There’s never been any debate over the fact that English new-prog, Pink-Floyd-meets-metal band Porcupine Tree is Steven Wilson, in both part and in whole. While comprised of a core set of musicians that have contributed to the writing, recording, and touring of the many records forged over its career, Porcupine Tree started as a project for Wilson alone to craft music; in fact, at its very beginning, it was a made-up legendary rock band with its own fake history and discography that Wilson had penned with a colleague back in the late 1980s. Twenty years later, Wilson has put his primary project on a shelf (Porcupine Tree has been on hiatus since 2010) and shifted the attention to his own “solo work”. Lest the reader shy away from the often-wary prospect of a frontman deciding to carve out his own path, Wilson’s output has been nothing short of spectacular, now spanning the length of four albums which demonstrate a remarkable leap in creativity, songwriting, and production with each successive release. Hot off the heels of his recently-released Hand. Cannot. Erase., Wilson returned to the Bay Area on Sunday night for a live performance with his new touring band, and the result was a gorgeous, stunning display of musicianship and sonic texture that shook the walls of the Warfield for over two hours.
Rather than the usual standing-room-only arrangements that have been the norm for his previous tours, tonight’s show saw the audience seated and able to savor the music without worry of fatigue or thrashing bodies, and to take in the full spectacle that was the live performance. Always one to pair the visual with his audio, Wilson and his band performed in front of a massive LED screen which played back video and animations for many songs of the set, all the while being bathed in a dozen blazing lights which swept, pulsed, and strobed their way through each piece. Without the distraction of crowding or uncomfortableness, it added another level to the performance, allowing a deeper level of immersion into the full set that may not have been possible otherwise.
Despite being the auteur and namesake of the concert, Wilson was not by any means constantly the center of attention; guitarist Dave Kilminster spent the majority of the evening within the spotlight, conjuring up the dazzling solos and leads that drove each piece, and bassist Nick Beggs offered both a solid rhythm section (paired with newcomer Craig Blundell on drums) and a glorious harmony on backing vocals, further enriching the vivid texture of the performance. Wilson remarked at one point that he was, by far, at the end of the race in terms of musicianship, and the amusing self-slight was accepted gracefully and with many cheers from the audience.
As his fourth album had only been released a few months prior, Wilson’s set was almost entirely comprised of tracks from Hand. Cannot. Erase., in the order they appeared on the record. Interspersed between the new songs were many old favorites, a few from his earlier solo work (“Index”, “Harmony Korine”) and even some classic Porcupine Tree favorites (“Lazarus”, “Sleep Together”) which got the crowd roaring its approval. Following the monstrosity that was “Ancestral” / “Happy Returns”, the whisper-to-a-thunderstorm-to-a-resolution climax of Hand. Cannot. Erase., the band departed briefly, and a curtain fell across the front of the stage, allowing the band to perform their first encore while casting eerie shadows upon the white surface of their veil. Wilson and his band thus closed the evening with songs from his third record, The Raven That Refused To Sing (with the eerie, dark “Sleep Together” sandwiched between), and took long, graceful bows in acknowledgement of the wild, insane applause and celebration that greeted the end of the evening.
While I have seen Porcupine Tree four times prior (one of which I wrote about), Steven Wilson has taken his own live show to an entirely new level that I was absolutely astonished to see. Though he is definitely the conductor of his show, he graciously bowed and proffered the helm of his live-music flagship to each of his bandmates throughout the course of each song, and the balance between the men onstage was amazingly prominent in every note they played. The visuals alternate between accompanying visual stimuli and stories unto their own, and at no time is it difficult to shift one’s attention from one to the other (or lose anything in the show by doing so, either), making the entire performance a welcome assault on the senses. As time goes on, one can hope that Wilson and his live band will be able to expand their numbers to offer an even richer music palate, but make no mistake: their live show is easily one of the most mesmerizing and synaesthesic that one can see today.
Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2015 Jonathan Pirro.