I’m a bit late to the Steven Wilson show. I don’t mean the show I just saw, I was on time for that, I mean the whole Steven Wilson thing. Twelve months ago I knew him only as the highly respected producer of all those classic prog reissues and as a member of Porcupine Tree, but I hadn’t heard a single note of his own music, solo or with PT.
That changed last March when my old friend Tony Tomkinson, former singer with NWOBHM pioneers Bitches Sin no less, suggested I listen to Deadwing and In Absentia, which I liked and ended up buying. Then a chance discussion in May with another old friend, Steve Arthur, saw us agreeing to get tickets along with friend Mike Caplin for the then recently announced Steven Wilson show in Bristol, and a recommendation that I really must get hold of Hand. Cannot. Erase.
The gig disappeared off into the distance for a while, with eight months between ticket purchase and the show itself. In the meantime I built my knowledge of some of the back catalogue, and iTunes suggests I have played most of those albums ten or eleven times since then.
From being a prolific gig goer in my youth I probably now only see 3 to 5 shows a year. So with a frequency that low, and mostly knowing what I’m going to get, I tend to enjoy them all. There’s a fairly predictable way it goes:- Turn up, time for a pint beforehand, go to show, enjoy show, go home, get on with normal life again afterwards.
This show broke the routine, and not because I managed 1 2/3 pints before the gig (that’s craft beer pubs for you, pints and halves old hat). We’ll come back to how the routine was broken at the end.
Colston Hall, Bristol, not that brilliant but one of the hallowed halls of the UK touring circuit, and pretty much every great band there ever was has played this 1800 seater venue. This gig was one of only five British dates on this the second round of the Hand.Cannot.Erase tour.
The show started with, what I’m told is normal, a video before the band came on to play the opener, First Regret. I was quickly struck by how loud it was (for the Colston) and how incredibly enthusiastic the audience were. In recent years I’ve seen Yes and Ian Anderson here, similar age demographic in the audience, but a lot less energy and a lower volume for the oldies. The audience were undoubtedly here to throw themselves into it and have a good time, and the band were able to return that energy and enthusiasm in spades.
What we got in the next three hours was the whole of the Hand.Cannot.Erase album and a good smattering of SW and PT classics, including Lazarus, Open Car, My Book of Regrets and Index, as well a handful from the new 4 ½ album.
The tightness and skill of the band was hugely impressive. Wilson has picked an absolutely first rate set of individual musicians, and they played together perfectly. I find it hard to believe that a previous member of Kajagoogoo, Nick Beggs, could be the immense talent standing in front of us on bass and Chapman Stick. Fortunately the sarcastic requests from the audience for Kaja’s “Too Shy” were ignored, although I’m sure they’d have made a good fist of it had they tried.
In addition to Beggs we had the mighty Dave Kilminster on guitar, a native Bristolian making his first return for 32 years. The name rang a bell, and the ‘aha’ moment was finding out later that it was he that had stood on top of the wall playing Comfortably Numb on Roger Waters’ mega Wall tours for three years. Adam Holzman, great keyboard work, Craig Blundell excellent on drums all added greatly to the performance, and the cherry on top was probably Ninet Tayeb the Israeli vocalist that guested on four of the songs.
Ninet duetted on the song ‘Routine’ on the H.C.E album, the first song she sang here, and after a slightly nervy first line or two she went on to totally nail it. The sensitivity, emotion and then amazing power of the vocal at the end of the song had a number of grown men in the audience visibly removing a speck of dust from their eyes. This song, and its range of poignancy, subtlety, beauty and then a full on rock out, enhanced by the outstanding musicianship and top drawer sound quality, really epitomised the whole gig up for me.
The encore came and we were treated to a surprise and welcome rendition of Bowie’s Space Oddity with Steven and Ninet sharing vocals for this tribute, followed by the Sound of Muzak before they rounded the night off with Raven.
There was a hell of a lot going on at this show, so much light and shade and such a lot of ‘content’ in the music itself, and this combined with the thought provoking video projections made it an intensive and exhausting night for the audience, let alone the performers. Hats off to Steven Wilson, because the quality of all aspects of the performance and his attention to detail made it really special.
So coming right back to the usual gig routine I mentioned earlier. Big ticks against turning up, pint beforehand, going to the show, enjoying the show and going home. As for the ‘get on with normal life again afterwards’ bit, well something of a fail on that one as I’ve been utterly distracted ever since. I was due to get up at 6am for a train to London the next day but couldn’t sleep so was up at 5.00. All attempts at concentration, doing work or the Sudoku on the train failed miserably as my brain continually tried to rationalise what I had witnessed the night before.
In the days that have followed I’ve regaled at length anyone that will listen (or that just couldn’t get away) about this gig, including friends, workmates and my poor wife and kids. Every SW and PT track I own has been replayed more than once, and I’m still reflecting on the whole experience almost a week later. This wasn’t just a gig, this was an amazing assault on the senses, thought provoking, still a bit confusing in places, and definitely up there somewhere in the top five music based events I’ve experienced over the past 35 years. The mantle has been handed down to Steven Wilson by the previous generation, it’s in good hands and it looks like he’s here for a while.