Hope springs eternal in King Crimson freaks. Just before the band's second encore last night at the Nokia Theater in New York, a guy in the row behind me announced excitedly, "I've waited thirty-four years for 'Schizoid Man.'" He didn't get it. King Crimson, now celebrating their fortieth anniversary, ended the first of four small-room shows here by not playing the most obvious encore: the fuzz-and-fury beast "21st Century Schizoid Man," from the group's 1969 debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King. It has, in fact, been a rare sighting for decades — I've only seen them play it once, in Philadelphia in 1974, sandwiched on a bill between the Kinks and Peter Frampton.
But King Crimson, from the start, were never stable enough to get nostalgic — they had been through more than half a dozen lineups when founding guitarist Robert Fripp first disbanded the group in the mid-Seventies — and the current band comes with its own set of changes: a new, second drummer, Gavin Harrison from the British-prog unit Porcupine Tree, and returning bassist and Stick player Tony Levin. The result is a fascinating hybrid of homecoming and unfinished business. Levin and singer-guitarist Adrian Belew first played with Fripp in the propulsive, contrapuntal-guitar Crimson of the Eighties. Harrison and drummer Pat Mastelotto's drum talk at Nokia, especially in their explosive overtures to "Lark's Tongue in Aspic" and "Thela Hun Ginjeet," recalled Mastelotto's knotted locomotion with Bill Bruford in the short-lived double quartet of the mid-Nineties.
The show was a concise (seventy minutes plus encores) revue of established dynamics and looming possibilities. While not the visually animated, assault-jazz dynamo Bruford was in his early Seventies and Nineties tenures, Harrison already plays with Mastelotto like a partner. Their synchronized snare-and-tom battles in "Frame by Frame" effectively mirrored Fripp and Belew's distinctive guitar dances. And while those two have played together for more than two decades (Belew is Crimson's second-longest surviving member), their integrated motion still dazzles — the way they start a pattern in locked step, slip into tangled, alternating chatter, melt into broad, murky streaks of shriek, then repeat the entire sequence with cool, sharpened grace.
In a sense, this Crimson is a band of nothing but drummers — with Fripp and Belew's distinctly percussive interplay and the hammereed-piano effect Levin achieves on the Stick — and the Nokia PA was not always up to the thunder, muddying the guitars at times and crackling when Mastelotto dropped some of his tom bombs. But the intimacy was a rare gift: a chance to see and hear a band of this vintage up close and beginning again, looking for new roads through the magnificent, crusty ascension of "Red" and the metallic sigh of "3 of a Perfect Pair."
King Crimson was never a progressive-rock band, but a group dedicated to progression — a big difference. In the past, Fripp has preferred to walk away rather than continue compromised. At Nokia, he spent most of the night seated, barely visible behind his amp stack. But when it was time to take bows, Fripp stood at the far side of the stage, turned toward his bandmates and applauded them, clearly pleased that the group which has been his life still has one. He once told me that, throughout its stop-and-go history, King Crimson has always returned to work "when music appears that only Crimson can play."
It's happened again.