammered home by the guitars of Fripp and Adrian Belew (with Mastelotto playing brilliant electronic and acoustic percussion and Trey Gunn providing heavy low-end Warr Guitar) has been replaced by the drum trio handling the downbeats and Fripp and Levin firing off the complex riffs.

This is all well and good, but it doesn’t feel quite as “nu-metal” as it did in 2003. The song also misses Belew’s banshee guitar wails, now provided by Collins’s saxophone. Essentially, it’s the difference between metal and chamber orchestra. It works, but I like the other style better.

Most of all, Jakszyk’s singing of Belew’s spoken-word vocal on “Indsicipline” just doesn’t work for me. I’m sorry … it just doesn’t. Belew’s guitar pyrotechnics are missed here, as well. But the opening drum duel was a lot of fun.

Lest anyone think I’m coming down on the performance, it was remarkably good overall. My benefactor told me I needed to see this group one more time before they called it a day. Rumors are starting to circulate that Crimson is playing its last North American tour. Personally, I’ve developed the habit of never saying “never” when it comes to what Fripp wants to do with his band.

Still, it was nice to see this band in person, even if the older material doesn’t reach me the way it does so many others. I’m glad I went.

Robert says, “Say cheese!”

A special shout-out goes to the security personnel, who were quick to pounce on anyone they saw attempting to record or photograph the gig, which has been established as a STRICT no-no. Why people insist on believing they’re special and above the law is beyond me. But security was on it, and that made me happy.

The long walk I had successfully avoided finally came after the show when my friend and I hiked half a mile or so to his car. With a healthy back, such a walk is no big deal. Alas, my back is FAR from healthy. But I made it, and got dropped off right in front of my building. Thanks, Rob!

What started out unplanned and frustrating ended as pleasant and enjoyable. While I’d just as soon not go through that kind of grief for a concert again, it ultimately proved to be worth it. If this is my last live King Crimson experience, well … I can live with that.

#cirdecsongs

You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (cirdecsongs) My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers. I’m currently working on my next book, The Wizard of WOO: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell

If you would like your album reviewed, please email me at cirdecsongs@gmail.com

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