The evening of Thursday 8th of November 2007 at the Oxford Academy, my first live exposure to the musical force that is Mr. Steven. Wilson. Introduced to his work via some very good friends of mine. Like many of you they were already long term fans back then – I was quickly educated by them on his existing body of work, in particular Porcupine Tree.
I now found myself standing a couple of paces back from the stage, and having familiarised myself with their then recent release; ‘’Fear of a Blank Planet’, I pondered, between slugs of warm lager gulped from a plastic cup, on what I might expect.
I came away from that evening having been hugely impressed by the intricate and expertly crafted music. Performed by an immensely talented line-up of rhythmically tight band members and wonderful melodic guitar interplay, framed between huge chugging riffs. Initially at least, I struggled with Steven’s awkward stage presence and sometimes clunky lyrics. But, they had done enough to hook me…
Fast forward Ooo, I don’t know, 8 years, and I find myself seated in the Circle at the Royal Albert Hall. Strapped in for two evenings with the very same man, now sans the ‘Tree. Having forged a very successful career all on his lonesome. Well, not quite. He has some very talented gunslingers at his side…
As I’m sure many of you are aware; in those intervening years Steven has worked incredibly hard at his career. And boy does it show. I have been lucky to attend many, many Porcupine Tree, Blackfield, and solo gigs in that time. Mainly thanks to my afore mentioned friends being unwilling to miss a single event. Until tonight that is. With the gigs clashing with their holiday plans, they very kindly bought me tickets to both evenings as a very generous birthday gift. Hence this article being a thank you of sorts, to try to give them a flavour as to what went down at RAH!
This evening we find our host confident, engaging, funny, humble, but with swagger, virtuoso and generous musically to both those on stage and in the audience. A man having grown into his own skin. Possessing the kind of confidence that can only be achieved through the knowledge that you have toiled, and are able to take pride in that which you have created. He is still the same man, but armed with the satisfaction that his dreams have been attained. No longer concerned with whether he might get there. At the same time not content to rest, but to forge onwards. Following his path with the certainty that he has chosen wisely.
Night One opens without a support band. The main act takes to the stage at approximately 7.30pm and launches into a full rendition of the latest masterpiece Hand.Cannot.Erase. Only omitting Transience to my recollection, from the album track-listing.
Due to other band commitments, Guthrie Govan (guitar) and Marco Minnemann (drums) are deputised ably by Dave Kilminster and Craig Blundell, respectively. While Adam Holzman (keyboards) and (Sir) Nick of Beggs (bass), remain in the solo touring band line-up unchanged. Nick, overflowing with character, still resembling the baddie from Die Hard, his blond locks flowing behind his every movement.
Steven, barefoot as is tradition, is in relaxed mood. Several self depreciating conversations with the audience take place between songs, jesting about which dodgy commercials he sound-tracked back-in the day, but refusing to give definitive answers. Then, with ‘Routine’ due up next, Steven informs us that, instead of making use of the backing tape for the vocals of Ninet Tayeb’s part, the lady herself is here tonight. What transpired next was the highlight of the evening for me. Upon first listen to the H.C.E. album, it was Routine that was the standout track for me. Beautiful, lilting, descriptive, piano driven, building to a full band crescendo, with wonderful vocal interplay between Steven, Ninet and Choirboy Leo Blair (offspring of Tony).
It was Ninet’s vocal on the record that had me transfixed. Live tonight, it was a step on again. She is in possession of a voice that is at once effortless, but with incredible power. Beautiful tone with an edgy texture. This effortless delivery allows the audience a relaxed listen, drawing you into the song, while her power and emotion carry the piece through the changing moods. Until, finally, she delivers an almighty, guttural, bloodcurdling scream prior to the coda. Hugely impressive. She also brings an alt.rock, sassy, sexy presence to the stage. A refreshing change from the middle-aged men that make up both band and the majority of the audience! (this is grown up music tho, innit, lol ;).
