Steven Wilson – The Power Station, Auckland – 26/10/16

Fucking guitar hero
Steven Wilson

I don’t think I’ve looked forward to a gig this much since like probably, well probably forever. Maybe Metallica in ’88. But unlikely anything else in the last 25+ years. I’ve been a massive, massive, MASSIVE fan of Steven Wilson and pretty much all his side projects since the beginning of Porcupine Tree. I would say that I listen to Steven Wilson and PT as much as I listen to Rush, as much as I listen to Iron Maiden, as much as I listen to anyone really. There’s just so much out there, his back catalogue is huge, and I’m always discovering new things.

This tour is to promote Hand. Cannot. Erase. – easily the best solo album he’s done (to date). I know it back to front, note for note (although I’m never particularly good with lyrics, aside from the odd chorus), I know he’s surrounded himself with a troop of seriously qualified musicians, and I know how good he himself is on stage, so the chances of this being anything less than a magical experience are slim.

The anticipation for this gig, as I’ve had the ticket for 5 months or so, is darn nearly unbearable. Serendipitously, I’ve managed to get myself invited to MS Ignite in Auckland the same week as the gig, so I a) don’t have to pay for a flight or hotel and b) get to stay in a considerably better hotel than if it were coming out of my wallet. It does however mean I have to spend a large portion of the gig day thinking about SQL Server 2016.

The day’s technical sessions at Ignite are really beginning to drag on as the night of the gig draws near. I decide to go and investigate Galbraith’s Alehouse, opposite the venue, so after a 30 minute route march in the drizzle (does it rain every day in Auckland?)  I’m in a very comfortable boozer surrounded by a lot of black t-shirts and long hair, not to mention English accents. Jeez, this place is even more popular than Emerson’s Brewery in goo old Dunedin. There are prog and metal shirts of every descriptions – Yes, Tull, Tool, Cardiacs. I am SO not in Dunedin any more! I don’t remember seeing a support act mentioned anywhere, and I have a sneaky suspicion that Mr Wilson and his merry band of minstrels will take the stage reasonably early (there is NO way I am missing ANY of this) so I opt to swap the luxury of a nice brew pub for the queue to get in. And it is some queue too, right round the block. Any worries I was harbouring that he wasn’t well known enough to attract a decent crowd dissolved into the Auckland mist as the queue grew and grew behind me. I know I am prone to obsessing about crowd size, and I think this was probably born back in the days when I used to go to football (where crowd size is inextricably linked to your team’s finances and thence success). It’s a weird thing, there are many advantages to a poor turnout – smaller queues, easier to get a good vantage point etc but the atmosphere suffers, and I always feel sorry, if not embarrassed for an artist if the room is half empty. As it so often is in Dunedin! As an aside, the crowd is much younger and less male-heavy than I would have expected, which is really encouraging.

swtI’m always hearing about The Power Station on Radio Hauraki, seems to be a fairly popular venue for visiting bands of small-to-mid size (mid in their home market = small in NZ) but once inside (after a brief moment of panic when my home-printed ticket won’t admit me through the door) I realise what a cracker of a place it is. Probably holds a couple of thousand at the most, with a balcony all the way round the main floor, creating a really closed in, intimate feel. The small stage is pretty much full – they have brought a serious fuckload of kit with them. Massive drum kit, Macs on every surface, two synth stations and several stacks of Marshalls. Not to mention the 15 (fifteen!) assorted guitars and basses racked up stage left and stage right. These guys certainly don’t travel light.

I was indeed correct in my assumption that there would be no support, as the lights dim and the breathy synthy intro to First Regret (the album opener) waft over the PA bang on 8.30. And on they wander. There is some fairly flashy visual stuff (bizarre arty film) projected on the back wall, but all eyes are firmly on the five individuals taking their places. Adam Holzman sits at his keyboards and tinkles out the opening piano riff with metronomic precision. It’s so good, if it were anyone else I’d be suspicious that it was sequenced. This bloke used to play with Miles Davis ffs, so he clearly knows a thing or two.

