By Dave Pehling

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Over half century ago, British band King Crimson fired off one of the first shots in the progressive-rock revolution with the mellotron-heavy pomp and fantasy-laden lyrics of their 1969 debut, In the Court of the Crimson King. Formed from the ashes of the psychedelic pop band Giles, Giles and Fripp, the group made an auspicious live debut a few months before the album’s release, playing the a massive concert headlined by the Rolling Stones in London’s Hyde Park in front of 500,000 people.

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Injected with elements of pastoral folk, frenetic jazz — the dizzying tandem saxophone and fuzz guitar lines on the classic “21st Century Schizoid Man” — and modern-classical dissonance, the album set a new standard for ambitious rock as art and spawned legions of imitators.

But while British contemporaries like Yes and Genesis later got bogged down with ponderous concept albums, guitarist Robert Fripp (the sole constant throughout Crimson’s existence) and his ever-changing cast of collaborators explored much denser, darker and more experimental territory. The band’s searing efforts Larks Tongues in Aspic and Starless and Bible Black featuring Yes drummer Bill Bruford — who was poached from Yes at the height of their popularity — drew much more heavily on improvisation with violinist David Cross and percussionist Jamie Muir, who had worked extensively with English free-jazz players Derek Bailey and Evan Parker.

The band pushed boundaries with angular experimentation and challenging time signatures that later influence such alternative-rock mainstays as Primus and Tool (who invited the band out on tour in 2001).

After dissolving the band in 1974 following the release of the stunning masterpiece Red, Fripp concentrated on collaborations with the likes of Brian Eno, David Bowie and Peter Gabriel as well as his solo guitar experiments with tape looping he dubbed “Frippertronics” before finally reviving the group in 1981. With a brash new line-up featuring Bruford, accomplished session bassist and Chapman Stick player Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel, John Lennon, Paul Simon) and fellow guitar phenom Adrian Belew — who had played with Bowie, Frank Zappa and the Talking Heads — Fripp and the new King Crimson recorded three critically celebrated albums that touched on new-wave, minimalist composition and Indonesian gamelan music before Fripp again put the group on hiatus.

That break would last almost a decade before the iconic guitarist reconvened the musicians with an ambitious “double trio” version of the group that added Chapman Stick/WARR guitar player Trey Gunn and drummer Pat Mastelotto that toured and recorded to wide acclaim. Crimson would have one of its most productive periods over the next decade with the players assembling in a variety of offshoot side “ProjeKcts” for tours focused more on improvisation in the late ’90s before a return to a quartet line-up and a heavier guitar sound for The ConstruKction of Light in 2000 and The Power To Believe three years later.

While there were some concerns that Fripp might have put the band to bed permanently after claiming he was retiring from the music industry in a 2012 interview, the guitarist surprised fans in 2013 when he announced a new seven-piece version of King Crimson with three drummers and players from throughout the band’s 40-year career arc. With Mastelotto, late 2000s drummer Gavin Harrison (best known as a member of modern prog rockers Porcupine Tree) and former Ministry/KMFDM/R.E.M. drummer Bill Rieflin in a percussive frontline joined by Fripp, Levin, ’70s era saxophonist Mel Collins and new addition Jakko Jakszyk on guitars and vocals.

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The Mark VII version of King Crimson has been wowing audiences with fiery performances that have featured revamped and dramatically rearranged takes on songs from the band’s early albums that haven’t been performed in decades.

The group has toured steadily since then, releasing a string of acclaimed live recordings of the group through a couple of line-up shifts —  it expanded to a “double quartet” for a time with the addition of drummer Jeremy Stacey and Rieflin also covering keyboards, though he would take a break from touring with the band due to health issues in 2019. Sadly, Rieflin died from cancer in March of last year.

In 2019, Fripp and company announced an expansive set of vinyl and CD reissues of the back catalog of albums to mark King Crimson’s 50th anniversary — including the significant move of making the band’s music available on streaming services for the first time — as well as a tour spanning three continents over the course of 50 concert dates.

While the pandemic cancelled another extensive King Crimson jaunt planned for 2020 — along with all live, in-person entertainment for the better part of 18 months — Fripp would stay busy during the global shutdown, showing off a rarely seen playful and irreverent side with a series of cover-song duets with his wife Toyah Wilcox posted on her YouTube channel.

Covering a wide gamut of music ranging from ’60s nuggets, ’70s radio standards, ’80s metal and modern pop hits, the cover songs have earned the couple an entirely new audience, with some clips garnering millions of views.

For this current tour that some have speculated could be Crimson’s final extensive tour (Fripp and Levin both turned 75 this year), the septet line-up of the band is headlining the Concord Pavilion, it’s largest Bay Area venue since their early ’80s visits to the Greek Theater on the UC Berkeley campus. Along for the ride will be Fripp disciples and frequent Crimson support act the California Guitar Trio opening the show.

In addition, the Zappa Band, a group of top-flight musicians paying tribute to the late guitar genius Frank Zappa will play a career-spanning set of the composer’s music. The line-up of  the band includes Zappa alumni Ray White (lead vocals, guitar), Mike Keneally (guitar, keys, vocals), Scott Thunes (bassist) and Robert Martin (keyboards, sax, vocals) along with Zappa Plays Zappa member Jamie Kime (guitar) and Zappa archivist Joe Travers (drums, vocals).

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King Crimson and the Zappa Band with the California Guitar Trio
Thursday, Aug. 5, 7:30 p.m. $20-$149.50
Concord Pavilion