The Grand Theatre, Swansea
Saturday, 28th October 2023
Prior to attending this show, there was a lot of pondering on my part.
On the positive side, it’s Robert Fripp playing guitar in Swansea. Yes, that’s ROBERT FRIPP in SWANSEA! As a massive fan since the early ’80s, I would struggle not to be there to see it.
But… this was to be a very different beast to the numerous King Crimson and Fripp solo shows I’ve seen over the years. The ‘Sunday Lunch Live!’ tour attempts to recreate the unexpectedly joyous and exceedingly popular weekly videos that Fripp has posted with his wife Toyah Willcox since the start of lockdown in 2020. I’ve watched and enjoyed many of these, and it has shown Robert in a completely new and truly unexpected light. No doubt instigated by Toyah, the first one I saw involved the pair running up their garden dressed as bumble bees… making ‘Buzzzz’ noises. Unexpected indeed! Robert’s image as the stern and demanding Oberführer of one of progressive music’s most intense outfits cast aside, in what might have been a one-off decline into semi-madness caused by the imposition of lockdown. But no, three years later they’re still at it.
After more than 30 years of marriage, largely lived apart due to touring and other commitments, Toyah and Fripp were suddenly together all the time – and clearly loving it. Toyah has always had a manic twinkle and an eye for fun, but who knew that she could coax Mr Fripp into joining in?! And they don’t seem bored of it yet; the fun remains, seemingly brimming over on a wave of joint enthusiasm. Their regular low-fi cover versions of well known songs have run the gamut of punk to metal to classic rock and beyond, with Toyah in various states of undress and Robert sporting make-up and unfeasibly teased hair. Again, highly unexpected.
The negative points to consider before this show included the thought of it being nothing more than an expensive karaoke. Do I want to see a set of covers, even with Fripp playing them? I’d not seen Toyah before, but I’ve never really felt the need down the years either. With that, I decided to forego getting tickets, but hedged my bets by leaving it in the back pocket as a ‘possible’, if it didn’t sell out.
After seeing comments and reviews from previous shows on the tour, and some clips of Fripp playing a mean guitar, my position softened, and in the week before the show I sprang for tickets, front of the upper balcony with a slightly side view opposite Mr Fripp. This proved to be an absolutely lovely place from where to watch the maestro, without feeling the need to get involved in the ubiquitous audience participation.
The lovely old (and beautifully refurbished!) Grand Theatre is probably half full, with only around 25 people clustered around the front of the upper tier. Nearly everyone is off ‘a certain age’, and you can feel the enthusiasm in an audience that is heavily split in favour of those here for Toyah, but with a hardcore group of Fripp acolytes present. It’s fair to say that both sides were more than satisfied with the results.
A dapper Fripp appears first to loud applause, nodding politely in acknowledgement before retiring to his stool toward the back of the stage. The ritual commences as he prepares his equipment, settles, picks up his Fernandes goldtop, kisses it and straps in. The rest of the band emerge, followed by Toyah, who immediately fills the stage with her personality. She’s a great front for any band and engagingly works the crowd, opening with her own Thunder in the Mountains, a number 4 hit in 1981 and the first of three of her songs in the set. It’s a good start. Toyah introduces Blondie’s Heart of Glass with an anecdote of Robert’s time working with the band, a standard feature of an evening where name-dropping is rife – but with the kind of names they have to drop, why not? This song is slightly off, it smacks of settling in, but things improve significantly with Lenny Kravitz’s Are You Gonna Go My Way and Martha and the Muffins’ Echo Beach, both great songs, the band nailing them as a very tight and accomplished unit.
Fripp is clearly part of the band, allowing the other two guitarists to shine, contributing more significantly where necessary. Backing vocals come from all of the supporting players, bar the drummer (playing an electronic kit), and there are a couple of keyboardists to fill out the sound. Toyah’s It’s a Mystery is a blast from the past, juxtaposed with a feisty take of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, and a tale of her sneaking in to see the band in Birmingham in 1970. The set moves around pleasingly, Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love to a Marc Almond anecdote and Tainted Love, the first set ending with a very impressive Kashmir, the Led Zep classic sending the punters to the bar happy.
Reflecting on the first set whilst looking down at the blue-lit stage, it had all been very enjoyable. Mysteriously, Fripp appears unannounced to move an inflatable unicorn stage prop to the front of the stage. There are a number of inflatables around – party vibe or cheap decor? Possibly both. Later, Toyah emerges to move the unicorn to Robert’s place, for no apparent reason. At least they’re having fun!
