What’s to like?
Steven Wilson, the “most successful prog rock musician you’ve never heard of”, brings his current tour to Glasgow, and delivers a truly immersive concert music experience that gets right To The Bone of why live gigs can be such an unforgettable experience.
The low down
“We’re going way down through the floor, oh, don’t you wanna see what’s at the core?”
The lyrics to the opening track on Steven Wilson’s current album To The Bone feel like a prescient way to kick off this gig review, as audiences get their chance to see Wilson in the flesh, if not completely stripped to the bone.
It’s been an unusually long wait for UK fans to hear the new songs performed live, given that the album came out seven months earlier. My previous experience of Wilson’s gigs has been one of the new album being released within days of the UK leg of the tour, and barely having enough time to familiarise myself with the music before the show. And with Wilson often choosing to perform the entire album, it was always a challenge to get up to speed with the new music beforehand.
This time around it’s been a different experience, having had a much longer lead-in period to become familiar with every nuance of the album. So when we took our seats, I felt that no matter which songs he played, old or new, it didn’t matter – I just wanted to be there in the moment.
Even a sneak peek at the set-list from earlier dates wasn’t a guarantee that I’d be hearing the same songs that night, and true enough, having assumed the show would open with the album title track, I was momentarily blown off course by the choice of Nowhere Now to kick things off. But in retrospect it was an obvious choice by Wilson to confound audience expectations and this became a running theme throughout the show.
At one point, he shared his views with the audience about how music should challenge expectations and perceptions, and not be boxed into confining genres, and it was heartening to hear the audience’s vociferous endorsement of his opinion.
As will have become apparent by the time this post goes online, Wilson gave the setlist a radical shakeup, with nothing from the first two solo albums, freeing up space to reintroduce more of his Porcupine Tree catalogue. (I guess there’s a debate to be had on whether this was down to artistic hubris, or commercial savvy, as the two PT albums that were predominantly drawn from – In Absentia and Deadwing – have just been reissued on vinyl.) Nevertheless, I was pleased to see old favourites making a reinvigorated return, and it felt like a sign from Wilson that he feels creative and confident enough in his solo career now that he can take a more relaxed view about his wider legacy of music stretching back more than twenty years.
But tonight’s show was very much about the here and now, and even the older songs were given a sonic makeover in keeping with the sound of the newer material. And the sound was excellent. We were fortunate enough to have circle seats just behind the mixing desk, so were favoured with a high definition listening experience, which switched from stereo to surround quadraphonic during some songs. Every instrument was clearly placed in the sound mix and I could make out every note and every beat. (I took the precaution of bringing earplugs but I didn’t need them – it was one of those rare gigs where it was loud enough to feel exciting and live, but not so loud your ears ended up ringing afterwards.)
We also had a grand view of the stage, so could clearly see every detail of each musician’s performance, which would have been more than enough for me. But Wilson had hinted that he would be taking the visuals to a new level of sophistication with this tour, and the results were fascinating. If you’ve seen his previous tours, you’ll know that for some songs a gauze screen is dropped, separating band from audience, and allowing for simple but very effective lighting tricks. On this tour the screen projections have literally been lifted into another dimension, as the images take a holographic presence above the audience.
It worked particularly well for Pariah, with backing vocalist Ninet Tayeb’s image lifted from the original promo video, and used to interact with Wilson’s singing parts in the song. A clever way to get round the absence of Tayeb and it took me right to the heart of a song that I find particularly moving. Here’s the promo video, which will give you an idea of what the audience saw:
Wilson joked about the show having many layers, but I think he hit on something there, as it felt to me like a complete and well-rehearsed experience. His band are all seasoned players, so they instinctively knew when to stick to their conductor’s arrangements, but also when to cut loose a little within some of the longer songs and flex their musical tendons. Wilson may be the consummate musical director in the studio, obsessing on every note and arrangement, but he’s also experienced enough to appreciate his collaborators on stage and encourage them to bring something new to the music to share those special one-off moments between performer and listener.
The newer songs sounded pretty much as you’d expect them too, but with the added drama and presence that comes with live performance, and there seemed to be a consensus among my friends that the songs did indeed sound even better in this setting. People Who Eat Darkness and Detonation had added intensity and heaviness, and the gauze screen visuals during Song Of I worked really well in drawing the audience into the hypnotic rhythm of that song.
I was also fascinated with the sound of the Porcupine Tree material, given that none of the musicians onstage, bar Wilson, had recorded or played these tracks. The notable difference to my ears was Nick Beggs’ monstrous sounding bass, as it rumbled through the likes of Arriving Somewhere But Not Here, with some interesting keyboard embellishments by Adam Holzman. The unusual way the song was introduced was also a nice moment, as they commenced the second half of the show walking onstage and playing shakers to count in the beat before the familiar synths filtered into speakers.
A shout out also to the new boys, Craig Blundell on drums and Alex Hutchings on guitar, who did incredibly well to interpret so much material that they’d never previously played on, and still bring their own tone to it.
There was also a nostalgic moment for the older fans when Wilson brought out a portable amp onstage, plugged his guitar in for a solo performance of Even Less, asking if anyone in the audience had seen him play the song twenty years earlier in the tiny King Tuts club just up the road. (For the record, I was one of those fans whom he then described as being “really ******* old!”).
Steven Wilson might be “arriving somewhere but not here”, but as he plays to larger audiences on this tour, and his work ethic shows no signs of slowing down, the journey continues.
Here’s an interesting promotional featurette for the tour:
So how do you some up a gig that turned out to be everything you hoped for? It’s easy to become jaded as the shows and years roll by, and it takes a very special gig indeed where I felt totally immersed and in the moment for every note, every drum beat and every image. Simultaneously aware of the audience around me and their emotions, and yet in my own zone at one with the music.
Wilson’s contribution to music – his own and those he has helped with his production and remixing skills– has been such a huge part of my life for the last few years. As a result, last night’s gig felt like the culmination of my own journey, and an opportunity to celebrate all the reasons why I got into music forty years ago.
Set 1: Nowhere Now, Pariah, Home Invasion, Regret #9, The Creator Has A Mastertape, Refuge, People Who Eat Darkness, Ancestral
Set 2: Arriving Somewhere But Not Here, Permanating, Song of I, Lazarus, Detonation, The Same Asylum As Before, Heartattack In A Layby, Vermillioncore, Sleep Together
Encore: Even Less, The Sound of Muzak, The Raven That Refused To Sing