Porcupine Tree, 26th November 2002
The Knitting Factory, Hollywood, CA, USA

By Cary Coatney


I've been itching to see these guys for a quite some time.

The last two times Porcupine Tree were in Los Angeles, I was too busy or out of town on comic book industry related business. I'm glad to see that this time our schedules were able to coincide with each other- because from this day forward I vow never to miss any of their shows ever again. You have my solemn word to anyone reading this.

My deep dark love affair with this band began with how one would call "a chance encounter" back in 1996 during one of the first few ever Los Angeles Progfests. Some folks from Ark 21 records were there to pass out sampler cassettes of their upcoming releases. One side had this early Police demo recording and the other side had a Porcupine Tree song called Waiting Part One and Part Two. I remember that also during this show, I developed mutual trysts with the Flower Kings, Spock's Beard, and Arena, thereby forcing my hand and a lot of departed cash towards their CDs. I took home a lot of CDs and tapes with me that night and I only managed to find time to listen to them only once. A lot of tapes I received were mostly from bands handing out demos in a hopeful gamble that they would return to their native country with a major American record deal- so it could have been that this half Porcupine Tree sampler tape got lost in the shuffle or was played in my tapedeck when I was only paying half attention or served as background music while I was busy writing other comic book related nonsense.

Later that same year, I vaguely remember scouring the ARK 21 offices which is only a few blocks from my house. I was there applying for a job (which I didn't get) and as I was leaving, the receptionist gave me a promo copy of the Signify album either because she thought I was cute or felt sorry that I didn't get the gig. Hands down, it was probably the latter. But for some odd reason, I put that demo in with the rest of the mountain pile of freebies I managed to accumulate. Some of those freebies still lie dormant in their shrinkwrap till this very day.

An old friend of mine whose subjugated mind I quickly corrupted with mid-eighties proggy sounds of Marillion and IQ finally got one over on me while we were driving around one hot August day in the San Fernando Valley. He was trying to get me to listen to Radiohead on his car stereo. I've been trying to avoid Radiohead for the obvious fact that they were too well known and probably too chic with the college drinking culture of whom I've long ago severed ties with (a mistake that I would later on rectify with the release of Kid A). As we were cruising, I asked my buddy if this was Radiohead he was playing. He flashed back this baffling look of despair as if I was dropkicked from the glass planet of Marbleheadworld and scoffed at me with this exasperated exclamation of; 'what, are you freaking nuts? This is Porcupine Tree. I thought you knew everything about english Prog bands?' I gave him the same look back, but as we were comparing wrinkled foreheaded stares (as tough guys weened on 52 episodes of The Sopranos testosterone often do), I found myself liking- no, let me reiterate that; not liking,- but instantly falling in love with whatever I was hearing: a staccato stabbing piano motif later accompanied by a searing guitar wail- the beginnings of a nominal psychodelic rock love affair entitled Piano Lessons. To this day that song still epitomizes the ultimate rock lyric ever devised by man, which goes like this: I come in value packs of ten/ In five varities. I didn't understand what the tongue in cheek reference meant, but I did know it was an instant classic in my collection of the best of in progressive rock lyrical cliches.

Upon further listening, I finally broke the silence and said to my friend, 'dude, you gotta burn me a copy of this.' The deal was worked out to if only I was held hostage to listen to Radiohead's OK Computer - which wasn't as bad as I imagined it to be, but I couldn't get that Piano Lessons track out of my head. I instantly wanted to drive myself daft with immediate repeat listenings. We hung out at his pad and as he was burning a copy of Stupid Dream, he suggested that he also burn a copy of Signify for me- because in his opinion it was much more a darker album and more up my alley. He pulled out his copy of the CD and my jaw literally dropped. Upon seeing the cover, I suddenly realized that I had forgotten that I had one of their albums in my possession all this time- simply passing them off as some banal three chord playing pop band.

