NOVEMBER 17th 2018

Review by Lucia Caithcart

Full disclosure: I'm an unapologetic music snob. After four decades of attending concerts by performers spanning a myriad of genres, I've become just slightly jaded enough to recognize when entertainers are so mired under by their own formula that they clearly could not be bothered to offer their fans anything more than a dialed-in, 75-minute, going-through-the-motions session of predictable fluff – and then have the audacity to charge you over $150 for the honour of their presence. Such is NOT the case with Steven Wilson. But let me back up a bit; Wilson is not an entertainer – he's an artist – and therein lies the disparity between Steven and pretty much every chart-topper in the business. He's not there to simply entertain you; his mission is to take you on an emotional and sensory journey.

Flying into Spokane on a frightfully chilly Saturday afternoon, one might wonder why a couple of Vancouverites such as my husband and myself would go to the extra expense to see the man again, considering we just caught his set in our fair (yet inauspiciously drenched!) city two days earlier. I should tell you, Spokane was our fourth 2018 outing to see SW after two unforgettable May dates in Seattle and Portland, plus the aforementioned VanCity stand (including an astonishingly brilliant 5 1/2-song soundcheck before the show, replete with the artist's trademark sardonic wit... and rock 'n' roll slippers). Slamming down the MasterCard for one final go of the year just seemed like the right thing to do, and it was plastic well spent.

Strolling into the historic Bing Crosby Theater was a treat in itself. The charming 750-seater allowed the perfect intimate setting for the master to wield his craft. It's always a beautiful gift to witness a great band performing on a small stage with no barricade in between the performers and their adoring audience, and despite the large number of self-entitled patrons positioning their bodies (and iPhones) in front of those of us took the time and money to ensure excellent seats (seriously, some people don't get out much), we did manage to work it out and plant ourselves in the spots that allowed unobstructed views. Sometimes you just have to play the game to win.

As has been the underlying theme with Wilson's 2017 album, To the Bone, the first set of the night began with a short video introduction aimed to gauge the audience's reaction to images based on the topic of truth, or the lack thereof. Without trying to trample on the Vancouver review, it's interesting to note that the largely introverted and observational Canadian response was vastly different to the loud reactionary cheers and boos of the U.S. crowd – not that I'm judging or anything, but it's no less a sign of the times than any political press conference I've watched over the past couple of years, and perhaps that was the intent. 

Any sense of discomfort was quickly wiped away with the slightly more optimistic notes of “Nowhere Now,” and the tone was set for an evening of wall-to-wall musicality from Wilson and his crack four-piece band. Next up, we were offered the most heart-wrenching of break-up songs (sit down, Adele, this is not about you), “Pariah.” Without the benefit of Israeli chanteuse Ninet Tayeb in attendance to provide the counter vocal, the singer's video image was projected on a large screen at the back of the stage, and timed to perfection. For those who have never attended a Steven Wilson show, here's a good point in the program to inform you that the man has spared no expense when it comes to including top-grade visuals into the sets. With long-time collaborators Lasse Hoile and Jess Cope providing stunning video storylines, holographic effects (that don't involve unwelcome resurrections of dead entertainers), and stylistically superior animation techniques to each concert, one might think  these extras would take the audience's attention away from the band and onto the video screen. Think again. The visual assets enhance the experience, as does the inclusion of quadrophonic sound. So think about this: you are not only facing the onslaught of jaw-dropping musical talent and wondrous video, but you are also getting hit by the brilliance of crystal clear sound from all points in the room. Even if you payed just over $30 for a seat in the back of the building, you're still getting the full experience.

But back to the set list. When you see Steven acquire that Fender five-string bass, it's a cue for the goosebumps on your forearms to surface and every hair follicle on your body to stand on end because you know he's ready to launch into the epic prog-fest known as “Home Invasion/Regret #9.” Seriously, if you have no idea as to the effect of this song pairing in a live setting (featuring adept key work by Miles Davis' former music director, Adam Holzman, and some fine fret work from new guy, Alex Hutchings, tackling the high bar set by Guthrie Govan on the recorded version), I suggest you pick up his 2015 album Hand.Cannot.Erase., and get yourself a sweater. This was followed by an equally mindbending track from Porcupine Tree's 2002 release In Absentia, “The Creator Has a Mastertape,” featuring a veritable drum clinic by Craig Blundell (who, by the way, caught a very nasty cold traversing time zones somewhere between Auckland and Vancouver – although you'd never know it by the way he was hitting). Slowing down the frenzy, we were presented with the aching sadness of “Refuge” (allowing onlookers to be reduced to tears... I'm not crying, YOU'RE crying!), before working the limits of Wilson's falsetto on “Same Asylum as Before” (Prince is this dude's idol, so it's no surprise he'd test out this direction, and successfully, I might add). The final song of the first set was capped with the glorious 13-minute-plus track, “Ancestral,” before tapping out for a well-earned 20-minute intermission.

The start to Set #2 was no less impressive, with the band members' subtle brandishing of shakers to ring in the opening strains of “Arriving Somewhere But Not Here.” Within this song, there is the line, “Ever thought from here on in your life begins and all you knew was wrong?” I consider it an epiphany, and it has informed the way I've approached music since discovering this artist. But more on how I feel later. Next up was Steven's introduction to the his unabashed love for pop music (as he would tell you, “GOOD pop music. Not Justin Bieber... or Justin Timberlake... or anybody else named Justin...”), “Permanating.” When discussing his admiration for the pop music of The Beatles or ABBA, he pointed out that only one person on the stage has written a #1 pop song, and it wasn't himself (referring to his ridiculously talented bassist and Chapman Stick guru Nick Beggs, formerly of Kajagoogoo fame). It was an invitation for the crowd to disco dance, and I'm pretty sure we all obliged... for better or worse.

The dance session was succeeded by the smouldering obsession of “Song of I” (contributing to Steven's hope of putting on that “sexy rock 'n' roll show”), followed by the introspective tones of “Lazarus,” the chilling subject matter of “Detonation, the melancholy of “Heartattack in a Layby,” the slamming instrumental “Vermillioncore,” and capped off with the in-the-zone darkness of “Sleep Together” (a live track which I always point out as the greatest example of Steven's genuine ability to drag an audience into a point of sheer emotional release).

As the encore lights rose, the demiurge could be spotted lugging his 1963 Telecaster Custom along with a small Hughes & Kettner tube amp onto the stage. On this, he performed a “busker” version of “Even Less,” in which he succinctly pointed out that he was NOT covering a Porcupine Tree song, but he was, in fact, playing a song which HE wrote, that was performed by Porcupine Tree. Do not, I repeat, DO... NOT... EVER... tell the man he is covering his own songs! As it should be noted, the first batch of PT's albums were entirely recorded by one man, and one man only... so don't even go there! This encore was finalized by SW's take on the demise of musicality known as “The Sound of Muzak,” followed by the beautiful sadness and despair of “The Raven That Refused to Sing.” And that was all. Three magnificent hours, and it was over.

When people ask me why I love Steven's music so much, it comes down to one thing only: he makes you feel. Actually, he forces you to feel. If you listen closely, and you pay attention to the diversity of everything he does, you have no choice but to experience something that you cannot precisely put into words. I've tried to do that here, but you won't fully understand until you go see him for yourself. You can watch dozens upon dozens of his videos to get an idea, but you won't know anything until you buy a ticket and you get inside that room. Do yourself a favour and get yourself out to one of his concerts if you can. You'll thank me later. Unless, of course, you decide you have to travel to go see more than one of his shows, in which case you'll shake your fist at me because you will be in financial ruin. You're welcome.