Following two straight nights of seriously cerebral contemplation, I was due for a bit of a nostalgic wallow. That's not to downplay the place of John Wetton in my personal pantheon: As singer and bassist for the progressive-rock band King Crimson from late 1972 to 1974, Wetton was in part responsible for some of my favorite music. Not "favorite rock," but favorite music, period. He went on to achieve worldwide fame as frontman for the original incarnation of prog-pop supergroup Asia in the '80s. (And, I'll finally admit, it was an admittedly lesser Wetton song that lent its name to the blog you're currently reading -- although that shouldn't be read too portentiously.)
Wetton's Crimson lineup -- which also included guitarist Robert Fripp (of course), violinist-keyboardist David Cross, drummer Bill Bruford and, for a time, the anarchic percussionist Jamie Muir -- is arguably the one by which all the others are still measured, and each successive Crimson has effected an ever-greater degree of rapprochement with the '72-'74 band's aesthetic. This was a rock group capable of monstrous weight and startling delicacy, and one that took genuine risks, freely improvising a substantial portion of every show it played. Sometimes the results of their excursions were merely workmanlike; more often they were exciting, and frequently they were transcendent. At its onset, Fripp had predicted that this would be a "magic band," and so it was.
Of course, this was also a King Crimson that lived and died well before my time, which means that my experience of its abilities has come entirely through recordings, authorized and otherwise. When I first discovered the band (circa 1980), the only documentation available was its three mostly-studio releases (Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black and Red) and a somewhat desultory, heavily overdubbed live album (USA). But for some years now, Fripp -- the element common to all Crimson lineups, and the executor of past Crimson estates -- has acknowleged an increasing interest in this group's efforts, no doubt prodded in some part by heavy bootlegging. The Great Deceiver, a four-CD box set issued in 1992, demonstrated the uncanny manner in which this band reinvented its standard book, ummmm, night after night.
Subsequent releases followed: discs issued via the King Crimson Collectors' Club, with and without Muir; The Night Watch, a warts-and-all complete document of the epochal 1973 Amsterdam Concertgebouw concert that had been quietly plundered for Starless and Bible Black and numerous bootlegs; and most recently, a series of complete-show downloads available via Fripp's current online home, DGM Live. That fans continue to hunger for the raw electricity of King Crimson's perilous high-wire act, as opposed to some mediated interpretation, seems to be confirmed by the fact that the June 28, 1974 show from Asbury Park, New Jersey -- much of which ended up in retouched form on USA -- is currently the web site's top seller.
Given Fripp's nearly unyielding refusal to resurrect older material, it seemed entirely likely that the only chance I'd probably ever have to hear Crimson's '72-'74 material played and sung live by Wetton was tonight's concert at the Knitting Factory, in which he was featured as "guest professor" with the School of Rock All-Stars, a collective of teenaged prodigies trained by Paul Green, the quirky pedagogue whose story was told in the documentary film Rock School and "loosely adapted" for the Jack Black vehicle, School of Rock.
Tonight's show was most likely the only rock concert I've ever attended at which a performer was queried beforehand by his mother as to whether he'd managed to eat dinner. Parents and grandparents filled the Knitting Factory's two levels, mixed with scattered hardcore Crimson fans notably mainly for the way they heaved and jerked during the old standards. (Mind you, I could relate.) After Green's students opened the show with a lively rendition of Queen's "Keep Yourself Alive," Wetton emerged for "Exiles," playing the "Mantra" instrumental theme on acoustic guitar. "Without You," from the first Asia album, provided a young keyboardist named Zack, who wore a Van Halen T-shirt, with an opportunity to demonstate florid keyboard skills almost untenable for a player his age.
"Fallen Angel" and "Red" followed, the latter finally allowing a glimpse of Wetton as the "Bass Beast of Terror" to which Fripp refers in diaries and liner notes. The three guitarists flanking him from left to right could have been adolescent versions of Vernon Reid, James Iha and Kurt Cobain, while the girl behind the drum kit might have given Bruford a run for his money.
