Tony Levin makes difficult bass lines look easy as the longest-serving member of King Crimson next to founding guitar guru Robert Fripp. But the Brookline native, who had already begun his prog-rock tenure with Peter Gabriel when he joined King Crimson in 1981, views his gig playing with the band as more challenging than ever.
“If you’re on a journey, this is a unique ship to be on,” Levin, 71, says from a week of rehearsals in Austin, Texas, where Crimson began the second leg of their 2017 tour that hits the Orpheum Theatre on Nov. 6. “To overuse that metaphor, I keep my life jacket on, because the music is pretty hard.”
The crew has grown to eight seasoned musicians, including three drummers—Pat Mastelotto, Jeremy Stacey (taking over a kit while Bill Rieflin shifts to keys) and Gavin Harrison—who stretch across the front of the stage. The remaining players, including singer/guitarist Jakko Jakszyk and early ’70s sax/flute soloist Mel Collins, occupy a riser to the rear, where the elusive Fripp has long sat in the shadows.
“That’s the perfect hint at what King Crimson is like: It’s just not going to be the same,” Levin says. “The three drummers are not doing what might be the normal approach of banging out the same part. In fact, they never do that. They divide a number of infinite strategies for breaking up the drum parts—in time signatures that aren’t normal. … Audiences can see it, even if they have no musical training, that now this guy’s playing all cymbals and this guy’s playing all toms, and then they switch.”
The results are lushly punctuated yet keenly spaced in orchestral arrangements that pack Crimson’s classic crunch. The repertoire’s also wider than ever. The octet recently revived several dawn-of-the-’70s nuggets (including a chunk of the “Lizard” suite) in addition to “Fallen Angel” (from 1974’s Red, an album that influenced rockers from Nirvana to Tool), 2000’s “The ConstruKction of Light” and new pieces that retain Crimson’s dark angularities. The group nails them on its live album Official Bootleg: Live in Chicago, June 28th, 2017 released on Oct. 27. And set lists keep changing across their two-set, nearly three-hour long shows that include additions like 1981 counterpoints “Discipline” and “Indiscipline,” plus “Moonchild” from the band’s 1969 debut, In the Court of the Crimson King.
“Robert was twitchy about doing older repertoire—it seemed like giving in to what every band does—and then suddenly that changed, because Robert does change,” Levin says of British pioneer Fripp. “We decided to approach a lot of older repertoire as if it were new music and try to reimagine it.”
When it comes to determining which pieces get played each night, Levin says, “Robert goes to breakfast every morning and sits with headphones and his pad of paper and makes up a brand new set list. He emails that to each of us at about noon every day, and we go to the venue about 3 pm and work out any details.”
Indeed, while improvisational spaces within the music leave challenges open for everyone onboard, Fripp—who’s quite particular about fans not recording or taking photos during concerts—
truly calls the shots. That included dissolving Crimson for periodic hiatuses only to relaunch with reconfigured lineups.
“I have a lot of respect for him after all these years, so whatever he senses is musically right, I’ll happily go along for the ride,” says Levin, a self-described “classical geek” who got his start on upright bass, played tuba and sang in barbershop quartets. He served with the Rochester Philharmonic in New York, then turned to jazz and rock. In addition to decades of performing with Gabriel and Crimson, he worked with John Lennon (on his swan song album Double Fantasy), Pink Floyd, Paul Simon, Joan Armatrading, Carly Simon and David Bowie.
Fripp also recorded with Bowie at one time, lending the buzzing guitar undertow to “Heroes,” now Crimson’s sole cover on occasion, including on Live in Chicago.
“There are magical nights,” Levin says. “Sometimes a song will come out better than any other night, and we don’t really know why. It’s not science. It’s more alchemy.” ◆
King Crimson plays the Orpheum Theatre on Nov. 6.
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