Tony Levin and the complex world of King Crimson


The poet composes a daily haiku:

The miles fly like eighth notes

legato arpeggios

A large state, Texas

The photographer selects his favorite photo:

Peter Gabriel invents crowd surfing.

The musician reflects on what happens after being on the road for more than six weeks:

“Home life becomes a theoretical thing.”

The poet. The photograph. The musician. They are all one man: Tony Levin.

He is a product of the Eastman School of Music, one of rock music’s most visible bassists and a member of the Rochester Music Hall of Fame. He is estimated to have performed on 500 albums. He toured with the biggest names. Levin has been with Gabriel, John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Paul Simon and James Taylor.

On Thursday at the Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center, he will be part of one of his most frequent musical partners, prog-rockers King Crimson. Poetically waxing on these legato arpeggios.

“I guess I’m taking chances, but there probably isn’t another rock band log on the road that has a haiku of the day,” Levin says. “Every show. So I feel happy about it. I don’t think everyone, King Crimson fans, cares that I post a haiku every day about the tour. But I do.

The photographer shares his vision with you.

“I especially enjoyed the way I have this unique point of view on stage,” he says. “I’ve been taking onstage photos of Peter Gabriel floating around in the audience and stuff like that for many years, and so even though only one out of 20 of my photos is decent and worth seeing, it always ends up being be a lot of pictures with, again, that unique perspective. So I’m glad I got to enjoy, and still am, being a musician on stage who has a pretty good camera on hand, that I can just take and take pictures.

Except that King Crimson now decrees: No photography in the salons. Levin also complies. Except just before the start of the show.

And just as it ends.

“Instead of applauding, you see a sea – it’s SEA – of waved cell phones, and the applause fades,” he says. “Because you can’t clap with one hand. “

In addition to bass, Levin plays what is known as the Chapman stick. It has both guitar and bass strings. And he created “funk fingers”, sawn sticks that he uses to hit the strings of his instruments.

Despite such creativity, Levin says he is “not good at predicting the future of music or technology.” Still, he was using email in the early 1980s. “My alias was ’49’,” he says. He launched his website in 1993. At the top of his site is the proclamation “Welcome to one of the oldest blogs on the web”.

In those early days, Levin thought this new technology would be a good way to sell his solo CDs. Fans could send a letter to the address on his website. All Levin would have to do was tear up the envelope and cash the checks.

Except, “What I found out was that when I mentioned sometimes what life was like on the road,” he says, “people were much more interested in this than buying my CD. . “

But that’s old news.

“I don’t spend a lot of time looking to the future, let alone looking back.”

Unless he is asked about the past during interviews …

“I think musicians are generally, we’re good enough to focus really hard on the moment…”

Unless the musicians are Styx or The Doobie Brothers, trapped in their past.

Levin’s work begins before noon, when an email from band founder and guitarist Robert Fripp arrives. That’s the set list for that night’s show. Levin looks at him and immediately senses how that night’s concert will go.

“There are pieces that are very complex, and we know that we will have to repeat the sound balance a few times,” he says. “And if there are a lot of them, or if they’re back to back in the show, it’s more of a challenge and very interesting and, ‘OK, this will be one of those shows.’ And we’re on the edge of our seats, virtually, trying to play it right, the very difficult material that we have. Others sort of go easier and there’s not much concern about mistakes.

But one wrong note, and hell breaks loose on stage. If you know what to look for.

“I don’t want to spend an hour there, but it’s so complex that if a guy makes a little mistake – we’re not all playing in the same time signatures – so the correction factor isn’t the same as with the others. There is no way anybody else can go there, ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ and come back in. We all think of different time signatures.

“And so it can get very, the train can go very far from the tracks. And we don’t want that to happen on the show. And we don’t want to be the one causing it on the show. “

If any of the musicians in the group are doing what Levin calls “a massive hum,” their best course of action is to turn around and look at who’s next to them. Like it was the other guy’s fault.

“I’m the bassist for the band,” says Levin. “The guy next to me is Mel Collins, who plays the flute, so I don’t know who I’m fooling if I make a bass mistake and look at the flautist, who maybe doesn’t even have the instrument.” to the lips. But I still do, it’s a tradition in the band, and we love it, when someone makes a mistake and six other guys are watching him. And he tries to pass it on to the next guy. I won’t say it happens often.

“But it certainly happens. A lot.”

King Crimson is serious about what’s going on on stage.

“I think it’s interesting that a band that plays really serious music overall, in a serious setting, our concert looks a bit like a classical rock concert,” says Levin. “We wear costumes and it’s an interesting thing that people maybe don’t realize that we have, in a way, other than the tension of the music, we have fun on stage. And we have fun on tour and there is a lot of humor to us, even in this music.

So if the band is serious, maybe the band members don’t take themselves too seriously.

“It’s a big challenge to still be in the group,” says Levin. “It’s not always easy, it’s not even, always, comfortable. But it’s still creative, and I would describe the band as a band that challenges itself musically, constantly, and we each challenge each other individually as musicians. The way it sounds when I hear myself say that is weird. I think that’s how the band is, it’s a creative endeavor that continues to challenge us, and it’s definitely worth the trip.

Levin made good use of his pandemic downtime, posting a coffee table-sized collection of his tour photos, “Pictures of a Life on the Road.” This tour was booked eight months ago, when the group’s management felt it was safe to venture into the pandemic. King Crimson has just completed the first leg of this tour. Across Florida and Texas. Two of the states that, without a doubt, have been among the worst to deal with the pandemic.

“It was the states that allowed concerts to be booked at that time,” Levin explains. “Now it turns out that these are maybe the states you least want to be in, and who knew?” “

King Crimson knows well enough that the group and his road crew are fully vaccinated and settled into a figurative bubble, confined to the safety of their buses and hotel rooms, with no visitors allowed behind the scenes.

We are backing up. Levin thinks back to early June. When he was on tour with his brother Pete in another incarnation of Levin, a jazz band called The Levin Brothers.

“And back then, the feeling in the audience was totally different than it is today,” says Levin. “Because, if you remember the beginning of June, we were all like, ‘OK, I can go to a concert now, and things open up, and this is the start of the return to what ‘it was before. “

“While unfortunately over the past few weeks has changed with news of the spread of the virus. And I have no insight or wisdom to predict how it will be in the future. Will there be much? tours, as before? Or will there be fewer visits? Will it be like this forever, with doubt and a bit of paranoia in every airport, about what’s going to happen, and watching others with suspicion?

“It’s a sad thing that this is happening to us. And you would have thought that it wouldn’t influence our music and our playing and our experience of live concerts and sharing.

“But indeed it is.”

Jeff Spevak is the Arts & Life editor of WXXI. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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