Tuesday, 5 March 2013

4th March 2013: Steven Wilson - Royal Festival Hall, London

There's a point in this evening's gig where old Stevie McChuckletrousers warns us to never, ever, ever read your own reviews - which is quite handy, as it means he won't know I just called him Stevie McChuckletrousers. But it raises an interesting point: the object of this evening's rant is an Amazon review calling his lyrics Tolkienesque, but it could just as easily be his reputation for being miserable.

Steven asks us politely on Facebook before the gig not to take
any photos tonight, so you'll have to get what you're given.
Mind you, any old excuse to bring this out again...

I can see why people come to this conclusion - last tour he came on after an hour of drone music, played 2 hours of unremittingly serious heavy rock and then came back on for the encores wearing a gas mask. Still, at least he's always had the songs about serial killers, suicidal religious cults and braindead teenagers to lighten the mood.

Tonight's opening doesn't do much to disabuse anyone of this popular notion, as the album cover backdrop sits moodily on the rear screen and sinister whispers gradually get louder as the room gets darker. But then, the band appear from the wings, start playing what sounds like an outtake from Yes's "Drama" album, and make it clear that things have moved on a little since last time. Yep, 'Luminol' is a pretty clear statement of intent, beginning with the kind of pounding riff and galloping drum pattern that influenced a thousand neo-prog wannabes back in the 80's. It's almost upbeat, with its jazzy flute parts, funky bass solo and, erm, lyrics about "returning to dust". Oh well, 2 out of 3's not bad.

What's more, the band aren't taking things too seriously, either - drummer Marco Minneman grinning from ear to ear for large portions of the set as he knocks out fill after fill, as if to say "Nope, I can't quite believe I'm that good, either!"

In lieu of being allowed to take photos, the part of Marco Minneman
will tonight be performed by Shaggy from Scooby Doo.

Steven wisely decides tonight that we'll be treated to the entirety of the new album - a brave move since it's only been out for a couple of weeks, but that simple announcement gets a cheer bigger than some bands' entire sets - and with good reason. It's funny, there's ample evidence on this blog that I both proclaimed 'Grace for Drowning' to be one of the best albums of recent times, and the accompanying tour the pinnacle of modern rock concertage - and yet, as the band move from 'Luminol' into the gorgeous 'Drive Home', it's immediately obvious that we're on a different plain tonight; as much as it's evident upon first listen that 'The Raven That Refused to Sing' is a significant notch above anything Mr Wilson's put out under his own name thus far.

'Drive Home' is eagerly anticipated by all, if for no other reason than to see how on earth new guitar boy Guthrie Govan manages to pull off "that" solo, live. The solo on the album has divided people right down the middle, with its unusual tone, fluid approach to tuning and, ultimately, more notes than a Tanzanian bank vault. Tonight, it's as moving, and as over the top as the album- only more so, with 2.7 times as many hemidemisemiquavers, and a whole load of rock god attitude as well. I decide Guthrie can stay.

What's more, Steven puts in one of the most natural and confident vocal performances I've heard from him, (especially whilst sitting on a stool wearing trousers so tight I'm not convinced they aren't in fact treggings), and there are some spine-chilling backing vocals from Nick Beggs, who somehow manages to sing 4 part harmony all by himself but we'll just gloss over that...

You have been watching...
Ian Anderson as Guthrie Govan.

'The Pin Drop' has to be got out of the way early in the set, explains Steven, since it wasn't really designed for his own voice, but he does a mighty fine job of it anyway, before moving onto the first old track tonight - 'Postcard', which I raved about last time but this time stands out like a sore thumb amongst the more accomplished new material, with its seemingly half-finished 'doo doo doo' lyrics. It's the first time tonight he's seemed fallible, although the band do a cracking job, especially on the climactic section with pounding drums.

Much better is 'The Holy Drinker', another (whisper it) quite upbeat number, during which bassist Nick Beggs manages to confuse me by picking up his Chapman Stick, and then standing caressing it idly whilst a thumping, slapped-sounding bass part mysteriously appears from the PA. What's this? Backing tapes, surely not our Stevie? A quick tug on my arm, however, from Karin sitting next to me alerts me to the most rare sight of Steven himself with a bass guitar strapped around him, hammering out the low frequency goodness whilst looking like he's having a blast. I can't say I've ever sat there and thought, "Wouldn't it be great if there were TWO bass players on this song?", but now I've seen it done, I've come to the conclusion that it ought to be mandatory - Steven hammering out the steady riff whilst Nick slaps and fingers his stick furiously. (Ooer.)

I know, I know, Nick Beggs doesn't really look like David Bowie in Labyrinth.
He does have an awesome black trench coat type thing, though,and a shock of straight blond hair.
Maybe David Bowie in Labyrinth when he's just stepped out of the shower.

Not only that, but the first few and last few minutes are a wonderful opportunity for the other members of the band to take their turn in the spotlight, notably woodwind legend Theo Travis with his screaming, wailing wind solos and metal sax riffs, and keyboard maestro Adam Holzman - a much more jazzy, solo-happy player than Steven's previous bandmates, and a perfect fit for tonight's material, with its hints of everything from Caravan to Crimson. (Ok, that's not a very wide range is it, but they both begin with 'C' so it sounded good. Look at me, giving away my art - next thing I'll be telling you how I always write things in threes because it's what Cicero taught me to do.)

