When will Adelaide become an automatic fixture on ‘Australian tour’ schedules for all overseas acts?
As yet another example of what has become a regular occurrence when travelling eastward to see performances by artists who have left South Australia off their schedule, Steven Wilson’s Melbourne show on Saturday night had more than its fair share of travel weary Adelaideans in the theatre foyer, as well as seated in the row behind mine, who had made the trek east to experience the epic three hour live show that Wilson had taken across the world earlier in the year and had now brought to Australia for just three eastern seaboard performances.
Once again, South Australians had been denied the opportunity to see one of the most consistently innovative and brilliant live artists in the world play in our neck of the woods. Surely it is time this situation must come to an end!
Whilst I have now been privileged to attend shows on three of Steven Wilson’s Australian tours, and each time come away mightily impressed at the fine balance he achieves and maintains between emotional delicacy and brute power across a three-hour show, it would be fair to say, that this latest show, whilst containing many exhilarating highs, was not without flaw – something it pains this career long acolyte to have to concede.
The show began superbly enough though, immediately zeroing in on two of the strongest tracks from Wilson’s latest album, To The Bone, to start proceedings. Nowhere Now, with its thrilling Pete Townsend-esque guitar chords, and the evocative Pariah – unfortunately without a live appearance from guest vocalist, Ninet Tayeb, whose vocals were mixed in via pre-recorded sound and vision – seemed to have set the mood perfectly.
These two opening songs also affirmed that the high quality live sound mix upon which Wilson prides himself was clearly in evidence.
Every band member quickly established their impressive musical credentials, and their immediately finely drilled musical interplay was a sign that great things would inevitably follow.
Wilson’s band consists of some exceptional players. Long serving bassist, Nicholas Beggs, was in great form, as was his partner in rhythm, Craig Blundell, who has obviously continued Wilson’s impressive run of finding astonishingly innovative drummers to underpin his complex, multi-sectioned aural landscapes. New guitarist, Alex Hutchings, also added wonderful unexpected and original textural layers to the songs and proved himself a welcome addition to the band’s overall sound. Adam Holzman, son of legendary Elektra label owner Zac Holzman, also provided many delicately delivered intricate piano runs, and some beautifully rendered washes of aural colour from his bank of keyboards.
Visually, too, the show was hypnotically fascinating due to its extensive use of short films specifically commissioned from film makers, Jess Cope and Lasse Hoile, which complimented each of the songs.
Where the show hit an unexpected off note, however, was in Wilson’s heavy handed attempt at stage management of his audience, declaring when and how we should sit or stand, or react, to the performance. As it turned out, the sequence of songs was not consistent with his ‘sit in the first half, stand in the second’ directive at all, and a number of people initially did as they were ordered only to sit out some of the longer jazz inflected ‘suites’ included in the latter stages of the show, as they also did for the ‘miserable’ music (Steven Wilson’s own choice of descriptor!) chosen for the final encore. His strange borderline dictatorial instructions confounded audience expectations and people were subsequently led to expect more of his recent ‘accessible’ numbers than were to actually materialise in the eighteen tunes that made up the three hour show, and this created a perceived imbalance in the songs chosen for the show and how they had been sequenced.
It did not help matters that Wilson also complained about suffering jet lag and that the journey to Australia was such a long one and that was why he toured here so irregularly – and making us all feel like we were an imposition to be endured was hardly the sort of stage patter that endears a performer to an audience.
However, setting aside sequencing issues, and ignoring the negative stage patter, what we got to hear was a generous cross section of seven songs from the latest album, the best of which, apart from the opening double act, were a storming version of The Same Asylum As Before, the polarising pop confection of Permanating, and the intensely impressive Detonation.
Very few selections from Hand. Cannot. Erase. were offered, which was a shame for new fans who would not have seen the songs from this exquisite album performed on the 2016 tour, but we did get to hear that album’s sprawling wonder, Home Invasion / Regret #9 and the incessant primal rhythm of its penultimate track, Ancestral, delivered in an extended display of sonic power, as some compensation.
Single song nods to earlier solo releases such as Vermillioncore, from the mini album 4 ½, and the show closer, the affecting title track from The Raven That Refused To Sing, were certainly a treat for fans, but it was the inclusion of a number of Porcupine Tree songs in the set that brought about the biggest cheers.
The Creator Has A Mastertape, Arriving Somewhere But Not Here (although the lyrics were temporarily forgotten), Heart Attack In A Layby, The Sound Of Muzak, and the always wonderful ballad, Lazarus, certainly served to remind us that Wilson’s back catalogue is rich in magnificent music that all too rarely gets a live airing these days.
Many long-term fans had feared that the release of To The Bone last year signified the end of Wilson’s much loved tendency to compose lengthy jazz-prog pieces and would serve as an introduction to a more accessible, but ultimately less interesting pop-oriented sound, and many who attended this Melbourne show would have possibly expected a ‘Wilson-lite’ performance as a result.
What they actually got, however, was a confirmation that Steven Wilson thankfully, still refuses to compromise his musical vision and a declaration that he intends to continue steering his course towards creating soundscapes that challenge and delight – and occasionally perplex – his audience.
If there had been less stage patter – particularly as it seems he had nothing overly positive to say – this show would have been high among the most enjoyable and musically expressive and impressive performances I have seen this year.
It’s pity some moments left a sour taste in my mouth – and that I had to spend two days driving there and back to see the show!
There is no doubt however, that on Wilson’s next Australian tour – hopefully when an Adelaide show is announced – I will quickly be in the queue to grab a ticket again, because the positive aspects of his live shows most certainly outweigh the few negatives I have noted here.
Steven Wilson and his band performed at The Palais, Melbourne on Saturday 10 November 2018.
Photo credit: Jose Sanchez