Tag Archives: indie

Steven Wilson at The Warfield

Wilson_portrait_72dpiSteven 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, Wilson_apartment_72dpisetting 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.

Wilson_bow_72dpiFor 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.

The National Up Front

P1000846The National played at the Greek Theater in Berkeley last month supporting their May 2013 release Trouble Will Find Me almost a year after it’s release.  The band were in fine form, driving their slow burning moody compositions to lovely crescendos – punctuating dark passages with horns and carefully placed guitars and keys to enliven the procession.  This American indie band consists of Matt Berninger (lead vocals), twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner (guitars, keys, vocals) and brothers Bryan and Scott Devendork (bass and drums respectively).  I’ve heard their music compared to the likes of Joy Division though their overall sound is completely current, and a bit hard to nail down – lots of downbeat tracks, though so many of them building to a triumphant impression. Matt is a baritone and as such inhabits the sound spectrum at the low end, spilling out his unique lyrics, huddling over his mic, or stalking the stage to accentuate the sound of their work.  This time out, the band backed the volume down during key passages, allowing Matt to be heard clearly and gain additional dynamics in the mix – a clever way to help connect him and the band to the audience.  The show was a wonderful demonstration of their wares – the best yet for this viewer.

P1000851Tracks selected weighed heavily on their most current release, along with a handful from High Violet (2010), and a small selection from both Boxer (2007) and Alligator (2005).  Near the end of the main set, they included a nice rendition of the track “About Today” from the Cherry Tree EP (2004).

Of special note this time out was their lighting and backdrops which alternated between evocative psychedelic projections, and slightly obscured video of band members as they performed.  These visuals reflected the mystique of their music and added interest to the live experience.

P1000870In these pages I most often write about “progressive rock” and similar sounds that tend towards the more esoteric side of the musical spectrum.  The National, though firmly in the “indie” or “alternative rock” genre, still inhabit a part of that adventurous territory where thoughtful lyrics, creative compositions, blends of acoustic and electric instruments and strange-but-beautiful music that builds on dark themes live. THis is one of a few bands where a brooding baritone can inspire an entire crowd to sing along joyfully to a mournful song.  A highly recommended experience.


Appendix: Complete Set List:

Don’t Swallow the Cap (Trouble Will Find Me)
I Should Live in Salt (Trouble Will Find Me)
Bloodbuzz Ohio (High Violet)
Demons (Trouble Will Find Me)
Sea of Love (Trouble Will Find Me)
Hard to Find (Trouble Will Find Me)
Afraid of Everyone (High Violet)
Squalor Victoria (Boxer)
I Need My Girl (Trouble Will Find Me)
This is the Last Time (Trouble Will Find Me)
Santa Clara (Boxer)
All the Wine (Alligator)
Abel (Alligator)
Slow Show (Boxer)
Pink Rabbits (Trouble Will Find Me)
England (High Violet)
Graceless (Trouble Will Find Me)
About Today (Cherry Tree)
Fake Empire (Boxer)

Ada (Boxer)
Mr. November (Alligator)
Terrible Love (High Violet)
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks (acoustic) (High Violet)

I saw more than a few tears during this final encore – also the last track on High Violet.  The band all came up to the front of the stage and played this soulful ditty in an acoustic, heartfelt rendition – a perfect ending to a beautiful night.