SW and his merry minstrels
Beggs, Blundell, Wilson, Holzman & Kilmister

When the guitar and bass come in I remember how tight, how utterly polished Steven Wilson and any musician he has on stage with him are. I soon realise this is possibly one of the most professional outfits I’ve ever seen. I could be listening to the CD, it’s that faithfully reproduced, but it’s not like watching Coldplay who are soulless automatons by comparison, these blokes are putting a lot into this. A heck of a lot.

I’m mildly disappointed to discover that the other guitarist is not the legendary Guthrie Govan, whom I was really looking forward to seeing. It turns out to be Dave Kilmister, who used to play for Roger Waters, and before the end of the first song I realise that he’s perfectly well qualified to do this…

On bass is a real legend from my childhood. Nick Beggs. Nick Beggs from Kajagoogoo. Nick

Beggs that had the most ridiculous blond haircut (second only to Flock of Seagulls in the ridiculous 80s hairstyles stakes). He still has the long hair, albeit safely tucked out of harm’s way in two plaits. He must be 10 years older than me, but he looks like he’s in his thirties.

The drummer is also a new face (to me) – Craig Blundell. I was expecting Marco Minneman but as I have no idea what he looks like, I’m none the wiser until Steven introduces them all.

The sound in the Power Station is well, appalling. Fine during the lighter bits, but as soon as the bass or anything on the left hand half of the piano was played then it just became a muddy wash of noise. This wasn’t supposed to happen! I managed to improve things by moving forward ever so slowly, until by the end I was only a couple of bodies from the stage.

They stroll through First Regret and 3 Years Older, then Steven stops for a bit of bants, and explains that the first half of the show will be Hand. Cannot. Erase. in its entirety, and in order. Fucking get in. The title track, possibly my favourite thing he’s done, is sublime, but at only 4 minutes is far too short. It’s all sublime though. I can’t even really pick out a highlight from this hour-and-a-bit half of the show, it’s all so good. If I had to choose one moment it would be the extended keyboard solo in Home Invasion / Regret #9. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an amazing keyboard player in action. Holzman is a jazz pianist by trade, so prog rock must be meat and drink to him, but christ on a bike, he absolutely nails this sucker. It’s like watching Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman, but without the pomposity. The already very noisy crowd goes extra mental on the conclusion of his solo, and he turns and cheerfully, humbly acknowledges the appreciation. Legend.

The Chapman virtuoso
Nick Beggs

I’ve never (knowingly) seen the Chapman Stick in action, and I have no idea if Nick Beggs is playing it the conventional way, but he seems to be mostly using the hammer on technique and holding it like a sitar. I’m sure it’s a complicated beast to master, what with all them strings and that, but he does make it look exceedingly simple. I would have to say that he is, with the exception of Geddy Lee and Les Claypool, the finest bass player I’ve ever seen, and I’m a matter of feet away from him.

They finish the album and wander off for a breather (leaving poor Adam to play the outro by himself) and I can only wonder at what’s to come. There is such an incredible amount to choose from, and it’s clear that there are no songs which can’t be reproduced on stage (the spoken word Perfect Life being a perfect example) so we could get absolutely anything. I know he still does a couple of PT numbers but I’m not expecting Radioactive Toy (which would seem almost childishly simple compared to the contemporary stuff).

Act II is just as mesmerising as the first half, and really delves into the archives, more heavily leaning towards PT. We get My Book Of Regrets from 4 1/2 and then Thank You, then Lazarus which he touchingly dedicates to David Bowie. Don’t Hate Me is the oldest one, from way back on Stupid Dream and as a finale they throw in Sleep Together from Fear Of a Blank Planet.

The encore starts with a moving tribute to Bowie (clearly one of Wilson’s heroes) – a very poignant Space Oddity that I’ve probably never heard sung better. Then he dives into The Sound Of Muzak from PT’s In Absentia, for which I now have a new admiration. I’ve never noticed how poppy and hooky it is but hearing it live has now pushed it way up the list of SW favourites. The final effort, and it really is a masterpiece, is the eponymous title track from The Raven That Refused To Sing. Now, I’ve not really noticed how epic this song is, always believing Holy Drinker to be the stand out on the album, but The Raven… is simply a progressive rock masterpiece. What a way to end a near enough perfect gig.

