"Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe" - is the title of the final album released in Albert Ayler's lifetime. Sadly, even the healing force of music could not prevent Ayler's early passing but, I suspect, for any fan of music who has spent time comparing, contrasting or simply listening to, different recordings of the same material by the same musicians (or musicians operating under the same band name) often in multiple live settings and more likely than not over several discs, the idea of music as a uniquely powerful force in life is a dictum, the truth of which is self-evident. In what other terms could such a notion be quantified? Several versions of a song, performed over a sequence of nights, wherein even the most godlike of musical talents succumbs to the occasional off note, a band has a collective off night (sickness and tiredness inevitable hazards of lengthy tours), the audience is - for whatever reason - underwhelmed or less responsive and the band is equally unresponsive in response, the sound equipment plays up, the sound engineer is defeated by the limitations of the venue, the recordings are poor or..... two, three or many of these inevitabilities join together to conspire to defeat even the most fervent listener's attempt to fully understand a week, a month, even an entire era of one group's collective efforts. But for all of these problems, a price factored in as part of the costs of admission, which of us who has been in this position, on the sixth version of X by Y and, perhaps, starting to waiver towards the views of those who say "But how can you listen to the same thing over and over again, what's the point..?" and just of the cusp of wondering why large quantities of bank notes were exchanged for such a set, has not encountered a few short seconds later - a searing solo, a heartfelt vocal, a different harmonic placement often at the least expected moment emerging from the fog of unpredictability that routinely plagues live recordings - providing a rush unequalled by anything else, the unique uplifting power that represents music, at its best; the sense, however fleeting, that all may actually be well with the universe after all.
It's easy to forget that, other than for the most fervent collector of bootlegs or someone lucky enough to live in a location where such an artist or band might play a residency across several nights, the opportunity to make such comparisons is a relatively recent opportunity. When Robert Fripp initially presented the idea of a 4CD set devoted to the 1973/74 KC line-up, The Great Deceiver, in 1992 it wasn't fans who questioned if anyone would pay for many versions of say 'Easy Money', but the record label. As Ed Michel (musician, producer of the Albert Ayler set mentioned at the start of this piece and, at that time one of those running the label on which it was issued, Impulse!), later noted: "To quote a friend of a friend: 'Going into the music business because you love music is like going into the cattle business because you like animals.' Emblaze that on an arch someplace."
Nonetheless spurred on by the inquisitiveness/acquisitiveness of fans, the early 1990s saw a number of initiatives from a select group of artists - Frank Zappa's "Beat the Boots" sets from 1991/92, The Grateful Dead's regular series of live recordings "From the Vault" and its successor "Dick's Picks" in 1991 & 1993 respectively, Miles Davis' "Complete at the Plugged Nickel 1965" in 1995, which led indirectly to an equally compelling series of boxed editions surveying Miles' output at Columbia, King Crimson's "Epitaph" in 1996, John Coltrane's "Complete Village Vanguard Recordings" in 1997, the King Crimson's Collectors' Club in 1998, with DGM offering full concert downloads shortly after that , Hittin' the Note's offerings of live archive and larger collections of contemporary sets by The Allman Brothers - all helped paved the way for the even more expansionist boxed sets of recent years - The Grateful Dead's mammoth 73 CD set covering its 1972 tour of Europe from 2011, King Crimson's Larks'/Starless/Red trilogy of boxed editions from 2012/14. There is now a dedicated sub-set of the record industry exclusively devoted to recording and releasing entire tours for artists which are then sold as individual shows/downloads for those who attend and/or complete sets for those who want the full experience with artists such as Phish, Pearl Jam and Peter Gabriel offering variations of this approach.
For all of the countless pleasant hours spent listening to some of the above, I could not precisely state what it is that elevates some concerts above others. Yes, there is a sort of five-pointed star of great band/music/audience/performance/sound - juggle the importance/running order of those elements according to taste - but the ideal make-up of such a star, the precise amounts of each combustible element required to truly represent an extraordinary concert remains indefinable, yet recognisable when heard. Rarer is the opportunity, not just to hear one of these concerts in retrospect, but to be present at the event, to savour the sense of occasion and be part of the audience, carried along in the moment.
