Live Review: Steven Wilson Brings Prog Majesty at London ‘Homecoming’ Show (October 20th, 2013)

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That Steven Wilson gets to call a show held at London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall his “homecoming” show says a lot about the status he has gained over his long existence as a recording artist. The reputable theatre, which can seat upwards of six thousand people, is declared sold out on the day of the show — though, from my viewpoint, there were seats in the uppermost level still available — a feat that one might expect of multi-platinum groups like The Killers, whose Royal Albert Hall show is playing on TV screens in the theatre’s box office, but not Wilson. It’s not that he isn’t popular; It’s tough to argue against his stature as the progressive rock icon. Rather, it’s hard to imagine anyone selling out a theatre so large purveying in the kind of music that Wilson does.

His shows as a solo artist, beginning with the Grace for Drowning tour, begin with long projection films backed by ambient music, which Wilson writes himself under the Bass Communion moniker. Dark, disturbing visuals pervade the remainder of the show, courtesy of frequent collaborator Lasse Hoile. And then, of course, there’s the music itself, which is so indulgent, ornate, and instrumentally prodigious that at the concert’s end, Wilson does not dare to call it by name; he refers to it only as the “p-word.” But with The Raven that Refused to Sing, his third solo record, it’s a label that’s impossible to avoid, and there’s no point in dancing around it: prog. Lots of prog.

2008’s Insurgentes, his official solo debut, gave a strong indication that Steven Wilson the Solo Artist would not be indulging in the excesses of prog that is often the case with Porcupine Tree, still his most popular project today. That album’s sonic tapestry is all over the place, spanning ambient, drone, art pop, and post-punk. Over time, however, Wilson has gone back to the well initially filled by legends like King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and Yes. Raven is easily the most “prog” thing Wilson has recorded, and he used every aspect of Royal Albert Hall’s grand stage to magnify his already formidable sound.

In any major city in the United States, this concert would have had a line wrapping around the theatre, full of people sporting Porcupine Tree, No-Man, Anathema, Opeth, and Katatonia shirts, talking about their favorite Wilson albums until the doors open. There is still plenty of the latter, but fortunately, with all spots in the Hall being seated, no one has any reason to wait anxiously outside. Instead, people begin funneling in close to the door opening time of 6:45, and an attentive eye no doubt catches a few famous faces amidst the throng. As I stand in line for guest list tickets, I hear the man in front of me tell the woman, “Steve Hackett.” I look up and, sure enough, there is Steve Hackett. Being not that knowledgeable about Genesis — not to mention not wanting to come off like an absolute fanboy in the box office — I remain calmly in line, but, undoubtedly, there are a few people holding a great deal of excitement in the man’s presence.

The Royal Albert Hall does what any large venue should do: require guests to enter the theatre based on a door number that puts the spectator proximal to his seat. After wrapping my way around the circular building to my door, I see an overeager mass of fans converging around the merch table in hopes of procuring one of the limited edition (two words that send every Wilson fan into a craze) t-shirts designed specifically for this show. Recalling a conversation with my PopMatters colleague Colin McGuire some months ago, wherein we discussed the absurd costs of concert-going in the present day, I laugh a little as I entertain the notion of paying forty dollars for a t-shirt (25 GBP is a lot more daunting in my native US dollars, which for all intents and purposes is Monopoly money in the UK), and decide to take my seat instead of conquering my way to the front of the line. The shirts sell out not long after the music begins.