Then it really is good night. This has been near enough a THREE HOUR show, what more can you ask of a band? The very fact that they’ve schlepped over from Australia, with ALL that gear, just to play in front of maybe 1500 people is laudable, and shows what enjoyment they all get out of this. They really do appreciate the reception, and hang about on stage drinking in the applause, filming the crowd and pressing the flesh for a good 5-10 minutes before disappearing backstage.

In my last blog post I suggested that I would be disappointed if this gig didn’t make it into my all time top 10 – what was I worrying about? Obviously things might change a little in the cold light of day, but it’s gone straight in at number 3.

Fan. Fucking. Tastic. Thank you Steven.

One very appreciative crowd
The Power Station crowd

The Top Ten

Before WordPress I had a blog on the photosharing site multiply.com but that mysteriously disappeared without warning (and the domain name has since resurfaced as something else entirely). One of the posts I published was my all time top 10 concerts, I think it might even have sown the seed in my mind for starting this blog, which was initially for gig reviews and little else. Then the gigs got more and more scarce but my appetite for writing stayed healthy so I’ve tried to launch other blogs, but I can never really sustain the same enthusiasm levels as I can when going on about music. So, I am re-hashing blog posts from history now. I know the top 5 probably hasn’t changed since I wrote this the first time (7 years ago maybe?) but maybe the rest has. Who knows.

Here are my top ten gigs in ascending order from 10

10 Hawkwind @ Fairfield Halls, 1989

Difficult to choose a best one of 3 or 4 excellent Hawkwind gigs, but this was the first one. I only knew half of the songs in those days, so a lot of it was a journey of discovery.

9  Datsuns @ The Astoria, 2002

As with #10, the first of several epic performances. They’ve never put in a less than amazing show, but the first time will always be the greatest. One of the very  best live acts on the circuit, even now.

8  Queens Of The Stone Age @ The Forum, 2002

Awesome due to the fact that I only knew the first 3 or 4 tracks off Songs For The Deaf, and the rest of it blew me away completely. I scarcely listen to them any more, which definitely makes this gig the odd one out on this list.

7  Def Leppard @ Brixton Academy, 2003

The very best of big hair and spandex rock, American stylee. The consummate professionals, made me wonder why I’d never seen them before. I’d go and see them again, I really would.

6  Dandy Warhols @ Brixton Academy, 2003

Much better than I expected them to be. I thought they’d be all sloppy and stoned and shit but they are incredibly tight (for a tripped out jam band).

5  Muse @ Big Day Out, 2007

Awesomeness abounds. Hideous environs, awful festival saved by a great performance.

4  Rush @ Wembley Arena, 1992

My heroes. Possibly the best sound I’ve ever heard at Wembley (to put it another way, possibly the only time it hasn’t been shit). They were just so fucking good.

3  Porcupine Tree @ Bloomsbury Theatre, 1999

Reignited a love affair with the works of Steven Wilson that had taken a bit of a back seat while rave happened. There is very little he has ever been involved in that I don’t absolutely adore. I probably listen to his stuff more than Rush or Nada Surf, even.

2  Nada Surf @ ULU, 2003

They taunted me by not playing again in the UK during the 2 1/2 years I lived there after this. Now Matthew Caws lives there and they play there (relatively) regularly and I know I’ll probably never see them again, much as I would like to.

1  Metallica @ Hammersmith Odeon, 1988

Best because of what it meant to me, as well as the fact that Metallica fucking kick ass live. I have since passed up the opportunity to see them in Christchurch, I would definitely see them if they played in Dunedin (as has been rumoured once) but that’s about it. It’s all about the time and the place.

 

The top 3 or 4 are never likely to change (especially not now I live in Dunedin!) but the rest are somewhat fluid and there are a few at the lower reaches of the top ten that might drop out in favour of others, depending on mood, what I’m listening to when you ask me etc etc. NMA hasn’t quite made the cut, neither has Maiden or Sabbath. Oh the fickleness of Aoide (the muse of song, classics nerds)

I haven’t included any electronic acts, as the circumstances in which I saw them make it less easy to be objective about things (i.e. I was trolleyed) but Orbital or Eat Static at Brixton might have made the cut on another day, as might The Orb. If I wrote a list of top 10 most trolleyed gigs then they’d definitely be on it.

