I've always been one of those rare people who enjoys a band's studio work much better than their live work; in most cases, I'd rather be listening to an album than watching the band perform that album. It's just a personal preference - the studio is where the artists carefully hone their work until it is just so, ready to be unleashed upon the world. I'm generally uninterested in improv music - for the same reason that I want to read a book rather than hear the author speak extemporaneously.
The notable exception, of course, is King Crimson, if for no other reason than because they are such a ferociously good live act. And the latest set of tapes to be released from their substantial vault is Absent Lovers, a fantastic 2CD set that captures the 80's Crimson incarnation at the height of its game.
One of the most stunning things about this band is how remarkably well they pull off the chops in a live setting. Most bands, especially bands with complex content, tend to take things down a notch when playing live: guitarists will exclude a note here or there, vocalists will phrase their lines differently so as not to have to reach so high. But Crimson takes no such shortcuts: every single note is present in every song, and singer Adrian Belew doesn't compromise one bit. Clearly one of the most talented vocalists working today, Belew has a range that is just ungodly: he effortlessly jumps from one end of the spectrum to the other, the notes fluid and smooth and not strained one bit.
Many of the performances on Absent Lovers rival the originals for tightness and excitement: "Waiting Man", particularly, a breathtaking rendition of this great song from Beat. Some of the older material here, such as the two selections from Larks Tongues in Aspic, isn't quite as crucial; but on the other hand, the searing performance of "Red" breathes new life into this classic.
Crimsonites will obviously buy this album whether it is good or not. But the fact is that it is excellent, one of the best live prog recordings to date. It also stands as an excellent introduction to the band for the novice: a far better introduction, in fact, than any of the single-disc "best of" collections produced so far.