The original U.K. (1978) was almost unquestionably the greatest "supergroup" (i.e., made up of known musicians from other top-flight groups) in rock history. The first iteration consisted of Bill Bruford (Yes, King Crimson) on drums, John Wetton (King Crimson) on bass, Eddie Jobson (Frank Zappa) on keyboards and violin, and Allan Holdsworth (Soft Machine, Gong) on guitar.
They recorded just one album (U.K.), but for progressive rock fans it remains among the greatest prog-rock albums of all time. Holdsworth left due to creative differences, and Bruford left to rejoin King Crimson and was replaced by Terry Bozzio (Frank Zappa). The remaining trio also produced just one album (Danger Money). The members then split, and U.K. was no more. However, Jobson and Wetton apparently retained joint title to the group's name, and there were a few later iterations of U.K., though never with both of its founders.
Although Wetton and Jobson played together for a few one-off shows beginning in 2009, they did not formally get back together until 2011. At that point, Terry Bozzio was included, along with guitarist Alex Machacek. However, Bozzio bowed out early this year, and the group that played at Highline Ballroom on April 19 included Jobson, Wetton, Machacek, and drummer Virgil Donati (Planet X, Allan Holdsworth).
As expected, the show opened with "In the Dead of Night," a three-part suite from the first album, and the band's signature composition. As with almost all their compositions, this one includes a variety of non-standard time signatures, lightning-quick signature changes, and a number of dynamic and other changes. Performed flawlessly, it earned the band its first, well-deserved, standing ovation. Following this the band played two more from the first album, "Nevermore" and "Thirty Years." Again, both were played with incredibly precision, despite hyper-complicated figures for each musician, often playing in different time signatures against each other. The band then treated the fans to a very spirited rendition of "Starless" (from the King Crimson album Red), a broody, dark-ish piece with a truly eerie instrumental bridge. The rosin flying from Jobson's bow during the intense parts created what looked like a fine mist over the violin. Needless to say, the performance earned the band its second standing ovation.
This was followed by "Carry No Cross," from the band's second album. A lengthy, multi-part composition (and another fan favorite), this was the stand-out song of the evening. Opening with increasingly loud sustained keyboard chord figures, it stops suddenly to allow Wetton to sing, accompanied only by a quiet keyboard. This is followed by an increasingly complicated jam which leads to an exciting "fight" between the keyboards and drums, with Wetton keeping things grounded. This leads to a more anthemic figure, followed by Wetton singing once again over a quiet keyboard figure. I know I was not the only one with goosebumps when they finished, and the band earned a sustained standing ovation.
This was followed by a violin solo by Jobson, first over a simple preset keyboard figure, then a series of arpeggiated chords. He then started tapping the violin in various spots to create a series of synthesized sounds, after which he grabbed his bow and made the violin sound like a wildly fuzzed-out guitar. He following this with a keyboard solo. According to my tablemates, these two solos comprised bits and pieces from Jobson's three solo albums (Zinc - The Green Album, Theme of Secrets, Piano One). Everything was played masterfully, and the audience very much enjoyed this interlude.
The band then launched into the opening of "Alaska" (from the first album), quickly segueing into "Caesar's Palace Blues" (from the second album), a wacky crowd-pleaser with a decidedly hyper violin part. This was followed by the band's second quasi-hit from the second album, "The Only Thing She Needs." After leaving the stage for a few minutes, the band returned to play two encores, "Red" (from the King Crimson album of the same name) and "Rendezvous 6:02," the band's only bona fide ballad, another fan favorite, and my personal favorite from the second album. (And I'm sure it was no coincidence that this left only Wetton and Jobson onstage at the end, a very classy move.)
A few general observations.
Perhaps the single most important factor making this concert so superb was Wetton's voice. Arguably one of the best voices in rock, it is almost unfathomable how strong it remains, especially for a man in his sixties. Despite some fairly high notes, he never seemed (or sounded) strained, and his diction is among the best of any rock singer in the world. As well, I gained a new respect for his lyrics; although I know many of them very well, I had never given them much specific thought. However, hearing them again in a live setting, it occurred to me that whether he is telling a story or simply writing something esoteric, his lyrics are always very good, if not great, with lots of (unforced) internal rhyming and unexpected turns.
All of the musicians were in fine form. Jobson seemed to get more sounds from two keyboards than most keyboardists get from an entire bank of them. Wetton's bass playing was strong and confident. Machacek's playing went from pro forma (for the first two or three songs, he seemed to simply be showing that he was technically capable of playing what are among the quickest, and most complicated and continual, sixteenth-note figures ever written) to loosening up and having fun. What to say about Donati? I'm not sure I would put him in the near-legendary category yet (as many fans apparently do), but he is certainly a wonder to behold: technically gifted, creative, and exciting. Still, he did make a few errors (minor enough that anyone who was not a very good musician, or not intimately familiar with the songs, would not have noticed). Yet perhaps he can be forgiven for this…because he and Wetton had not even met until that evening! Apparently, Donati was given a tape of the set, went over it a couple of times with Jobson prior to the show, and then simply showed up to play. Given that the drummer and bassist need to be solidly in sync (particularly for music this complex), it is nothing short of stunning that he was able to appear entirely comfortable, and to mesh perfectly with the band.
Also adding to the enjoyment level was the sound: despite being in a fairly intimate room, the sound and mix were excellent. As well, I was sitting pretty close to the speakers on the left side of the stage, yet even without earplugs the sound was fabulous and I never felt like it was too loud. (I suppose I should add that the venue has among the best food for this type of venue.)
As an aside, if I had had $115 to spend, I could have gotten a reserved seat, a DVD, and a one-hour "master class" with Mr. Jobson prior to the show. It turned out that the class went long, so those of us in the general admission line who got in first were treated to the last five minutes, during which Mr. Jobson was discussing his technique for creating chordal structures. He is apparently quite comfortable and easygoing as a teacher, and even the little I heard made me sorry that I could not afford that extra.
Still, the concert was wonderful, memorable, and fun. If you live in the Baltimore, Quebec or Montreal areas (where U.K. 2013 is scheduled to play), you will not be sorry for spending a few of your hard-earned bucks on this show. - Ian Alterman
Ian Alterman is a founding moderator of Progarchives.com, the number one progressive rock website in the world. He writes there under the name Maani. (Don't ask.)