The Men (and Woman) Who Would Be King (Crimson): The Two of a Perfect Trio Tour (Part One)

When is a band King Crimson and when is it not? While this perhaps isn’t the question of the ages, it’s an issue that looms large when presented with an evening’s entertainment in the form of a show date on the Two of a Perfect Trio tour. Featuring the separate and combined stratospheric talents of the Adrian Belew Power Trio and an outfit calling itself Stick Men, this three- or four-set concert presents all manner of progressive, boundary-pushing music, and includes no less than three members/ex-members of the legendary King Crimson. (And the other three [younger] players are no slouches, either.)

Adrian Belew at sound check

Over the course of its existence (1969 forward; the band is currently on its umpteenth hiatus), the formidable and influential King Crimson has had a revolving cast of characters. Sometimes the band lineup would change completely between albums. Only guitarist Robert Fripp has appeared on every King Crimson release, but Fripp takes great pains to make clear that he is not the group’s leader. Nearly twenty musicians have been — at various points in history – full-fledged members of the band; household names (well, in prog-leaning households, anyway) who have left their mark within the band include Greg Lake (the band’s original bassist/vocalist who left to find fame with Emerson and Palmer); Ian McDonald (later to found Foreigner, of all things); Boz Burrell (taught to play bass by Fripp, Boz eventually joined Bad Company); John Wetton (later of UK and Asia); and Bill Bruford (formerly of Yes).

And those are only a few Crimson alumni, covering the period pre-1975. In the midst of that decade, Fripp disbanded the group (to the displeasure of Wetton and Bruford) to work instead as what he called a “small, mobile, intelligent unit” (or something like that), collaborating with edgy artists such as Brian Eno.

After developing his Frippertronics tape-loop guitar style (a better name might be Enotronics, but that’s an issue for another day), releasing a diverse and challenging solo album (Exposure) and touring with a punk/dance outfit called The League of Gentlemen, Fripp convened a new band around 1980. Originally called Discipline, this quartet version of King Crimson brought back Bruford on drums, but — for the first time – included a pair of American musicians. Singer/guitarist Adrian Belew had worked with Talking Heads and Frank Zappa, and brought a newfound song-based sensibility to the band (not to mention the ability to make a guitar sound like a charging rhinoceros). Journeyman bassist/Chapman Stick player Tony Levin performed the dual role of holding down the low notes (a la a traditional bassist) and acting in many ways as a “third guitarist” with his innovative Stick work.

Tony Levin at sound check

That 1980s configuration of King Crimson was the band’s longest-surviving lineup: releasing three albums (Discipline, Beat and Three of a Perfect Pair), the quartet arguably pushed Crim’s musical boundaries farther than any previous lineup, and actually sold records in the process. Unsurprisingly, that lineup, too, would eventually go on hiatus.

Some ten(!) years later – we’re up to the mid-nineties now in our little saga – the four men returned to active Crim duty, but now the band was augmented by two additional players: Trey Gunn (Stick) and Pat Mastelotto (drums). Described as a “double trio” (two guitars, two Sticks, two drum kits) and with a stunning (even by Crimson standards) versatility, this lineup held together for four years before the band split into a confusing array of sub-groups (generally referred to as fraKctalisations [sic] or ProjeKcts [sic again]). Some of these offshoots were song-based, some were avant-garde, improvisational, atmospheric, ambient, etc.

Markus Reuter

The group would re-re-re-form for a four-year period at the dawn of the 21st century as a quartet (Fripp, Belew, Gunn, and Mastelotto, with Levin designated as an “inactive fifth member”). Then, a by-now-predictable hiatus; then a new lineup (but no new music) from Fripp, Belew, Levin, Mastelotto and Porcupine Tree’s Gavin Harrison.

Then — you guessed it — another hiatus. During (and between) all of these formations, reformations and periods of supposed inactivity, all of the various characters remained busy with projects (if not projeKcts) of their own. Which, finally, brings us to present day.

Stick Men

Guitarist Adrian Belew has toured regularly in recent years with his own Power Trio; though following the instrumental configuration (guitar/bass/drums) established by Cream and others, the Power Trio nonetheless moved in knottier, more avant-garde directions. But Belew’s technical brilliance (often expressed via MIDI-enabled guitar) is tethered to the ground by his innate sense of melody, and a song-based approach that keeps his musical explorations from getting too out-there for relatively mainstream tastes.

Tony Levin

The 2011 lineup of Belew’s Power Trio includes a pair of young, jaw-droppingly talented players. Bassist Julie Slick released her self-titled progressive instrumental album in 2010, and plays in a thundering, solid yet busily inventive style. Drummer Tobias Ralph is equally talented and innovative behind the drum kit.

 Julie Slick

Tony Levin remained and remains busier than any other three musicians one might care to name. Having played on well over 500 albums to date (including releases by Peter Gabriel, Alice Cooper and John Lennon), Levin’s ability to apply his expertise to any sort of musical project is nothing sort of astonishing. Tony always brings exactly what is needed: if it’s straight-ahead, precise rhythm section work that’s needed, that’s what he delivers. If it’s exploratory, head-swirling lines on the Chapman Stick, Levin’s the go-to guy.

Pat Mastelotto

Levin’s latest project (well, one of many; he also has a fascinating new self-titled album with Yes drummer Alan White and avant-garde guitarist David Torn titled Levin Torn White) is Stick Men. In this outfit he’s joined by Austrian musician Markus Reuter, who plays a device of his own invention called touch guitar. A bit similar to an instrument played by former King Crimson member Trey Gunn, the touch guitar looks much like a standard guitar, albeit with the control knobs placed conveniently on the “wrong” side. The instrument is like the Stick (it’s tapped), and Reuter holds it nearly vertically; that, plus his quiet, unassuming onstage demeanor makes him look like a 21st century prog-rock Bill Wyman.

Adrian Belew

While he got his professional start in relatively mainstream pop band Mr. Mister, drummer Pat Mastelotto is a progressive drummer of the first order. With a style that is at once all his own yet reminiscent of a cross between Bill Bruford and Jamie Muir, Pat applies his skills to a “standard” drum set augmented with electronic pads, various handheld accoutrements (some of which he uses in place of drum sticks) and a sense of mischief that recalls Frank Zappa’s bands.

Three-fourths of King Crimson?

Both trios – the Adrian Belew Power Trio and Stick Men – have included King Crimson pieces in their onstage repertoire. And between the six players, three are (or were) members of that group. Combine the two trios and you have – yep – a “double trio.” And Markus Reuter can, when he wants to, sound exactly like Fripp on his touch guitar.

Two of a Perfect Trio

So when is a band King Crimson (or, at least, a ProjeKct) and when is it not? And where did the idea for the Two of a Perfect Trio tour originate? “I think it was me,” says Belew. (“I think it was me,” quips Mastelotto.) “We did a band camp, and from that, it seemed natural to say, ‘Okay, let’s see if we can do more with this.’ We talked for the last year or more about this idea of sharing tours.  And as we got into getting the band camp organized, we realized, ‘Hey: we’ll be pretty much there, pretty much ready to go. Maybe we should do it then.’”

In Part Two, guitarist Adrian Belew,  drummer Pat Mastelotto and bassist/Chapman Stick player Tony Levin will discuss the Two of a Perfect Trio and a whole bunch more.

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