The house lights fade to darkness just after 7:30, the time the tickets list the show as beginning. A film begins playing against the backstage drape. In it, various passersby walk past a random street corner, which goes on for quite awhile — until the man enters the picture. I guess that the man wearing a long black coat, black pants, a black hat, and a scarf covering most of his face is Wilson, but for much of the video he does very little; he drinks from a cup, tunes the guitar he carries with him, and stares at the people walking by and not noticing him. Then, stunningly, he finally starts playing the guitar, and what should come through the speakers but “Trains,” the Porcupine Tree classic that has a reputation for being the go-to encore for that band. As the man on the screen starts the song, out comes Wilson, acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, playing the song. As it turns out, the pre-show projection isn’t just pretentious, arty cinema; we’re really supposed to pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

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The choice of “Trains” is a curious one, though its explanation is obvious. The last time Wilson played the Royal Albert Hall was in October 2010, when he and the rest of Porcupine Tree performed a special, “one night only” type affair that simultaneously affirmed the band’s position atop the global progressive rock scene and offered the fans an in-depth career retrospective to sate their appetites leading into the group’s now three-year hiatus. “Trains” was the encore at that concert, and in playing it as a brief solo acoustic piece, Wilson reminds the audience of what’s been moved on from; and, as Nick Beggs (bass), Theo Travis (clarinet/saxophone/flute), Guthrie Govan (guitar), Adam Holzman (keyboards), and Chad Wackerman (drums) take to the stage, the transition to the way things will be going forward becomes clear. The Porcupine Tree show at Royal Albert Hall, Wilson tells the audience, “Felt like the end of a chapter, if not a definitive one.” In contrast, this event feels “like a beginning.” To tease the audience with a Porcupine Tree song only to remind them that the group’s status is undoubtedly disappointing to some of the audience, but one has to give Wilson credit where it’s due: he’s sticking to his guns and, as the subsequent performance attests, he does it remarkably well.

Raven gets the best treatment out of any of Wilson’s three studio LPs, with five out of its six songs getting a moment to shine on the stage. Grace for Drowning gets represented by four tracks, and Insurgentes — this writer’s favorite of the lot — gets a paltry one, the dutifully performed “Harmony Korine.” That number is one of the few short pieces in the setlist (“I don’t really do short,” Wilson self-deprecates in between songs), joined by the gorgeous melancholy of “Postcard,” the Blackfield-esque “Drive Home,” and the pulsating industrial of “Index.” The latter was a highlight the first time I saw Wilson and this band perform on the Grace for Drowning tour in Seattle, and its dark energy hasn’t lost any of its bite. (Through a distorted microphone, Wilson describes the main character of the song as “fucked up.”) Wilson the jam musician is certainly interesting, but I’ve always been interested more in his dark, experimental side, which Insurgentes and many sections of Grace for Drowning captured.

Wilson does indulge that preference of mine, however, by premiering a new song (tentatively titled “Wreckage”) that, while compositionally in line with the epics of Raven, is driven by a dark mood that differentiates it from the old-school prog of the new record in a noticeable way. Wilson tells the audience that the song is a work in progress, which is evident to my ears, given the extensive ad-libbing and soloing by the rest of the performers that takes up the bulk of the track. He’s fortunate that he’s playing with people as versatile as the guys surrounding him; Travis, a longtime collaborator with Wilson, deftly switches back and forth between flute, clarinet, and saxophone throughout the setlist, and even takes to Wilson’s “mini-piano” (a wooden, piano-looking stand that houses a keyboard inside it) for Raven’s title cut. Govan is the archetype of a progressive rock guitarist, and even has a sense of humor about it; he and Wilson run through a collection of guitar sounds they’ve given names such as “Lonely Swede,” “Lonely Swede lost in the forest,” and, perhaps most memorably, “Lonely Swede lost in the forest after losing his wife and kids and being chased by a rabid troll.” (Whether or not these titles are inspired by Wilson’s close friend and collaborator Mikael Akerfeldt of Opeth is unclear, though it wouldn’t be surprising.) Beggs, like Travis, changes instruments throughout, trading in his bass guitar for a Chapman stick when the song calls for it. Drummer Chad Wackerman lends a jazzy pair of drum-wielding hands that skillfully maintain the rhythm amidst the madness, an important quality to have on tracks like “Luminol,” the first song of the set following “Trains.”

