King Crimson founder Robert Fripp reportedly dislikes the term “progressive rock,” though that band — like Yes or early Genesis — is often at the center of any discussion of the musical movement characterized by a classical and jazz-influenced compositional approach.
But King Crimson has hardly stood still and remained in the musical and lyrical mode of its influential 1969 debut album “In the Court of the Crimson King.” Over the years, and through various incarnations of the band, they’ve evolved their sound with elements from musical streams ranging from folk to electronic to metal. “Progressive” perhaps fits more as an adjective describing an ethic of evolution than it does as a genre label.
The common thread, suggests bassist and backup vocalist Tony Levin, who first came aboard in 1981: a commitment to growth, to challenging themselves and each other as musicians, to never playing quite the same show they played the year before, or the night before.
“The different incarnations are very different,” said Levin. “What’s the same for me, what comes to mind is the challenge of being in the band. It’s not a normal band. It’s a band that challenges the members individually. … The challenge is one that I embrace. King Crimson is a good band for that, and it keeps me on my toes. The excellence of the other players — each of them is kind of an icon on their own instrument. I’d better up my game to be in the room with these guys.”
And they may be virtuosos, but “as expert as they are, they practice constantly,” Levin noted. That’s why they’re virtuosos.
King Crimson — a seven-piece band these days, with three drummers — will appear in concert Thursday, Aug. 26, at Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center (CMAC) in Hopewell, on the Finger Lakes Community College campus. The Zappa Band — featuring alumni from the late Frank Zappa’s bands — will open the show, which starts at 7:30 p.m. with gates opening at 6 p.m.
For those who haven’t seen King Crimson live, Levin noted, “they’re going to for sure realize this is a band unlike other bands.” While waiting for the band, concertgoers will hear “eerie” incidental music freshly composed that day by Fripp. The seven members will emerge in suits and ties — “we come on like an orchestra, tune up, acknowledge the audience.” Drummers Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison and Jeremy Stacey will be out in front, rather than stuck in the back like in many bands, the better for the audience to witness their percussive interplay; the four other members — multi-instrumentalists Levin, Fripp, Mel Collins and lead singer Jakko Jakszyk — are set up on a riser behind them. And the set list? Different each day; Fripp decides it in the morning and emails it to the rest of the band by early afternoon.
For Levin — also a longtime member of Peter Gabriel’s studio and live bands and a veteran of hundreds of recording projects — playing in the Rochester area is “a little treat for me.” As a young man, he lived in Rochester for six years, studied at the Eastman School of Music and performed in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. (A highlight: performing in the Eastman Symphony Orchestra under the guest baton of Igor Stravinsky.)
It was there he met renowned drummer Steve Gadd, a percussionist across many genres who’s among the most highly regarded of session drummers. Gadd took Levin under his wing and served as a sort of mentor as Levin transitioned from a classical player with an upright bass into more popular forms – jazz and then rock – with a Fender. The two appeared on Gap Mangione’s first solo album, “Diana in the Autumn Wind.” (Both Levin and Gadd were inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame in 2018.)
“I started out as a completely classical player, when I came to Rochester in the ’60s,” Levin recalled. “I was very lucky in a number of senses.” He got into the RPO, and eventually realized that “though I loved classical music and the genre, I didn’t want to be an orchestral player all my life. I preferred to find that out at 20 rather than 40.”
Levin would move to New York, play in the short-lived band “Aha, The Attack of the Green Slime Beast” and, like Gadd, become a renowned session player; he can be heard on projects from artists as disparate as Pink Floyd, Seal, Tom Waits and Paul Simon. (The bass and drum parts you hear on Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover?” That’s Levin and Gadd.) He joined Peter Gabriel’s band in 1977, a relationship that’s continued to this day, and then joined King Crimson when Fripp re-formed it in 1981, as a very different band with streams of influence ranging from new wave to funk to what’s today called world music. Levin has been in various incarnations of King Crimson since then, having been part of the current seven-member configuration since 2013.
The last year and a half with COVID-19, of course, has been a challenge for everyone, and Levin says he found his playing deteriorating: “I realized that the usual four, five, six hours a day when I have my bass in my hand on the road, I didn’t have that. I had to endeavor to have a practice routine. Sometime in the middle of the lockdown I became a practicing bass player, the way I did when I was a kid.”
He also took advantage of the time off the road to complete a bucket list project, collating photos he had taken over the past several decades into a coffee-table style book, encompassing his entire career with King Crimson, Peter Gabriel and other projects (such as Stick Men, a band devoted to music on the Chapman Stick, a bass tapped rather than plucked, and L’Image, an early band featuring Levin and Gadd). “A Life on the Road” can be ordered on Levin’s website, tonylevin.com.
Levin got back on the road in spring, touring with his brother Pete as the Levin Brothers. “I think it was unmitigated joy from both the audience and the band,” he said. “Everyone was seeing live music for the first time.” By July, when King Crimson met to plan the tour, the pandemic news was taking a turn for the worse with the proliferation of the Delta variant, which isn’t stopping the tour but is keeping the band and crew mindful of the need to mitigate risks.
“We in the band are gratified and really thrilled to be out touring, and there is more pressure to try to be healthy. It’s a mixed blessing — it is a blessing to be out on the road and do what we love — and for me to see audiences (going out for the first time) that choose to come to our show, that’s really special — and it’s gratifying to see them in masks,” Levin said.
“It’s a mixed blessing, but it is a blessing.”
Coming up: Tony Levin
What’s the future hold for Levin? This year, of course, there’s the Crimson tour. He’s booking Stick Men and Levin Brothers tours for 2022 — and maybe even, for the first time in some 15 years, some dates with the Liquid Tension Experiment, a prog-metal group he’s in with members of Dream Theater. He also awaits word on whether Gabriel plans to go back to the studio.
Then there’s the question everybody asks, as there have been several live King Crimson albums over the past several years but no new studio album since 2003. And that’s probably how it’s going to stay, Levin noted: They would rather devote their time to the live act, rehearsing to make the shows, configurations of Crimson material from throughout the band’s span, as good as possible — and continue to release live, studio-quality albums from those shows.
Then again, he noted, Fripp could email the band tomorrow to summon them to the studio.
“Whenever I predict what the future will bring for Crimson, I’m wrong!” he said.
Coming up: CMAC
Aug. 27: Jason Mraz, with Phillip Labes
Aug. 28: Collective Soul, with Better Than Ezra and Tonic
Aug. 29: Darius Rucker, with Tyler Booth
Read More:A talk with CMAC-bound King Crimson bassist Tony Levin