I have tickets to see The Cult and Steven Wilson in the next couple of months. I would be very surprised if Astbury & Duffy came anywhere near getting themselves on this list, but I would be mildly disappointed if Steven Wilson doesn’t disturb the order of things. To say I am looking forward to that one is something of an understatement. I’m flying up to Auckland on my own for that one…

Porcupine Tree – 08/11/99 – Scala, London

A considerably less salubrious venue to the last place I had seen PT, The Scala is in the middle of Kings Cross, and possibly the scummiest place to see live music. It’s very small and dark, and the security staff are a little on the zealous side, probably because they are more used to preventing So Solid Crew fans from smuggling firearms into gigs.

Porcupine Tree ticket Nov 1999

I’ve always been mystified by Porcupine Tree’s minimal popularity in the UK, because on the continent they play much larger venues. They are feckin’ huge in Italy for some reason. Anyway, at least I get to see them in poky little dives like The Scala.

The set this time included a few from the forthcoming ‘Lighbulb Sun’, which seemed to be heading PT in an even more poppy direction, in particular ‘Four Chords That Made A Million’. Not a great song really, too poppy for PT. The crowd had been baying for ‘Radioactive Toy’ since about the 3rd song in, and Steven Wilson retorted, jokingly I thought, that he wasn’t going to play it. We waited and waited though, and he still didn’t play it. Perhaps it was going to be the encore. However, as the encores came and went, and didn’t turn out to include ‘Radioactive Toy’, the realisation that he was being serious earlier, hit me and the other 3-400 expectant souls. The bastard. Went down in my estimation ever so slightly as a result of that. Bleeding rock stars and their ‘artistic ideals’. I arsks you.

Porcupine Tree – 10/05/99 – Bloomsbury Theatre

Porcupine Tree ticket May 1999A chance discovery of ‘Stupid Dream’ on a listening post in Virgin got me back into Porcupine Tree. I had lost interest a bit, after seeing them at a blustery festival with crap sound, a couple of years ago, and I had no idea they even had a new record out. Anyway, this album marked a brilliant new direction for them, much more guitar oriented, poppy melodies as opposed to 20 minute Floydian epics about LSD.

Steven Wilson and his cohorts wandered on to the stage at the Bloomsbury Theatre, an upmarket all seated venue holding a thousand at the very most, for a gig billed as ‘A Night With…’ They opened with ‘Even Less’ from the new album, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that I had probably been somewhat hasty in my previous dismissal of their live prowess. With Richard Barbieri (ex Japan) on keyboards, and two very capable session guys on bass and drums, they produced a remarkably full sound, rich and lush. The awesome acoustics in the Bloomsbury Theatre and the incredible precision of the band combined to produce the perfect sound.

Steven Wilson is up there with Dave Gilmour and Alex Lifeson in my book, effortless and so incredibly precise, but more importantly, knowing which notes not to play. He’s also a great live singer, and only really let himself down by wearing shades in the dark. The set was a great mix of old and new, with a good half dozen from ‘Stupid Dream’ (highpoint, the solo at the end of ‘A Smart Kid’), a sublime solo acoustic ‘Nine Cats’, and culminating in a blissful version of the anthemic ‘Radioactive Toy’. The album version is good, but the production on ‘On The Sunday Of Life…’ was a little on the ‘thin’ side. Live, they really beefed it up, Barbieri’s keyboards in particular breathing so much extra into it. Unfortunately it would be the only time I ever heard it live, as shortly thereafter, Wilson somewhat annoyingly decided it had become a millstone round his neck, and flatly refused to play it any more. Bloody prima donna rock stars.

Porcupine Tree – 17/05/97 – Cambridge Strawberry Fair

Very disappointing. One of my favourite bands, never seen them before (they had only just started to play live, after several years as a studio project), so was looking forward to it. It wasn’t a particularly nice day though, and the sound system wasn’t really up to the task. There’s nothing more frustrating than blustery wind whipping the sound around, and because the vast majority of the crowd were stretched out on the grass, it was difficult to get much nearer without treading on fingers and kicking over pints. So, I couldn’t really tell if they were any good or not.