I had no plans for this tour until I was contacted by an old associate, who had a spare ticket and not wanting it to go to waste, offered me the chance to come along to this show. Not one to pass up the opportunity to see a live show, I accepted gratefully!
Steven Wilson’s tour posters market him as ‘the most successful British artist you have never heard of’; that’s not quite true in my case as I certainly know OF him, but I only have a passing familiarity with his work. He has made numerous albums across many projects but is best known as the founder member of Porcupine Tree, the band for whom the term ‘cult following’ was probably invented! After ten studio albums, at least as many live albums and six EPs, Wilson began to release material under his own name in 2008 and ultimately put Porcupine Tree ‘on hiatus’ in 2010. The chances of the band reconvening recede with each passing year, to the disappointment of many of their fans, but for this tour (supporting current album ‘To The Bone’), Wilson has thrown those fans a bone. He has included a few old Porcupine Tree numbers in the live set and for this show (as well as a recent performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall) he invited his old bandmate Richard Barbieri to open the show.
The Bridgewater Hall is a modern classical hall, it is the current home of Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra and hosts a range of music events, both classical and rock/pop. A light, airy atmosphere and comfortable seats made this one of the better places I’ve been to in that city to watch any concert. Just after 7:30 a grey-haired figure strolled onto the stage and positioned himself behind an array of keyboards, including a vintage analogue synthesiser and also an Apple Macbook, something you often see on a stage with musical acts of many styles. This was Richard Barbieri, who was warmly greeted by the still-filling auditorium. He performed a short set of ambient, instrumental music, frequently flitting between the different bits of kit. He spoke only briefly between these passages; joking that his set was short because ‘I blew Steve off the stage the other night at the Royal Albert Hall’ (!) Then came a treat: a reworked, instrumental version of ‘Ghosts’ (a top five hit for his previous band, Japan way back in 1982) which was carefully built up using all the equipment at his disposal. That was enthusiastically received, as was the final number. To huge cheers, Steven Wilson joined him as the two performed Porcupine Tree’s ‘Buying New Soul’. Wilson flubbed a lyric line halfway through, which was laughed off by the audience but later on, during Wilson’s own set, he said he felt the need to apologise to his old colleague for that. In truth, those PT die-hards who were in the audience were just happy to see these two perform together once again.
The turnaround was quite short before the lights dimmed for the main act; before the set started a short film played, projected onto a barely-discernible gauze screen positioned in front of the stage. The film (‘Truth’) was a rapidly-changing succession of images with a single word caption, which got progressively more disturbing before looping, with the same pictures with a different caption. It sped up until the band struck up and the film stopped abruptly with the first powerchord. Opening with ‘To The Bone’ that was followed up by ‘Pariah’, where the gauze screen came into use once more as an image of singer Ninet Tayeb appeared for her vocal parts. Those two numbers already had this crowd eating out of Wilson’s hand, and he announced that tonight’s set would differ from the previous evening’s one (‘last night was consummate professionalism, tonight won’t be!’, he joked) To that end, although there was a lot of material from the current album he also performed several from 2015’s ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase.’ Probably the highest of highlights from the first part of the show was ‘Routine’; a typically melancholic progressive number, it was accompanied by its claymation video shown on the big screen behind the performers. This film depicts a housewife alone in her home, doing housework and preparing meals for a family which is unseen throughout. Only towards the end does a newspaper clip reveal a headline that reads ‘Father and Two Sons Killed In School Shooting’. The impact of that is jaw-dropping, in my view the most emotionally powerful moment of the show.
The ‘big prog workout’ of this set came with ‘Ancestral’, which showcased pretty much everyone including guitarist Alex Hutchings, keyboardist Adam Holzman and bassist/Chapman Stick player Nick Beggs. Wilson has always surrounded himself with top-drawer players and although the absence for this tour of regular guitar player Guthrie Govan disappointed some of his long-term followers, current player Alex Hutchings gave a terrific performance. Wilson himself took some lead solos, though he would often change between instruments, sometimes even during the same song! He played bass on ‘Home Invasion’, coming to the front of the stage to get the crowd going during that number.
For the second set, out came the Porcupine Tree covers to the delight of the old fans, pockets of which were easily identified by their cheers at the recognition of anything from that band. Wilson prefaced his ‘pop song’ (‘Permanating’) with a lengthy speech first of all asking the audience what name should he give his guitar (in this case, a rather road-worn Fender Telecaster) – the cheer for ‘Ermintrude’ sealed it, as he remarked that this audience was ‘so predictable!’ before going into a bit of a tirade about the reaction from ‘a minority’ about ‘Permanating’. He shouldn’t need to justify himself but spent so long doing so (adding that although he admitted much of his stuff was ‘saddening’, that doesn’t mean he should only write songs in that vein for ever) that his speech lasted longer than the song itself! The song went over well of course, but perhaps he should have taken a leaf from Freddie Mercury’s book, who (when introducing a song from his band Queen’s then-controversial ‘Hot Space’ album) famously remarked ‘It’s only a bloody record, people get so excited about these things!’
For the encore, he and Adam Holzman performed as a duo before he brought the band back on (introducing Beggs as ‘Sir Nicholas Beggs’) to play their final number ‘Song of Unborn’, with another striking visual accompaniment on the screen.
Steven Wilson has remarked in interviews that although he has a loyal audience, he does find it irritating that his music is virtually ignored by the mass media. He’s far from alone in that but with this last album he has made a conscious effort to become more accessible while still offering depth to his songs. With the album charting highly on release, he has managed to make some inroads towards reaching a bigger audience. The dates for this run of shows sold out rapidly, so although the masses may still have ‘never heard of’ him there are plenty who have, and they are growing. It’s to be hoped that he doesn’t become the sole ‘outsider’ artist it’s ‘ok to like’ in the same way that rock bands such as the Foo Fighters or Metallica have, that is they pack arenas out but play to an audience that isn’t necessarily into their style of music; it’s an ‘event to be seen at’. Steven Wilson will definitely step up to larger venues than these next time around (if he wants to); I just hope he can pave the way for other equally talented but similarly snubbed musicians to follow in his wake.