King Crimson, Paris L’Olympia, 21 September 2015

The last time King Crimson played in Paris was in July 2003, as part of their last European tour before reconvening this year with a new line-up. Since Robert Fripp at the time had an inexplicable aversion to playing in his home country (one which he has now happily overcome), I decided to travel to Paris for the concert. (I’ve always enjoyed going to Paris for shows, having gone there to see Swans in both 1992 and 1995.) Sadly, however, my mother died the week before the show, so I was unable to make it in the end, although I went to Paris anyway a few weeks later.

Twelve years later, and with my father now on his deathbed, it was finally time to make the journey to Paris to see King Crimson, although this time coming from the east rather than the west. Having been a fan for many years of the 1969-71 and 1973-74 incarnations of the group, but having little or no time for the various line-ups featuring Adrian Belew, it’s an unalloyed pleasure for me that the Belew period has effectively been written out of Crimson history with this tour. I still smile at Belew’s answer to the question of how he felt about not being invited to join the new Crimson: “Well, you know, I feel great about it.” Yeah, right Ade.

On the other hand, the return of Mel Collins to the fold is a welcome return to the earlier, classic Crimson sound and repertoire. In general I take with a grain of salt Fripp’s contention that “the music is new, whenever it was written.” The guitarist would no doubt disagree vehemently, but from where I was sitting in the twelfth row of L’Olympia, King Crimson sounded very much like a group keen to revisit past glories, the throwing in of a few half-baked new songs notwithstanding. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, indeed it’s what made this concert so spectacular. After many years of legal and financial hassle, personality clashes and whatnot, it was pure joy to see Fripp step out of the shadows and play the music that made Crimson great in the first place.

There’s a lot of talk about Crimson being so complex, so forbidding, but I can’t see it when the music hits you as directly and viscerally as this stuff does. The massive impact is largely down to the presence of a fearsome three-drummer front line that extends right across the front of the stage. Pat Mastelotto, Bill Rieflin and Gavin Harrison together form a vicious Cerberean beast, their densely interlocking vortices of sound leading the music into many unexpected and fruitful directions. Bringing sunlit warmth and beauty to these sacred texts of progressive rock, Collins is a darting and forceful presence on reeds, while Jakko Jakszyk is a fine singer and second guitarist.

As for Fripp himself, it’s his astonishing guitar work that propels Crimson into the realms of the stratospheric. His expressive, radiant melodies, and his richly emotive use of delay and sustain, surge and retreat around the vast sonic powerhouse cast by the front line. The crushing riff that drives “Red” threatens to stave your skull in, while the flickering, lambent motif that threads its way through “Starless” is, for my money, one of the most exquisite creations in all of popular music.

It was a shame, though, that Fripp didn’t speak once to the audience during the concert. As is well known from his (now sadly dormant) online diary, the man has a waspish sense of humour which, as numerous 70s live recordings attest, he would at one time use to good effect in sardonic comments to the audience between songs. The humorous side of Crimson is often overlooked in critical writing on the group, and it’s something that was largely absent from this concert (apart from a brief recorded announcement at the beginning).

The only other complaint I have about the show relates to one or two unforgivable omissions from the setlist. At 17 songs long, Monday’s concert was two shorter than Sunday night’s Paris début, and a whopping three shy of Tuesday night’s conclusion to the Paris residency. I wouldn’t have minded if it had been the iffy new material which was dropped, but I actually missed out on two certified Crimson classics, “Sailor’s Tale” and “In the Court of the Crimson King”. Of course, both songs could easily have been slotted into the evening if the frankly tedious “Soundscapes” curtain-raiser had been curtailed. “In the Court” at least I had assumed would be a non-negotiable element of the setlist, but apparently not. Indeed, it seems to have been played at every 2015 show except the one I attended, which blows. The omission of “Sailor’s Tale”, another song played at almost every other concert on this tour, was equally annoying, its pivotal position within the Crimson repertoire having been well described by Sid Smith as follows:

The guitar sounded like a steroid-enhanced banjo and utterly unlike anything else which Fripp had done before in Crimson. It’s the sound of the rock guitar solo rulebook being torn up… the leap from the symphonic and jazz stylings of the earlier albums into a spikier, metallic world.

Sources close to the group tell me that another Crimson European tour is planned for 2016, which will presumably venture a little further eastwards than did this jaunt (which only visited the UK, France and the Netherlands). On the strength of tonight’s performance, I would strongly advise interested parties to make strenuous efforts to catch this next tour, since the chance may not come again. This incarnation of King Crimson is savage, unrelenting, miraculous.

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Vienna Arena, 25 July 2015

The last time Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy played in Vienna was back in 2008, on a blazing hot summer’s evening at the WUK. The heat inside the Arena for Will Oldham’s return visit in July was equally oppressive, but on this occasion Oldham and his immaculate band seemed more interested in keeping a lid on the atmosphere than in raising the onstage temperature by more than a degree or two. This was a jaunty, amiable canter through the Oldham back catalogue (with a sprinkling of cover versions) that did a great job of showcasing his immense talents as a songwriter, but did so at the expense of the disquiet that lurks at the heart of Oldham’s best work.

I freely admit to being no great authority on Oldham’s work, having only climbed on board with 1999’s breakthrough I See A Darkness LP and been a follower up to and including 2006’s troubling The Letting Go. Having doubled back and devoured the earlier, devastating Palace Brothers/Music records, I pretty much jumped off the bus with 2008’s Lie Down in the Light, a perky set that left me bemused rather than (as I probably should have been) cheered by Oldham’s apparent eagerness to move from darkness into light. A run of inconsequential later releases (2011’s sombre Wolfroy Goes to Town excepted) merely reinforced the impression that here was an artist who had fatally lost his way.

This impression was not in any way dispelled by July’s concert, in which a large and appreciative Arena audience saw Oldham deliver a set that drew heavily on those recent records and was, as a result, distinctly underwhelming. With the rickety Appalachian sound pushed to the forefront, Oldham’s blend of country and folk was relaxed to the point of nonchalance. As song after song drifted past on a bed of twangy guitar, pleasantly shuffling rhythms and frankly unnecessary saxophone, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that this stuff was being dispatched in an unforgivably casual manner. Nowhere was the problem more evident than in the treatment of “I See A Darkness” itself, which was entirely drained of its sepulchral elegance and reinvented as a dire, bouncy singalong.

Oldham remains a gifted lyricist, uniquely able to evoke love, loss and doubt in words of haunting and skeletal beauty. His voice, meanwhile, has a reedy, quavering quality that I find very appealing. But he has a weirdly declamatory way of singing that undermines the broken dignity of his texts and makes them sound like so much bluster. When you add the inadvisably middle-of-the-road arrangements, the outcome was a gig as baffling as it was frustrating.