The real ace in the hole amidst this group, however, is Holzman, whose keyboards get blessed with many of Raven’s best melodic lines, such as the piano part leading into the second half of “The Watchmaker.” He also gives the prog-hungry audience an exceptionally healthy dose of Mellotron, an instrument that Wilson is well known for indulging in. He takes the time to let the audience know that it’s the fiftieth anniversary of the instrument, and, if nothing else, Wilson and the band are successful in filling the room with a loving tribute to a cornerstone of the vintage progressive rock sound that Wilson has become particularly enamored with as of late.

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But, fortunately, for the large crowd at the show, that isn’t all. The Royal Albert Hall gets as good a fill of Wilson’s music as one could expect, and, unsurprisingly, the quality of the instrumentation is unassailable. This marks the 100th show performed by Wilson with this band, and it is clear that the significance of this event is not lost on them. “Let’s really explore the space,” Wilson says to the guys as they take to the stage for the encore, an appropriately doomy take on the Porcupine Tree standard “Radioactive Toy.” The ten-plus minute encore encapsulates everything there is to say about the direction Wilson appears to be headed for his future musical ventures. Atmospheric, bold, and even a little psychedelic, “Radioactive Toy” — written when Porcupine Tree was just Wilson working alone — is a things-coming-full-circle moment for the Wilson devotees in the audience. To watch an artist mature in the way he has is a truly rare occurrence, and while I’m generally less keen on the prog noodling that takes up a lot of Raven, I am nonetheless entirely satisfied as the group exits the stage. While “Radioactive Toy” is a fine send-off, what leaves the biggest impression on me is Raven’s gorgeous, piano-led title track. Its climactic moment is equal parts Coldplay and Edgar Allen Poe, a mix that may sound strange in reading (let’s remember Chris Martin’s “eloquent” thoughts on death: “Those who dead/Are not dead/They’re just living in my head”), but, of course, Wilson rarely gravitates towards normality. “Strange” is high praise in the man’s mind.

Everyone’s tickets read “Steven Wilson and special guests,” yet as the house lights come up, it’s probably dawning on people that there were no cameos on stage. I realized this as I walked toward the backstage, where a large group of people is headed to the after-show gathering. My inner question is shortly answered as my eye catches some of the notable people mixed in with the press and fans walking to the downstairs bar where the after-show is held. Included amongst the crowd are Tim Bowness (the other half of No-Man), Carl Glover (frequent collaborator for album photography), and Michael Bearpark (No-Man live guitarist) — these being just a few of the many people waiting to meet Wilson and the band. A good deal of Wilson’s own family, including his mother, is also present, which leads him to becoming something of a human pinball, bouncing back and forth between old friends, longtime fans, and fellow musicians. Having spoken with Wilson earlier this year over the phone for an interview with PopMatters, I wanted to introduce myself in person, and I’m lucky enough to catch him for just a moment. I’ve heard many a story about Wilson’s kind spirit from other music writers, a fact I can attest to despite the briefness of our conversation. Despite having played over two hours of immensely difficult music, he is still content to greet as many people as he could.

In the end, though, the importance of the show being a homecoming is the predominant thought on Wilson’s mind. As I begin to leave the crowded bar, I hear him say, “I have to go find my Mum…” For a guy sitting on the top of his musical world, who has spent much of this year travelling the world, he’s still elated to be back home.

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Set List

1. Intro (Film)
2. Trains (Solo Acoustic)
3. Luminol
4. Postcard
5. The Holy Drinker
6. Drive Home
7. Wreckage (Unreleased) (Tentative title)

Intermission

8. Watchmaker Film (with Bass Communion backing music)
9. The Watchmaker
10. Index
11. Sectarian
12. Harmony Korine
13. Raider II (Abridged)
14. The Raven that Refused to Sing

Encore

15. Radioactive Toy

Outro

16. Film (with Bass Communion backing music)

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