Steven Wilson @ The Bridgewater Hall
About 12 years ago I saw a couple of “rock” gigs at the Bridgewater Hall, BB King and John Mayall, and those two occasions convinced me that this was not that sort of music venue. Classical and acoustic music, definitely. Rock, definitely not.
So it was with a heavy heart and a degree of reluctance that I went to see Steven Wilson. He, and his previous band Porcupine Tree, have been amongst my favourite artists of the past 20 years. His latest album Hand. Cannot. Erase. is an oral feast with an interesting underlying view on society and cities in the modern internet driven age.
The big thing about Wilson's gigs is the audio/visual experience and behind the stage is a large LED screen on which the videos are projected. Without the band on stage there is a projection of pigeons, grass blowing, tower blocks and motorways - typical inner-city scenes to the sound of children playing and the lights in the hall slowly dim. A tape of the first track from the new album, First Regret starts to play and gets louder as the video concentrates the viewer on a series of windows in a block of flats as the evening light fades and the lights in the windows go on and off. A dramatic scene setter for the band to come on stage to with them launching into a powerful version of 3 Years Older.
The majority of the music this evening is taken from Wilson’s new album Hand. Cannot. Erase. and before the title track he asks the audience to behave in a drunken disorderly manner as they are a rock 'n' roll band…..sort of!
The performance of the band, in particular ultra-shredder Guthrie Govan on guitar and Adam Holzman keyboards is just astounding, as is his rhythm section of Nick Beggs on bass and Marco Minnemann on drums. Although the use of the word rhythm is somewhat restrictive considering the important part they play, especially the lead bass playing of Beggs.
In Perfect Life the delicate voice of Katherine Jenkins talking was completely obliterated by the power of the music and the way the drums and bass bounced around the hall. Interestingly Beggs high-pitched backing vocals cut through in the second half of the song.
For Routine Wilson had wanted to bring Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb out on tour but she had just had a baby so this was not possible. Another option considered was giving Nick Beggs a certain operation to raise his voice but his wife objected. The last option was to use a bit of Apple tech to bring her voice, along with the beautiful voice of choir boy Leo Blair (son of the certain Tony Blair), into the song. The track was also Wilson’s favourite song on the album so he didn't want to drop it. There was a stunning animation to go along with this song about loneliness and routine, which was really brought home with the headline in a newspaper "father and two sons killed in school shooting".
A new version of the song Index from the Grace For Drowning album was performed and fitted in interestingly with the H.C.E. concept. Sadly the bass and drums reverberated so badly around the venue it spoilt the power and majesty that this song commands.
Back to the new album for Home Invasion, which saw Wilson on bass and Beggs on keyboards. Wilson clearly immersed in his music as he moved around the stage barefoot, the Pink Floyd influence coming through clearly here. A mesmerising projection to back the song slowly moving into the eye of the model revealing the model again and into that eye and so forth, complemented by another awesome guitar solo from Govan.
Wilson explained that his songs have a recurring theme, many of these having cropped up again on H.C.E. so he delved into his back catalogue to revisit pieces that may fit in with the feel of the show. He admitted he doesn't write many short songs but he is particularly proud of Lazarus, and the performance was fairly faithful to the original on the Porcupine Tree album Deadwing. Harmony Korine from Insurgentes meanwhile took on a renewed heaviness.
A performance that was interesting and thought-provoking with powerful projections providing a deep and meaningful concept and message.
Wilson is most definitely the master of proceedings and more comfortable in his role as a solo artist as he wanders around the stage barefoot almost jamming with his colleagues and rarely playing solos. This is in complete contrast to his time with Porcupine Tree and his enjoyment shines through.
One thing I did pick up on was the young woman in the video projections was constantly smoking, she must've smoked what seemed like 100 cigarettes during the show. Is this really associated with isolation and loneliness and trying to erase something which isn't there? What did get a big cheer from the crowd was the T-shirt she was wearing – “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, and she also wore Joy Divisions sound waves T-shirt too.
At the end of Ascendant Here On… the band left the stage and a silkscreen dropped down at the front of the stage to mark the beginning of The Watchmaker projection. An old man's face, the sound of time ticking and after a few minutes the band returned to perform that song from The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) and live it had a very Genesis feel. The silkscreen remained up for another PT song, Sleep Together from Fear Of A Dead Planet, which again was very powerful. The screen providing an interesting barrier between the audience and the band.
For the encore the band played the beautiful and melancholy The Raven That Refused To Sing, the video to the song being projected in the background.
And sadly that marked the end of the show. A performance that was interesting and thought-provoking with powerful projections providing a deep and meaningful concept and message. It was just a shame the sound was not so great at times.
Words: Anthony Firmin