Concert Review Archive

 

Steven Wilson

Monday, 4th March 2013
Royal Festival Hall, London, the UK

Article By Jez Rowden

How does Wilson do it? What do people find so engaging in his music that they don't appear to get in other music from the same ballpark? A packed house gathered in the plush setting of the RFH to worship at the altar of Steven Wilson and along with a number of usual suspects and familiar faces from the great prog not-so-massive, seemingly millions of young people and those who looked like they wouldn't attend a show like this if their very lives depended upon it turned out. Remarkable; I suspect that there's a thesis in all this for someone. Why do most gigs from the "unorthodox" end of the spectrum struggle to draw in more than three men and a dog for much more reasonably priced tickets while so many fall over themselves to get a seat for Steven Wilson? But I digress...

On this occasion rather than gnashing my teeth at the lack of interest there was enthusiasm in abundance tonight, the hush of the audience during the quiet bits and the lack of a forest of held aloft 'phones testament to the mesmeric quality of the show that Steven and his band put on. In light of this and the fact that I also wanted to enjoy the evening rather than just struggle to keep Nick Beggs flailing hair in focus, I didn't attempt to take any pics to go with this review (Gold Star from Steven Wilson in the post I hope).

This band, for a band this most certainly now is rather than the super-skilled collective of hired talent I witnessed at Shepherd's Bush 18 months or so ago, has the aura of a settled group all over it. The only change in lineup is Guthrie Govan (Aristocrats and ex-Asia) covering the guitar and I for one am glad he got the gig as he adds so much more than his shredder reputation suggests. He can play thousands of notes in the blinking of an eye if Steven Wilson requires it but is not a one trick pony and his playing throughout was suitable, tasteful and bang on the money for me; his extraordinary solo at the end of Drive Home being a case in point, his sole contribution that could be categorised as stunt guitar coming during the encore, but more of that later.

As for the rest of the band, they were spread across the nice and big RFH stage with plenty of space to present the music in just the way it required. The back line consisted of the human octopus drummer [add superlative here] Marco Minnemann, jazz keyboardist of phenomenal touch Adam Holzman and Mr. Class and Quality Theo Travis whose sax, clarinet and flute adds to any setting in which he is asked to play. Prog bass God Nick Beggs played a blinder forward and to the right of Minnemann with Govan in front and between Holzman and Travis, the centre stage reserved for the man himself, the guy without whom we wouldn't be here tonight, the hardest working man in prog, Hemel Hempstead's favourite son (no doubt soon to be immortalized in more than life-sized bronze outside the town hall), etc. Steven Wilson, looking as he always does, barefooted, lank of hair and bespectacled. Wilson led from the front in fine voice and with slabs of guitar supporting Govan's more dextrous lead lines. Beggs appeared to be supplying the backing vocals alone but you couldn't help but get the impression that the harmonies were synthetically augmented. Great use of technology whatever was happening and it didn't spoil my enjoyment anyway.

The presentation involved a huge screen behind the band upon which before the show the moon image of the latest album, The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) came and went behind rolling clouds, faces appearing on it, varying and evolving, accompanied by suitably ethereal soundscapes, culminating with the album cover image as the show started. This was a much more engaging prelude than that of the 2011 show which just didn't do enough and became tedious after half an hour. Also noticeable, the gauze across the front of the stage was not present to start with, only making a brief appearance during a couple of numbers later in the set. This was a good move as it allowed the band to interact with the audience from the start, the barrier being more acceptable when it finally appeared. In 2011 it stayed in place for far too long from the start and in my mind led to a distancing of band from audience. Not so tonight, the atmosphere was warm and supportive from the start, expectation almost crackling through the air.

Bang on 8pm the house lights dimmed and the band, led by Minnemman, drifted onto the stage in darkness, his staccato beats to opener Luminol, the kick-ass first track from The Raven... jumpstarting the evening, Beggs bass immediately marked out as a thing of wonder. As expected the band was drilled to perfection but with a space and fluidity to the playing that made it so much more intense than just another clinical reading of the boss's tunes. Right from the start the set opened out into an enthralling performance of some quite wonderful pieces, every one of the players worthy of your full attention.

Confession time: due to a schoolboy error on the ordering front (the result of a failed attempt to buy a copy on release day in my town due to the sad demise of most of the music emporiums), I went to the gig almost blind to the new album, other than the title track on YouTube and barring a quick listen to a friend's copy in the car on the way to the gig I hadn't heard any of the material, but Luminol immediately jumped out at me as a great opener and so it proved. The opening triumvirate of the first three tracks from The Raven... (the whole album was played, spaced throughout the set) could have been a struggle with so little experience of the tracks but it didn't matter one bit, the pieces unfolding around Wilson's usual Tolkien-esque lyrical slant. Joke Steven, JOKE! I know that JRR's work on serial killers is marginal at best. This is a reference to Steven Wilson's clearly articulated narked-ness as to said comment on Amazon relating to the new album - read and enjoy the comment of 27th February 2013 in all its gob-smacking inaccuracy Here.

