Thursday, 10 November 2011

31st October 2011: Steven Wilson - 02 Shepherds Bush Empire

And so to the last of 4 gigs in what is quite possibly the best extended weekend of live music I've ever experienced. In the interests of getting this one written up before I go to my next gig this Friday night, maybe we'll just cut right to it on this occasion (and besides, nobody needs to hear about our drive back down the M40 from Stratford, or the afternoon I spent cleaning the bathroom. But if you want to, feel free to leave me a comment and I'll get right on it.)

The last gig I have lined up for my musical marathon is the last night of Steven Wilson's first solo tour, at the Shepherds Bush Empire in London. (Oh, alright, the 02 Shepherds Bush Empire - *spit*) 

Karin and I arrive an hour or so before doors open, since the only tickets I've been able to get are in the vertigo-inducing level 3 balcony and from previous experience I know that we really don't want to be stuck at the back of this without a seat. It proves to be a wise choice, as the queue soon builds up behind us, full of people with similar previous tales of woe. Demand for the gig tickets is evidently quite high, as the normally furtive ticket touts are brazenly walking up and down the queue, pestering us for spares. I'm about to tell yet another one to sod off when I suddenly recognise a familiar beard and notice that he's trying to thrust something into my hand rather than take away my precious ticket - why, it's Matt Stevens and his bundle of flyers!

I always feel sorry for poor old Matt, he frequently seems to be outside gigs that I go to rather than inside them, and I half want to buy him a ticket (and maybe a warm meal and a cup of tea), but he explains that tonight he has to get in and out because not only is his wife about to give birth to his first born any minute, but their cat has also gone missing and he needs to go out in search of poor kitty when he gets home. (Luckily, I find out a few days later that Alfie has returned safe and well. No such luck for baby Stevens #1, who is at the time of writing still incarcerated.)  It's a very quick chat, as he needs to be earning his living rather than wasting his time chatting to people who've already bought everything he's ever produced, but it's always nice to see Matt out there doing his thing, making new converts.

At last, the doors are opened (thank Christ, I can hear you all say) and we run up the 13 flights of stairs to our seats as quickly as humanly possible. Which is honestly not very quickly, given that I haven't been to the gym for a few days, and the fact that the climb seems to be overtaking the 'Death Arrete' route up Snowdon as my most challenging piece of mountaineering to date. We jostle for a good 3rd row centre spot, put our knees up around our ears, and get ready for the evening's entertainment.

This is not the Death Arrete. In fact I can't find reference to one
anywhere on the internet. I'm starting to suspect that our 6th form teachers
 were deliberately trying to scare the crap out of us.

Now, in the interests of disclosure I should probably mention that I'm a huge fan of Steven Wilson in all (well, most) of his guises, so the likelihood of this review being completely impartial is fairly tiny. So if that bothers you, well, go and read some YouTube comments - those guys hate everything. Yup, I've been a fan of Steven's since buying the Porcupine Tree album 'Lightbulb Sun' in 2000 (from Our Price Records in Ramsgate - remember them? *Sigh*), and since then I've collected all the PT albums, seen them live 4 times (nothing compared to Karin's 17), and also got into Blackfield and No-Man, seeing them both live this year.

So, with 'Grace for Drowning', Steven's second solo album, easily landing in my top 3 albums of 2011, it's a fairly good bet that I'm going to enjoy this gig. For his first solo tour, it would have been easy for Steven to play a few solo tracks, and then please the crowd with some Porcupine Tree and No-Man songs, but we've already been warned via his Facebook page that this will not be happening - and this is probably a wise decision. 'Grace for Drowning' and 2008's 'Insurgentes' are quite different in many ways to the Porcupine Tree sound, and both set out a very particular sound and image which Steven seems to want to stick to for the whole evening. Even down to the support act, which, if we're being honest, is a curtain. Ok, I put that on my Facebook for a cheap laugh, but allow me to elaborate a little.

Another one of my quality gig photos. To be fair, it was very dark in there.

At 8pm on the dot, the lights go down and everyone is quiet, expecting a support band - or maybe the gig itself to start. A curtain across the front of the stage is lit up with a projection of what looks like a dimly lit church, with several ghostly looking figures sitting facing away from the audience. Meanwhile, a low drone starts playing. A few minutes later, when the exact same image and the exact same drone are still playing, people start chatting amongst themselves and wondering what's going on. Then, without warning, after about 10 minutes, the scene on the screen changes, and there's another ghostly figure standing on a beach staring out to sea - except that this time, if you're playing close attention, it's a video, with waves breaking on the beach and the figure's robe blowing in the wind. And every 10 minutes or so, the scene changes again, whilst the drone changes almost imperceptibly until you suddenly notice that some very subtle beats have been added, or a harmony note up high somewhere. It later becomes apparent that the music accompanying the projections is Steven's new Bass Communion album 'Cenotaph' - and you have to hand it to him, releasing yet another new album from another different project so soon after 'Grace for Drowning'.

