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Saturday, 24 March 2018

A View From The Back Of The Room: Steven Wilson (Live Review By Paul)

Steven Wilson, St David’s Hall, Cardiff

Heard the one about the capacity venue, the seated audience and the frustrated rock star? Well, that’s how this played out on another evening of superb musicianship in Cardiff. Wilson has carved a niche in recent years as the most successful artist you’ve never heard of, but in these circles, he’s more widely known as a multi-instrumentalist workaholic who produces some fantastic music. His 2017 release To The Bone, which soared close to the No.1 spot in the album charts and which saw a rather cringeworthy interview on the BBC Breakfast sofa, featured heavily in the set with eight tracks aired.

If you’ve seen Steven Wilson (8) live before you’ll know that this is always a polished show. Long-time supporting musicians Nick Beggs (bass), Craig Blundell (drums) and keyboard player Adam Holzman were joined on this tour by Bristol based guitarist Alex Hutchings (no relation or resemblance to my youngest son of same name) whose fretwork was of the high standard that we've come to expect from Wilson on such tours. An impressive light show, stunning visuals, a hologram of Ninet Tayeb during Pariah, and sound of crystal clarity all provided an experience and an event rather than just a routine gig.

Wilson loves to challenge his audience. A huge chunk of the set featured works from his previous Porcupine Tree career, including a solo encore of Even Less, (from Stupid Dream - Nerd Ed) which featured Wilson, his new Fender Telecaster (not yet named and not so new, given it was a 1963 model) and a practice amp. This meant that much of his catalogue of solo work was shelved for this tour, which was disappointing but you can’t win them all. The new material was impressive, and settled nicely alongside the more established songs. A pleasingly aggressive Home Invasion and Regret #9 from Hand. Cannot. Erase were highlights and hit hard and early in the set. This was preceded by the inevitable Wilson rant about seated venues, which has been a constant theme on his last few tours. There is a problem here. Wilson clearly wants to play the rock star, riffing it up in a sweaty club with audience participation unrestrained and off the chart. Yet he delivers the type of music which demands acoustics of the highest clarity, regularly lasts more than twice the length of a typical song and attracts an audience who can’t always stand for long periods of time. 

Whilst he does, to a point, rage against the seated venue, he is in danger of becoming a little tiresome in this regard whilst it raises the question of which venues would be suitable. I wouldn’t want to see Wilson in the echo chamber of the Motorpoint, the Tramshed whilst intimate would struggle and the O2 Academy and Motion in Bristol probably don’t have the acoustics required. Encouraging inappropriate shouting out threatened to derail a few of the more intimate parts of the show. His demand for disco dancing during Permanating did at least demonstrate that white men can’t dance but injected humour amidst the usual darker material but he’s at a point in his career where he can surely dictate how he wants to deliver his shows?

As for the evening, well, divided into two sets with a smashing encore of The Raven That Refused To Sing, which always gets the tears welling up, we got two and a half hours of pure quality music, hard, heavy, soft, light, delicate and often perfect. But something was missing from Wilson’s enthusiasm and whilst you couldn’t identify exactly what it was, this was a slightly subdued and angry Wilson. It didn’t detract from the overall performance, but as I exited into the crisp night air, I reflected that this might be a watershed moment for one of the UK’s most fabulous musicians.

Editor's Note: Apologies to Paul for jumping in here but as he alluded to in his review but as huge Porcupine Tree fan I liked the inclusion of Creator Has A Mastertape, Lazarus, Sound Of Muzak and Arriving Somewhere But Not Here in the set but like Paul I thought that the exclusion of Steven Wilson solo songs deterred a little. I suggest a compromise tour seated venues as the SW solo band for the more artistic intricate performances and reform Porcupine Tree to play a couple of big standing heavy rocki shows a year where he can indulge in the rockstar ideal. Just an idea yes but it may stop some of the difficulties of set list choices next time.  

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