After a break during which the students played Frank Zappa's "Keep It Greasy" (about which more later), Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused" and Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart," Wetton took up the bass once again, anchoring a free improvisation not so far removed from "The Mincer" (on Starless and Bible Black). "In the Dead of Night," an intricate song by Wetton's post-Crimson band U.K., was taken at a faster clip than even the originators had managed; another young Zack, this one on guitar, effortlessly peeled off a solo with Allan Holdsworth's signature legato. A rich rendition of "The Court of the Crimson King" featured florid performances from the evening's impressive violinist, as well as a flutist who'd previously been heard on guitar and keyboards -- an Ian McDonald in the making.
Another Wetton break (Van Halen's "Panama," Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home") was followed by "The Talking Drum," which inevitably led to a punchy take on "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part 2." Next up was "Easy Money," and then, surprisingly, "Trio," a delicate instrumental originally improvised by Wetton, Fripp and Cross during the abovementioned Concertgebouw show. One more stretch without Wetton including a lengthy, athletic instrumental improvisation conducted by Green, which transformed into the jazz break from "21st Century Schizoid Man" before resolving into Emerson, Lake and Palmer's version of Aaron Copland's "Hoedown." (Led Zeppelin's "Good Times, Bad Times" and the Isley Brothers' "Who's That Lady?" followed.)
Wetton returned with acoustic guitar for another moody Crimson ballad, "The Night Watch." Taking up the bass again, Wetton announced that the next song to be played was indelibly linked to New York City in his memory, since it had been the last song played by his version of King Crimson during the last show it played, at a Central Park show in 1974.
"July first!" yelled an enthusiastic audience member.
"Correct!" Wetton snapped. "Were you there?"
"Ummm... I was just born then," came the response.
"Well, I was there -- and I was only... 49 at the time," Wetton replied, before urging his teenaged accompanists into a wall-rattling rendition of the intricate power ballad "Starless," performed in its entirety. It was a truly moving experience -- but perhaps not the best way to conclude a family showcase. That the final number, Asia's "Heat of the Moment," was a more ideal closer was perhaps most evident in the way that not just the Crimson diehards but the entire audience was suddenly bouncing in time with the cheerful music pumping forth from the stage.
Having never witnessed a School of Rock performance before, I was completely awestruck by the talent presented onstage tonight -- not raw by any means, but rather refined and preternaturally seasoned. These kids weren't content to mimic recorded solos by the likes of Fripp and Holdsworth; instead, after replicating gestures well known from recordings, every one of these student players went on to elaborate with original flourishes and bold deviations. And it was for that reason that -- despite the complete distastefulness of his having a teenage girl deliver Frank Zappa's puerile, repugnant "Keep It Greasy" during one of the Wetton-free breaks -- I have to think that Paul Green must be doing something right in having fostered such a group of free-thinking performers.
After the show, I heard an incredible din rising from the Knitting Factory's Tap Bar. Slipping in to investigate, I encountered the Massachusetts-based band Neptune. Playing lethal-looking instruments literally forged from scrap iron and other refuse, the trio shared musical territory with Gang of Four, Sonic Youth, Einstürzende Neubauten, Wolf Eyes, Yellow Swans -- and maybe even the free "blows" of the '72-'74 King Crimson -- during the half-hour or so I caught. Despite the drummer having badly injured a finger early on, the band managed to deliver an electrifying set. I bought a couple of CDs afterward, and can predict with some confidence that Neptune will occupy a post to come, particularly because -- as Fripp has said of King Crimson -- nothing on the two discs I bought comes close to conveying the power of the band's live act.
Various artists - Zanzibara 2: Golden years of Mombasa taarab 1965-1975 (Buda)
Neptune - Basement Recordings E.P. (Mister)
Neptune - Intimate Lightning (Mister)
U.K. - Concert Classics, Voume. 4 (Renaissance)
Asia - Gold (Geffen)