I have to confess for the sake of honesty, that Bass Communion really isn't my kind of thing at all. The full album is 77 minutes long, and I'm not sure if we sit there looking at the projections for this long, but it starts to feel a bit like it. files Bass Communion into the categories of 'Noise', 'Ambient' and 'Drone' and I think this is fair enough. The albums get great reviews and ratings from those who are fans, so I should really leave comment to those more in the know about this genre of music than me - but when the lady behind us says to her husband "This music is doing my head in," I feel unqualified to turn round and call her a philistine.

Anyway, just as people are starting to get fidgety, the current scene on the curtain gets interesting - a view of the shoreline as seen through the window of a house by the beach suddenly comes to life, as a figure all in black approaches the window, gradually getting closer and closer. And suddenly the past hour seems like a well thought-out Halloween trick, as this is genuinely creepy - the indistinct figure gets closer and closer until it's almost entirely blocking the window and the screen is about to go completely black, when...

A thunderous drum hit scares us all to death and, at the precise same second, the stage lights go on, the curtain becomes completely translucent, and there's Marco Minnemann already at his drum kit, kicking off a furious groove. It seems a bit early for a drum solo, but soon enough we notice Nick Beggs on bass at the bottom left of the stage, joining in the riff, and he's gradually joined one by one by the rest of the band as the music builds up steam until Steven himself finally takes centre stage on guitar to lead them all into furious instrumental workout 'No Twilight Within the Courts of the Sun' from 'Insurgentes'. A fairly impressive opening, it has to be said - and I'm completely on board with this gig right from the off.

The "curtain", by the way, is still up at the front of the stage, and it's being used to incredible effect. I've often heard the story about how in the very early days of Genesis they played some gigs behind a transparent gauze and did clever things with UV lighting, and I'd never been able to figure out exactly how that would work. But now I get it - and then some. Sometimes images are projected onto it so that you can only faintly see the band through the curtain, sometimes the images completely drop away at key points in the music and then the lights focus on one member of the band, the gauze meaning that the others are completely hidden from view. There are even large landing lights on the stage which sometimes illuminate the players from behind and cast giant silhouettes on the screen itself. It's visually astounding, and I can only hope that one of these shows gets filmed for a Blu-ray because if my description fails to do it justice, my abysmal iPhone photos are even worse.

The gauze leads to a strangely exciting atmosphere where the band are completely cut off from the audience, and this is heightened even further when what seems like a disembodied ghostly voice announces the second track, "I am the collector..." - and the song 'Index' from 'Grace for Drowning' follows, with some of the bizarre imagery from the video being projected onto the curtain. I'm just starting to wonder whether they can sustain an entire gig like this when, during a particularly intense section of 'Sectarian', the curtain suddenly drops to the floor in time with a loud thud, and the crowd go absolutely bananas.

Fun though the effects using the curtain were, we can now see the band in full action and it's well worth it (making up for the fact that we now can't see any of the projections from our heavenly seats once they move to the back screen on the stage.) Steven has assembled an absolutely crack team of musicians to play his music, even if none of them are exactly obvious choices. On drums, Marco Minneman, a German drummer now living in California, who's chiefly known for work with metal bands and was in the frame to replace Mike Portnoy in Dream Theater. On bass and Chapman Stick, Nick Beggs of superbly-mulleted 80's band Kajagoogoo, but famous to prog fans for having joined Steve Hackett's touring band and been probably the only man ever to play the Summer's End festival in a dress.

This evening he is fairly tamely coiffured, preferring long blonde pigtails.

On keyboards, a late addition to the group (after Level 42 drummer Gary Husband has to pull out due to ill health) - Adam Holzman, son of Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman, and a member of Miles Davis's band for 5 years. On sax, flute, clarinet and anything else blowable, as well as keyboards, Theo Travis - perhaps the most obvious band choice since the man is a woodwind genius who has played with Steven many times before, and frankly, who else would you call? (I hope this is sufficient sucking up to make up for my review of his solo spot supporting No-Man...) Finally, on guitars, laser guitars and sitar-sounding guitars, Aziz Ibrahim, who's a renowned session musician who's played with the Stone Roses, Simply Red (yes, really) and Steve Hogarth of Marillion.