To make up for lost time, it was back to back listenings of both Signify and Stupid Dream for what felt like eons, that I became a witless Steven Wilson fanatic, eagerly devouring each new release that came out starting with Lightbulb Sun, Recordings, the two disc compilation, Stars Die, all the way to their new major label release, In Absentia, filled in with a few back catalogue titles thrown in during gaps of those releases. Another surprise I found in my possession was Fish's Sunsets on Empire; an album made in collaboration with Steve Wilson. All this time and I never fully made the connection.

So it is with great pleasure to share with most of the European readers of this site, the final show of their American stop over. The tour that was offically declared by Steve on stage as "the proper" In Absentia tour.

This also marked my first visit to the Knitting Factory venue and I hope that I do get around to catching another show here. Tucked away in a newly built but already decrepit decaying and vacated strip mall along Hollywood Blvd and just beneath a megaplex cinema house there within lies two separate stages - you have to walk around a aluminium sided hallway and through the main bar in order to get to your designated stage area. Along the corridor of the hallway, there is a cyber cafe where one can stop and check for e-mails.

Once settled and a generous amount of Amstel Light later, everyone politely applauded LA local stick player Greg Howard through a half hour set consisting of Beatles and Bob Dylan covers. Then the house lights dimmed down and a long droning bass sound emitted from the house sound system. A projection of some negative film image stablized itself at the rear of the stage. At first, I couldn't make out the image, but I would soon find out later when the band walked on stage- but, what the hell, guessing games are too far and between to pass up. Was the image a carbon dated mutated preschooler Thanksgiving turkey handprint, a rejected Rorschach test ink blot, or a horrid looking photostated facsimile of Tony Blair's pockmarked puss? I thought I was on to something there on that last one, but the droning went on, and on, and on, and my mind eventually wandered on to other things. I evasdropped on some people in the crowd talking about their trip to a Marillion weekend convention and I tried to drill as much information as I could from them, even as that incessant long drone increased in volume. Then before anyone knew it, the band emerged on stage with the rabid sneak attack of Blackest Eyes. The image that kept my mind occupied for at least a quarter of an hour turned out to be a double side to side negative enlargement of the In Absentia album cover.

The wait was finally over and my curiosity of how this band would look and sound was completely sated.

The band launched into several cuts from the new album, seven to be exact; and with John Wesley providing the back up vocals and guitar, his side man assistance was precisely in sync with the studio recording as evident when the opening number segued into The Sound of Muzak. After that was over, the grand master of ceremonies, Steven Wilson said some hellos and briefed us on what to expect for the rest of the evening. Last time they were here, they merely previewed a couple of tracks from the In Absentia album. Now with the album finally released, Steven assured us that a lot of it would be played tonight. Without further ado, keyboard player Richard Barbieri (looking like a ragged Haight Ashbury acid dropping guru professor championing his way through a massive take no prisoners barfight while stopping on his way to bribe Austin Powers' costume department into renting a London sixties Mod style jacket and spectacles)navigated his way through the gothic choral progression of Gravity Eyelids. Another glorious moment resulted in this number sounding slightly different from the album version. Chalk it up to the sound engineer whose name escapes me, but Steve thanked him for the mix later on in the show.

Steven Wilson is surely not what I expected. With straight shoulder length reddish hair constantly flopping over his Lennon inspired sunglasses and garbed in a all black outfit, I got the impression that he more resembled a Jerry Cornell progeny hell bent on a technological nervous breakdown- or a wild illegitimate amalgamated offspring forged between Todd Rundgren and Robert Fripp. Steven focuses himself in delivering well thought out guitar passages imbued with foot pedaled effects. Lots of effects. But unlike Fripp, who bolts from the stage like a wounded deer every time someone pulls out a Kodak instantmatic flash camera (I don't know, maybe the reason why Fripp is so paranoid with people taking his picture on stage is because he lost stock in Eastman/Kodak?), Wilson puts aside his electronic babbled idiosyncrasies long enough to display a interactive fun side. After a lengthy serving of Stupid Dream's Even Less and A Slave Called Shiver it's revealed that Steve does exhibit a working knowledge of the comic book and film entertainment industry. Something we both seem to have in common.

Or so I thought.