At this point we must discuss production values. Many bands can learn a thing or two here, particularly in carefully crafting the live mix. While the visual production here is not on a level with something like a modern Nine Inch Nails show; due to budgetary restrictions and British humility I suspect, it is readily apparent that a great deal of thought goes into every aspect of the show. The wonderful animation work of Jess Cope on Routine and Raven (as well as another, but that’s tomorrow), along with the dark imagery of Hajo Mueller and longtime collaborator Lasse Hoile, serve to communicate the themes and mood via the rear video screen and projection onto a gauze screen, dropped from the lighting rig at the leading edge of the stage.
But, it is of course the sound quality that is so well judged. As we all know, at many venues it can be a lottery, dependant on where you sit as to whether you experience the performance as the artist intends, or are subjected to huge bass build up in corners of venues. Leaving you trying to pick out you’re favourite melodies in a thumping, muddy mess. Not here though. Typically utilising a surround sound set-up of some kind at his shows for sometime, at the Albert Hall it works surprisingly well. Presumably, as we are ‘in the round’, the surround effect has me glancing to the back of the hall repeatedly throughout the performance. With monitors hung at gallery level and generally picking out an effect, or embellishment from the original recording. It works well.
The output from the stage too is beautifully judged. Being to one side in the circle, I feared that it would be a slightly disconnected, above-and-to-the-side affair. I needn’t have worried. The band sounded fleshed out, rounded, punchy and articulate. With all of the familiar notes, hooks and melodies easily picked out in the complex layered arrangements – I have been told since that down in the stalls it was not quite as well defined however.
It has to be said that the band is incredibly well rehearsed, tight, using dynamic, tempo and rhythmic shifts to devastating effect. The Beggs bass and Blundell kick drum were defined and didn’t boom, which allowed the other instrumentation to be clearly heard. While still laying down a solid, thick foundation. None more so than on Home Invasion, where the band drops down into a deep funky groove. Adam Holzman cutting loose with a distorted Hammond vibe, reminiscent of Led Zep’s ‘Trampled Underfoot’.
A special mention has to go to Dave Kilminster. I am a great fan of Guthrie’s work live and on both of the most recent albums. But Dave’s searing, full fat Les Paul tone got me right in the heart, it was right on the button for what I like to hear, that white heat kinda tone. Played on its own it was thick, but still articulate with definition, the solos cutting through the band with authority. Lovely.
A short interlude, following the conclusion of Ascendant Here On…, marks the end of the H.C.E. section. Then we’re back in business. And we’re in for a treat. Steven welcomes Mikael Akerfeld of Opeth to the stage to perform Drag Ropes from their Storm Corrosion collaboration. A repetitive drone piece, carried initially by Mikael’s vocal, following some interplay the baton is then passed to Steven’s vocal chant as the mood shifts. The funky bass kicks in and the pace picks up to conclusion. I found the Storm Corrosion album a challenging listen originally, but following this performance, I hope that it serves as the key that unlocks that particular album for me.
Solo-gig staple ‘Index’ is up next with a different treatment to the effected ‘collector’ intro vocal, sung in a lower register than the regular version. We’re then gifted ‘How is your life today?’ from the ‘Tree’s Lightbulb Sun album.
The band rattles through cracking renditions of Lazarus, then my favourite (and Steven’s it seems) Harmony Korine. Followed by the opus that is The Watchmaker, Sleep Together and an audience singalong to Sound of Muzak. A timely reminder that what we have heard tonight should be treasured, in comparison to the mainstream throwaway consumer alternative we are force fed.
The night ends with The Raven that Refused to Sing. It never fails to bring a tear to the eye, an absolutely beautiful composition, delicately played until the final rousing finale and accompanied by Jess Cope’s heartbreaking animated film.
It is fitting that she, along with Lasse Hoile are called to the stage, to receive the crowds standing ‘O’, around 3hrs after the first note was played, to take a bow along with the band and guest performers Ninet and Mikael. A fantastic evening of entertainment, in a venue that seems fitting for the achievements of our host. All performed by a band that must rank, irrespective of current line-up, as one of the very best currently on active duty on the face of this little old rock we call home. Roll on tomorrow…