Earlier this year, prog rockers King Crimson embarked on a tour celebrating their 50th anniversary. Their goal — to play 50 shows on three different continents.
While that might sound arduous, especially when you consider the band regularly delivers very intense three-hour performances, bassist Tony Levin says he’s thoroughly enjoying the trek.
“It hasn’t been grueling, but it has been hot, and we were doing a lot of outdoor shows,” he says via phone from a San Francisco stop. The band performs at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 25, at MGM Northfield Park — Center Stage. “It got hot in Mexico. We travel relatively easily compared to how we used to travel. We take a day to travel in between. A musician’s day off means eight hours of travel. But that’s better than not having a day off and doing eight hours of travel and then doing a show."
Levin was first in the band, which originally formed in 1968, in 1981 and played with the group through the ’90s, a time period when Crimson delivered some of its most accessible albums thanks to the addition of singer-guitarist Adrian Belew, who brought a pop sensibility to the group.
Then, there was an incarnation of the group that didn’t involve Levin.
“I was the fifth man,” he says matter-of-factly. “[Guitarist] Robert Fripp told me, ‘Tony, you’re not out of the band, but it’s a four-man touring group, and you’re the fifth man.’ I was happy to be a member of the band in theory. When things changed in 2008, I became active again. I never felt like I was out of the band. It’s been adventurous experience and a very precious one. It’s musically a challenge to keep my playing up at a level where I belong on the stage with them. These are expert players. I embrace that challenge, and I like it. It keeps me practicing and wanting to do what I first wanted to do when I was a kid, which is to become a better bass player.”
This year alone, the group has issued a ton of material from its seemingly bottomless vaults. Back in February, it put out King Crimson 1972-74
, the second boxed set of six LPs from Larks' Tongues in Aspic,
and in May, the band released Heaven and Earth
, a multi-disc DVD-a/Blu-ray featuring material from the late 1990s to 2008, completing the availability of all King Crimson studio albums in 5.1 multi-channel audio.
Next month, recordings from 1968 arrive on CD/DVD-a/Blu-ray and other planned releases include 200-gram vinyl editions of Beat
and Three of a Perfect Pair
, the two-CD 2019 King Crimson tour box and the final three albums in the Collectors Club series that'll bring the total releases in that series to 50.
“Since we stopped doing studio albums, we found a way to exist as a band,” says Levin. “We do a lot of touring, and we put a good deal of effort into recording. We record the shows, so we have the option of putting them out. We’ve been doing that for years. That’s why we've been putting out boxsets. I don’t need to be involved in that, so I’m not. I am happy with the method we’ve discovered because the old way of doing things involved writing for a few months and then going into the studio for a few months and then waiting six months for the label to get promotional materials together. In that same amount of time, we can do hundreds of shows. At the same time, we can record them at a high quality if we want to release them. That works really well for us. My favorite thing is to play live and share that, and I’m happy and lucky we get to do that.”
A documentary movie, Cosmic F*Kc: The King Crimson Documentary
, is also in the works.
“The filmmaker followed us around for a year and shot everything imaginable,” says Levin. “It’s in editing now. The way I am, if they have a rough cut, I won’t even look at it. I won’t even see it if it comes out. It’s just the way I am. I focus on what’s coming next and not what’s already happened. Years ago, I did One Trick Pony
with Paul Simon. I think I saw the film once. It’s a good movie, by the way.”
An extravagant ensemble that tours with a huge amount of gear, the group currently boasts a line-up that features three drummers, something that might seem daunting to a bassist.
But Levin, who’s played with everyone from Peter Gabriel to Paul Simon and Peter Frampton, isn’t your everyday, run-of-mill bass player. He's a virtuoso, and he's found a way to make the format work.
“It’s not as difficult as I first thought,” he says of playing with three drummers. “I shuddered a little bit [when I first heard that was the lineup] because you want to lock in with the bass drum and with three drummers, there’s lots of bass drums. I surmised the low end would be cluttered. I was wrong on all counts. Robert [Fripp] didn’t just have the idea, but he had the players. They’re not ever pounding out the same part. They’re divided up and make it interesting for the audience to watch. A drum fill might go across the stage from right to left. Typically, one will play cymbals and another electronics and another will play a beat. It’s unusual but hasn’t been difficult. I don’t have to compete for a sonic space. I have adjusted my sound to fit in with what’s going on. It’s been a pleasure. You’re not in this band to have it be the easy way. You’re in the band to create new ideas and find new ways of playing your instrument.”
Not many rock acts have made it to the 50-year mark. So to what does Levin attribute the band’s longevity and popularity?
“We’re lucky and grateful for the fans who support this giant beast that features eight players and all the equipment,” he says. “We couldn’t do that if we didn’t have the turnout we do. I’m not much of a business guy, so I don't know more than that. I just have my head down, and I try to play my bass parts right.”
King Crimson, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 25, MGM Northfield Park — Center Stage, 10777 Northfield Rd., Northfield, 330-908-7625. Tickets: 57.50-$75, mgmnorthfieldpark.mgmresorts.com.
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