Steven Wilson brought his latest tour to the Warfield Theater in San Francisco on June 14, 2015. This is the second time I’ve seen him at that venue – the first being with his band Porcupine Tree on their last tour. Each solo outing from Steven and his band has been an increasingly intense, powerful experience. On this night, while retaining all the darker, melancholic aspects of prior visits, the whole seemed a bit brighter, owing to the more modern, accessible nature of this latest album, Hand. Cannot. Erase. (2015). This new work is a concept album that fictionalizes the true story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a young woman found dead in her London apartment, undiscovered and not missed by anyone for over 2 years. The subject matter anchored an evening of dramatic, inspirational and at times emotionally overwhelming musical theater.
For those of you in Europe and the U.K., this tour is coming your way from 12-July through 9-February 2016. On the strength of the San Francisco show, we will be attending again at the Royal Albert Hall on 29-September. It’s a spectacular, stunning night of music and theater, not to be missed. Spoiler alert: read on only if you are fine knowing details of the show before attending!
Steven and his concert production team are adept at staging his work live, setting the mood with long dissonant ambient sounds, muted lighting and surrealistic imagery. This night began with an introductory film focusing on the cold exterior of a non-descript apartment building, setting the tone for the themes of urban loneliness and isolation from Hand. Cannot Erase. The band took the stage to perform all the songs on the new album save one, with just a few added tracks: “Index” from Grace For Drowning (2011), “Lazarus” from Porcupine Tree’s, Deadwing (2005), and “Harmony Korine” from Steven’s first solo album Insurgentes (2009). These songs resonated with the themes of his new record, as the liner notes confirm. That his new work would be featured, and form the core of the set, was expected and welcome.
Gritty, surrealistic films from directors Lasse Holie, Jess Cope, and Yousef Nassar accompanied the music and were a highlight of the show. The film for “Regret #9” was a standout, with its animated tale of mundane moments in the protagonist’s daily life. Lighting techniques were clever and colorful. Sound was crisp and clear, reproduced by the top-notch audio system in surround sound. Yet, the primary focus remained the band members demonstrating their skills throughout. There were complex rhythms and solos from lead guitar player Dave Kilminster, electronic textures and brisk synth leads from keyboard player Adam Holzman, and a deep, thunderous bottom end from Nick Beggs on basses, and skilled drummer Craig Blundell. Despite a jibe that he is the “weak link” in the otherwise excellent display of musicianship, Steven delivered his poetic lyrics throughout in fine voice, alternating skillfully between guitar, bass, keys and samples, including evocative spoken word loops from Ninet Tayeb. He displayed his wit and thoughtfulness between tracks as lead raconteur. These elements combined to make up a masterful core set.
Prior to the first of two encores, a silver translucent curtain was dropped across the front of the stage. Additional projections were shown and for a time, the band played behind this curtain, their frames casting shadows falling in front and behind, creating a mysterious visual effect. The first encores “The Watchmaker” from The Raven That Refused to Sing (2013) and “Sleep Together” from Porcupine Tree’s Fear of A Blank Planet), were followed by a final encore, the beautiful title track from The Raven That Refused to Sing, ending the show in a stunning display of craft, verve and virtuosity.
Most of Steven’s solo work veers toward unrelentingly dark and sad subjects and matching tonality. After the song “Perfect Life,” Steven summed it up best: “This music is superficially miserable, but actually I’ve always found that kind of music very uplifting and being very beautiful going right back to my teenage years … it makes you feel good. I’m not quite sure how that works as I’m not a psychologist but I’ve always found that to be the case. There’s something about shared human experience that when you hear something really sad, melancholic, depressing, angry, then implicitly I think you understand that we are not alone in the world, that there is someone else that feels the same way we do – and let’s focus on that.” Made me reflect on how true that’s been of my own tastes in music and the profound impact it’s had on my life.
For the uninitiated, when it comes to assessing your interest, note that while Stephen is very often associated with progressive rock and it’s 1970’s era practitioners, his sound is very much of today, and his influences are diverse. Follow Steven’s ongoing re-mastering work as engineer-for-hire, and the names of early inspirations will be apparent. At one point in the show Steven acknowledged his audience was more than “middle aged men in Pink Floyd t-shirts” (even though they’re great!) and that his influences go beyond 70’s conceptual rock. Before launching into “Harmony Korine,” he name-checked some of these artists from the 80’s and 90’s. “The music of my teenage years was the music of the 80’s and I still love this music … there is a lot of [it] in my DNA and I’m not talking about just the mainstream bands, I’m talking about Kate Bush, Talking Heads, and also a bunch of other bands that were only there if you sought them out. Artists like Sonic Youth, XTC, Cocteau Twins and … a musical genre called shoegazing music which came at the end of the late 80’s, into the start of the 90’s – bands like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Chapterhouse… it’s a specific sound that I absolutely loved and still love to this day and it’s in my music somewhere.”
Indeed, there are many influences that have been fused and evolved into something utterly unique by this multi-talented musician. I can’t think of another artist I’ve seen over these now forty years with a more accomplished, expressive body of work and ability to present it with the highest standards in concert. Treat yourself to a heavy dose by catching the band on this tour.