After 'Deform to Form a Star', the band leave the stage for a bit and they make us watch a curtain again - still at least it's only for 5 minutes this time and not an hour like last year. And it's a pretty effective way to spend their fag break, watching the spooky eyes of 'The Watchmaker' whilst the sound of clocks ping all around the auditorium in Quadraphonic Surround sound. Anyone would think they'd just spent a couple of months with Alan Parsons. And the curtain at the front of the stage stays put even beyond the wife-burying, guitar strumming, "Trespass"-revering of the song in question - as Steven reprises his role as The Collector for 'Index', tonight's most successfully straightforward song, perhaps. Also making a welcome reappearance are the interesting visual effects from last year's tour - Steven casting all kinds of odd shadows on the curtain as he's lit from behind by different coloured lights. It looks so good, I have to risk getting thrown out to bring it to you here and now.

Did I mention we're in the second row? Oh, you'd think I would have mentioned that by now.
 We're in the second row. 

Just when we think it might not happen, we're served up two songs from 'Insurgentes', Steven's first solo album, which strangely sound more well rounded than some of the 'Grace For Drowning' material here tonight - the second is 'Harmony Korine', during which Steven actually gets to play guitar for once. But before that, there's the haunting title track, with a beautifully classical sounding piano introduction from Adam, befitting our grand surroundings. 'Insurgentes' is a favourite of Karin's, which seems to get her in an emotional place every time, and rightly so. Someone who it seems to get in a different place is regular gig buddy Bob who I spot making a dash for the gents.

Keyboards this evening by a very young Timothy Spall.

The evening's getting on and there's just about time for two of the best tracks from 'Grace' - firstly the wonderful 'No Part of Me', with its jittery electronic drum patterns which Marco somehow plays live, and a fantastically eastern-sounding woodwind solo from Theo. And then we move on to the epic 'Raider II', which prompts the "Tolkeinesque" rant I mentioned earlier- Steven's response being that his mum brought him up all proper like, to write songs about serial killers. His mum's actually up there tonight, with Steve Hackett in the Royal Box - oh crikey, that sounds wrong.

It's tempting to see 'Raider II' as the main event in tonight's set, being 20 plus minutes long, and giving everyone in the band ample opportunity to show off- especially Nick Beggs, who revels in his role as resident rock god tonight, brandishing his bass like a giant "weapon", thrusting in the direction of everyone who doesn't get out of the way. When you can play like he can, it's allowed, although it's somewhat at odds with the creepy visuals playing on the back screen.

'Raider II' is undeniably great, but I can't help but feel there's some unfinished business, with the heart-wrenching title track from 'The Raven That Refused to Sing' left unplayed - and sure enough, with barely a second to collect our thoughts and shift out of "being scared shitless" mode, the backdrop starts playing the beautiful animated video for the song in question, and my evening is complete. With some wonderful flute playing from Theo imitating birdsong in the absence of the raven's actual voice, it's a moving tale of, well, I'll let you watch the video. I will say, however, that it joins the very elite ranks of songs which make me cry every time I see them played live (number 3 - after 'Agadoo' and 'Whodunnit?', obviously.)

Who knew Comedy writer and grumpy old man David Quantick was such
 an amazing flautist?

There's a subdued stage exit befitting the sombre and touching nature of the last song, but it's not long before they're back - and what the heck are they going to play?

"I've got this band called Porcupine Tree...," says Steven, excitingly using the present tense, before going on to apologise about not having rehearsed this very much, and yadda yadda, and here's a song he wrote 25 years ago. For something unrehearsed, the band do a pretty good job of 'Radioactive Toy', jamming around with it in various parts while Steven skips round the stage, rocking out with the other members and looking like he's enjoying himself as much as he ever has. Yes, I know that's not very much.

I even...

... manage to sneak a few photos...

... but they're all from the last 30 seconds...

... so I have to shove them all in here...

... in the interests of chronology.

It's all over bar the bowing - the band come forward to lap up the well-deserved applause and stand in front of their animated caricatures while they say good night (obviously none of them are as good as my celebrity looky-likeys above. If Steven does read this, he has my full permission to use those next tour instead.)

It's been quite a couple of hours - shifting moods and styles, wonderful songs and some of the best playing you will ever witness at a live music event. If 'Raven' represents a maturing of Steven's solo writing, then tonight proves that this group of musicians are becoming a proper band. Steven's name may be up there on the posters, but tonight he's less obviously the ring-leader than this time last year. Each and every one of them get a huge cheer as they come forward to take their bows - and yes, they all flipping well smile. Even Chuckletrousers.

Or is it Chuckletreggings?

Steven Wilson Setlist:

Drive Home
The Pin Drop
The Holy Drinker
Deform to Form a Star
The Watchmaker
Harmony Korine
No Part of Me
Raider II
The Raven That Refused to Sing
Radioactive Toy

No comments:

Post a Comment