If all of the above sounds too lofty or idealistic, allow me to quell any such thoughts with the reality that, in the case of the current incarnation of King Crimson, the primary reason I can compare so many performances of this line-up is that - with the exception of those directly involved in the live tour - I have seen/heard this band live more than most, if not all, others. However, this privilege is not the result of some form of astral travelling as a subscriber to the "Music as Healing Power of the Universe" concept. Rather, it is a direct result of my lengthy involvement in the "cattle market" as described by Ed Michel's friend. Indeed, I have often misquoted Ed's friend, believing that the comparison was between a music lover/animal lover & work in the record industry/work in an abattoir, a slightly more gruesome outcome.
But, even from that particular gutter, the star ascendant of King Crimson in Toronto, Nov. 20th 2015, shines that much more brightly than the several other concerts I've witnessed to date by this band and that is saying something, given the level of performance this line-up produces on a regular basis. Whether this will translate as powerfully to those hearing it who weren't there is impossible for me to say. I hope it will. I can say that what I've heard, even as minimally enhanced soundboard recordings, manages that 'tingle on the hairs of the back of the neck' quality shared by all great live recordings. Ironically, the first recording I heard from the show was ["who'd want to hear that many versions of..?"] 'Easy Money'. This one is a particularly welcome addition to that canon. I also know that this is possibly not going to be the definitive or most widely heard document of this band live - a complete set list from various concerts of 2015 is already being worked on. I can state that, for me, this was one of the finest concerts I have ever been fortunate enough to attend and the live recording confirms that judgement.
I can even offer a few reasons as to why that might, possibly, be the case. While the first concert in Toronto, on the previous night, had been shaping up to be a very fine example of current KC live, with the drummers in especially fine form, it was marred in the latter stages by amateur photographers and would be recordists, the most determined of whom, sadly served only to deny the far greater audience of hearing '21st Century Schizoid Man' as a result of their actions and sense of entitlement. As one audience member responded to me angrily when asked to turn off the record button visibly running on a phone held high enough to be an irritant to those in the rows behind: "You don't understand. I'm not recording. I'm just sharing it with a friend on my phone line..." Had Robert Fripp decided to end KC at the end of that tour, I would not have been surprised. I couldn't write these notes if flashes were frequently operating, unexpectedly, in front of me, let alone play music of that complexity in front of a large audience. Rather than acquiesce to the arrogance of the few, KC rose above the challenge of the self-entitled on the second night. The tour workers had a sign up at the stage front leaving nobody in any doubt as to the conditions of being present where photography/recording was concerned. The staff in the hall made it clear that such activities were not permitted and would not be acceptable. Anyone expecting that to produce an oppressive "Fripp spoiling our fun" atmosphere would have been very disappointed. The buzz in the hall and immediately outside was electric with anticipation on the second night before the band even walked on to the stage. King Crimson had one of the more balanced of its always shifting set lists, performing with a power and elegance that delighted the audience and seemed to feed back onto the stage with each successive group of pieces performed. One of the limitations of in-ear monitoring is that for the musicians, the audience reaction (in sound terms), is less audible than that heard over open floor monitors. Not that anyone on stage seemed to notice a difference as KC responded to the goodwill of the audience and, in so doing, provided the most eloquent answer possible to the self-entitled few from the night before. '21st Century Schizoid Man', when it finally arrived, was monstrous, greeted with a mixture of enthusiasm and, judging by conversations overheard after the show, a sense of relief that it had been played at all. Word had obviously spread quickly about the previous night.
Was it perfect? No, of course not. I'd rather hear 'VROOOM' complete with 'Coda: Marine 475'. (It always sounds curiously incomplete without the latter). Any concert by the current line-up that omits 'One More Red Nightmare' always seems a shame to me as it's a set highlight. But, as mentioned, there will be a more comprehensive release to deal with such anomalies. Even allowing for the bias of having been present, stripping away all of the surrounding elements and viewing it in isolation, as objectively as possible, this is an ace gig by a band at the peak of its powers. The "added value" in this recording is that of a special night and the unique circumstances that fuelled that performance have been preserved for posterity and that more than makes up for any flaws in playing or in the recordings thereof. Anything additional that can be drawn/heard from it is back to the realms of the, happily, indefinable - music's unique attribute. Like many attendees, I keep tickets from gigs I've been to. After the show, my wife said to me "You'll really want to keep these tickets safe." Agreeing with her, I put them somewhere special and we have been unable to locate them ever since. I don't need the tickets as a reminder but still hope to find them.
The best live albums are the ones that make you glad they were recorded while simultaneously regretting you couldn't have been in the venue on the night.
Wish you'd been there.
Declan Colgan, Feb 2016
Taken from the Sleevenotes to Live in Toronto