It sounds like a combination of musicians that really shouldn't work, and what's more, if you tried to put together the list of their previous engagements to guess what this evening's music might sound like - well, you'd have to imagine a prog/jazz/metal/synthpop/alternative/world music type thing. Funnily enough, that's almost exactly what we get. Many of the heavier sections from tracks like 'Sectarian' and 'Raider II' seem to have been heavily influenced by Steven's labour of love remixing King Crimson's catalogue, and the jazzier bits by his remixes of Caravan and Jethro Tull. Then there's 'Index' which is surely the best song Depeche Mode have never recorded, 'Postcard' which is the indie anthem Coldplay and Snow Patrol wish they could write, and then some of the haunting Mexican-inspired tracks from the first album like 'Veneno Para Las Hadas'.

Ooh, pretty. It's almost like a proper photo and everything.

The entire band are absolutely stunning, but Marco Minnemann particularly is a revelation, as if a drum machine could do metal riffs, and play with feeling. Not only does he play the sequenced drum parts from 'No Part of Me' exactly as they are on the album, but he also plays some of the most thunderous fills during the heavier bits which actually cause nearly everyone around me to look at their neighbour and say 'Blimey'. (or something less British.) At one point, a particularly good 30 second section causes the whole crowd to erupt into spontaneous applause, upon which he grins, shrugs, and carries on playing.

And what of the main man himself, the star of the show? Well, he's keen to insist that he's just the conductor of this group, and to a certain extent he has a point, as this music would just not sound the same without the guys he's assembled. But, sitting at his writing desk-come-keyboard at the front and centre of the stage for a good part of the evening, his vocals are as powerful as I've heard, he also plays most of the guitar solos, and what's more he genuinely seems to be having a great time up there. After the curtain comes down, there's some good audience banter, as he ribs Classic Rock journalist Jerry Ewing during one of the breaks. "Have all four of your dates stood you up, Jerry?", he asks, pointing out to the audience that there are 4 spare seats in the front row if anyone wants to come down and sit next to Mr Ewing. I don't actually see anyone do it, but I'm sure it's nothing personal.

The high point of the set comes when Steven announces that they're about to play a very long song and that it might not work very well. (What is it with these genius musicians and their self-deprecation? See also Neil Hannon, the night before.) Starting quietly with just Steven on piano and vocals and Adam on keys, Raider II achieves the pretty impressive feat of having the entire of the Empire silent for the first few minutes, surely an absolute first for a rock gig. Over the next 20 minutes, we're then treated to jazz-ish freakouts, introspective, brooding sections, and enormous metal riffs, during which the strobing landing lights on the stage shine directly into the eyes of us balcony dwellers, nearly inducing something along the lines of a acid trip (I imagine. We've already established I'm a good boy.)

When the track comes to its thunderous conclusion, there's a spontaneous standing ovation, and the band in turn take their bows, each getting the applause they thoroughly deserve. Which, oddly enough, is nearly the name of the encore track, 'Get All You Deserve', which starts again with just Steven on voice and Theo on keys, but gradually building up into a hypnotic instrumental jam. With Steven leaving the stage halfway through to leave the band doing their thing, we assume that's the last we've seen of him, but then he returns a little later wearing the gas mask from the front cover of 'Insurgentes'.

A final striking image from an evening which has been utterly true to the visions of both Mr. Wilson and his right hand man, photographer / director Lasse Hoile, it's ripped off for the last bows to reveal a beaming Steven underneath, seemingly humbled by the audience's appreciation and proud of what he's created.

And so, my weekend of gigs concludes as it began. On a weekday. No, seriously, it ends with a gig which completely exceeds all my expectations and makes me wish I could see it all over again rightaway. To see one of these is exciting enough, but 3 in one weekend is more than my little brain can cope with. I need a bit of a rest (and there's the small matter of some work to attend to.) Besides, if I go to many more gigs, I will literally not have time to do anything else but write blogs about them and that might just make me go a little insane, quite apart from losing me all my Facebook friends.

Steven Wilson Setlist:

No Twilight Within the Courts of the Sun
Deform to Form a Star
Remainder the Black Dog
Harmony Korine
Like Dust I Have Cleared from my Eye
No Part of Me
Veneno Para Las Hadas
Raider II
Get All You Deserve

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