Although I think it may have been slightly less theatrical than the 2011 show, the pacing and presentation was spot on. After the thumping opener Wilson sat and played acoustic for Drive Home and stated his relief at getting through The Pin Drop as it was written with the higher register voice of Nick Harper in mind. I love Nick's work and apparently a recorded version of him singing the song exists which I would dearly love to hear. The first dip into Grace For Drowning was next with the delicate Postcard which was followed by a delicious reading of The Holy Drinker which initially gave us the unusual sight of Steven Wilson prowling the stage playing bass like a man possessed while Beggs stood to the side with hands behind his back. Picking his moment he strolled to his equipment rack and deployed the Chapman Stick to devastatingly destructive effect. The last time I heard a bass sound resembling this was when Trey Gunn laid waste to Shepherd's Bush on the last U.K. date by King Crimson in 2000. Despite the power and depth of the sound the intricate details of Minnemann, Holzman and particularly Travis shone through with a clarity that couldn't be beaten and was just what the music required. The acoustics of the RFH are just fantastic and the band managed to hit all the right peaks and spikes of power without exploding anyone's eardrums.

Deform To Form A Star was next, Holzman performing a laid back solo before picking out the piano intro beautifully, the song expanding with a floatingly epic quality and some fine guitar from Govan, and then the gauze screen was lowered across the front of the stage for an intro video to The Watchmaker which, as the band left the stage, saw the surround sound speakers at the back of the auditorium fully fired up to give an effect similar in tone to the surround sound clocks of Pink Floyd's Time; very effective. The song itself is a marvellous amalgamation of styles and sections and played behind the gauze with the video in front of the band gave the show a theatrical lift. This effect continued into Index, the unsettling subject matter conveyed well via the accompanying video, a back-lit Wilson pulling all kinds of shadowy shapes on the screen.

With the screen removed again Steven Wilson began a discussion with the audience regarding serial killers and how the U.K. has the best ones before introducing a song about one of his favourite U.S. examples, Raider II, which was, as with the 2011 show, one of the highlights of a hugely entertaining set, Theo blowing up a storm in what develops into a thundering jazz-rock monster, his flute clearly heard throughout even the densest sections, Minnemann and Beggs more than earning their money pounding in particularly effective style; Wilson at his most KCrimson-esque.

A foray back to Wilson's first solo album proper, 2008's Insurgentes began with the wistful title track before Harmony Korine; well done but mainly highlighting the way that Wilson's work has developed over the intervening albums and sounding almost primitive in comparison. Nice to hear nonetheless. The twinkly intro to No Part Of Me was next, the fiddlyness of this one played with style by all, Minnemann clinically thrashing around like only he can and Travis taking over at Wilson's desk-like keys setup at the front of the stage to start before returning to his sax, Wilson sitting to sing the emotive lyrics then strapping on guitar for the end section. Throughout this show Steven Wilson was more engaging and animated than I've ever seen him previously either solo or with Porcupine Tree, seeming to spend more time just singing or playing guitar with less attention given to keyboards or conducting.

The finale of the set came in a wonderful rendition of the title track to The Raven..., the familiar video played in full on the screen behind the band who added so much, the song just growing in stature before our eyes and culminating in a wonderful finale to the show proper, first and last tracks of the set neatly bookended by the opener and closer from The Raven....

A standing ovation and so to the more than well deserved encore, Wilson saying how they'd tried a couple of things and this was the one they felt worked best: early Porcupine Tree classic and proto-solo work, Radioactive Toy. Apparently rehearsal time had been deliberately kept to a minimum on this one and there was more of a looseness than in the rest of the show which benefited the song, a real blast from the past that gave Guthrie a chance to really show what he is capable of in an exemplary display of controlled technique coupled with emotional power.

At the end and as previously, Wilson introduced the players to the audience to take their bows individually as their names together with a caricature appeared on the screen behind them. A nice touch and individual attention that each of the players concerned merited.

A truly wonderful show underlining Wilson's position as a figurehead and leading light of modern rock music in general, be it deemed by the majority of his listeners to be progressive in nature or not. Whoever it is that makes up the bulk of his fans these days, they left happy to the taped strains of Storm Corrosion's Ljudet Innan. I wonder how many of the faithful here tonight snapped that up and enjoyed it to the same degree as PT or his solo work!

My only quibble: the gauze screen could have been ironed prior to use.

Not really a biggy is it!

Setlist
Luminol
Drive Home
The Pin Drop
Postcard
The Holy Drinker
Deform to Form a Star
The Watchmaker
Index
Insurgentes
Harmony Korine
No Part of Me
Raider II
The Raven That Refused to Sing

Radioactive Toy

Links
Steven Wilson Official Website

DPRP's Review of Steven Wilson's "The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)"
DPRP's Review of Steven Wilson's "Grace For Drowning"
DPRP's Review of Steven Wilson's "Insurgentes"

Royal Festival Hall

 


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