Steve asked those in attendance if anyone had the chance to see the television show, Birds of Prey. For those not in the know about American TV shows, Birds of Prey is based on the crime fighting exploits of a wheelchair bound Batgirl, a teen aged Black Canary, and a super powered young woman named the Huntress who in contrary to belief is supposed to be the love child of both Batman and Catwoman. Go figure- the show's already on the cancellation block, but a instrumental track from the new album, entitled Wedding Nails surfaced on the second episode's final act. Since the show is made by Warner Bros, it's a no-brainer as to why it was selected since they also happens to own the band's new label. Steve described the feeling for the song he wrote to be selected for a television show as being "surreal" since he penned it in mind as 'a soundtrack to a confrontation between Catwoman and Aquaman.'

My immediate gut reaction?

What the f#@k?

Now not to sound too indignant, but I think perhaps Steve should have done his research before making that blanket holed statement. I've been a avid comic book reader for close to thirty-five years and a writer in the genre for nearly ten, and I can attest to the fact that Aquaman and Catwomen never came within a three thousand mile radius of each other. First of all, cats abhor the very concept of water and since Aquaman hails from the waterlogged city of Atlantis, he can't remain on the surface for very long without his body needing to replenished by his natural habitat. So there would have been no plausible way on Arthur Treacher's gravestone that Catwoman and Aquaman could have gotten together and taken in a flick or a quick bite at a neighboring Fish & Chips shoppe.

With that being said, the song thundered along nicely and immediately after we were treated to a couple of numbers off the Lightbulb Sun album most notably, Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before it is Recycled and the CSN & Y inspired Shesmovedon. After getting those numbers squared away, Steve again took the mic and volunteered the audience to contribute to what they felt was the most offensive shirt worn in the club tonight. A few voted for either A Flock of Seagulls or Ron Jeremy (fellow gargantuan male porn star/director and regularly seen about town celebrity, although thank goodness he wasn't at this venue tonight), but in the end Steve declared one of his guitar technicans to be the most horrendous offender as he walked briefly onstage with a Hawaiian shirt that had every member of Kiss silkscreened on it. This amusing bit of banter provided the set up for the Gunnar stylings of Colin Edwin whose fretless bass reverberated the recognizable rhythmic pitter patterings of Hatesong.

The main set was heading for its' inevitable conclusion with more songs selected from the new album. Heartattack in A Layby clinched the deal in making John Wesley a permanent sideman. His duo vocal duties interspersed with Wilson's made me take special notice of my least favorite track off the new album and made it into a highlight of the entire set. I also heard this echoed amongst those on the Yes message boards that this was indeed the song that got them the most praise when opening for them. Then it was on to the hyper strobe laser light and wacky slideshow emporium treatment for both the Nine Inch Nails lifted The Creator Has A Mastertape and the heavy metal guitar garnishment of Strip The Soul that had new drummer Gavin Harrison pounding the skins away like a seasoned pro. I wish I was around to make comparsions to Chris Maitland, but being this was my first exposure to a Porcupine Tree concert, I'm probably better off confident saying that I wouldn't have noticed the difference anyway.

I was out for a cigarette break while the band came back on stage and performed the only number off the Signify album, Waiting. I think I entered just as Steve plucked away at the final two guitar notes and then the band immaculately switched to my favorite instrumental from the Stupid Dream album, Tinto Brass and that was it.

I didn't wait around for after the show to say thanks to the band or to get any albums autographed as I had to get up early for work the next morning. I simply purchased a t-shirt and picked up a few free stickers (Darn, I missed out on free sampler CDs.).

And so there you have it, my first Porcupine Tree concert. I hope those of you out there had fun reliving this experience with me and please make sure to pick up the new album, In Absentia next month. Although you lucky sods get an extra bonus disc, we yanks got to hear the album first.

Setlist:

Blackest Eyes
The Sound of Muzak
Gravity Eyelids
Even Less
A Slave Called Shiver
Wedding Nails
Last Chance To Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled
Shesmovedon
Hatesong
Heartattack in A Layby
The Creator Has A Mastertape
Strip the Soul

Waiting
Tinto Brass

 

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