We’re back for the second set with Metallica’s Enter Sandman, Fripp sharing lead with the other guitarists and providing some monstrous riffs. Of particular note is Manolo Polidario, clearly a fine player in numerous styles. The rock vibe continues with Alice Cooper’s School’s Out (Toyah manically swinging a baseball bat around her head) and Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child o’ Mine, Fripp’s guitar cutting through beautifully as he and Polidario trade solos. Robert really is on fine form, and from the balcony I can just wallow in everything he’s doing.
Back to things that Fripp played on with Bowie’s Fashion and it’s extraordinary to watch him play what is still an iconic and futuristic part 40+ years on. It’s a blast. ZZ Top’s Sharp Dressed Man, Polidario adding pedal steel, is prefaced by Toyah complimenting a gent in the front row on his magnificent beard, Fripp chiming in to concur. Fripp talks – and smiles – a lot during the set, usually in staged corrections of detail to Toyah’s faulty memories, and the love between the two is clear. It’s all very engaging. Toyah stresses Fripp’s guitar icon status and her love for him too frequently, clearly to appease those who don’t know who he is, and sometimes it strays into mawkish. However, she does make me laugh out loud by calling him “my little prog rock teddy bear”!
Toyah acknowledges the necessary move into protest songs with Neil Young’s always on the money Rockin’ in the Free World, and they play a blinder with it. Unfortunately, it’s followed with some completely arse-clenching interplay between the main protagonists as Toyah milks the lewd suggestiveness of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax, taking the first part slow and sidling up to Robert, looking him in the eye to deliver the augmented “don’t do it, when you wanna come… Mr Fripp” line. Shudders all ’round as the audience recoil. I felt so dirty I considered the options for an immediate shower.
Quickly moving on, Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell is a great shout, without the need for quivering lip action (just as well after Relax…) and then it’s time to stomp along with Toyah through an enthusiastic I Want to Be Free. It’s fair to say that the girl still has a fine set of pipes and she nails a huge variety of songs during the set. Almost all of the selections are fitting and well-chosen (almost, I’m looking at you Frankie!) and Fripp’s presence lifts some of them in surprising ways. My aromatic and long-suffering wife accompanied me to this gig; she doesn’t often, but it was made acceptable by adding a double-header restaurant experience to the evening. She’s seen Fripp before; I dragged her to see him in a church in Cheltenham and she hated it, considering him to be a “rude little man” due to his idiosyncratic ways and mannerisms. However, she enjoyed this show, mostly as she knew most of the material (or “actual songs”, as she delicately put it 🙂 ).
The run to the tape takes in a thrilling version of Bowie’s Heroes, another iconic guitar line that can be authentically played by no one else, with an appropriately uproarious I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll to finish. The band took the applause, Fripp still seated on his stool but applauding heartily, and left the stage. The hardcore Frippites like myself remained as the scrum for the exits commenced, discretely watching his ritual as he remained on the stage alone. He fiddled with equipment, lifted the guitar strap over his head, kissed the Fernades again after a job well done, set it down, rose, collected some small items and strolled off as cheers rose again, graciously acknowledging them with a smile and a nod. Completely the right way to end what was a surprisingly enjoyable show.
The set worked very well and the non-appearance of a touch of Krimson magik wasn’t a disappointment. It was never going to happen, and rightly so – it’s not Fripp’s style. The music of King Crimson comes to life when King Crimson is summoned to play it, and without the spirit of KC in the room I’m sure that Fripp would see it as fraudulent and highly disrespectful. I doubt we’ll ever see him play any of that stuff again.
But for now, at 77 years of age, he looks well, happy and enjoying life with the person he loves the most, and you really can’t argue with that. More power to the pair of them, and if they ever bring this show around again, I won’t be holding back on getting a ticket.
Thunder in the Mountains
Heart of Glass (Blondie cover)
Are You Gonna Go My Way (Lenny Kravitz cover)
Echo Beach (Martha and the Muffins cover)
It’s a Mystery
Paranoid (Black Sabbath cover)
Sunshine of Your Love (Cream cover)
Tainted Love (Gloria Jones cover)
Kashmir (Led Zeppelin cover)
Enter Sandman (Metallica cover)
School’s Out (Alice Cooper cover)
Sweet Child o’ Mine (Guns N’ Roses cover)
Fashion (David Bowie cover)
Sharp Dressed Man (ZZ Top cover)
Rockin’ in the Free World (Neil Young cover)
Relax (Frankie Goes to Hollywood cover)
Rebel Yell (Billy Idol cover)
I Want to Be Free
Heroes (David Bowie cover)
I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll (The Arrows cover)
Toyah Willcox – Vocals
Robert Fripp – Guitar
Manolo Polidario – Guitar, Pedal Steel, Harmonica, Backing Vocals
Nat Martin – Guitar, Backing Vocals
Mike Nichols – Bass, Backing Vocals
David Keech – Drums
Chloe du Pre – Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Emily Francis – Keyboards, Backing Vocals