Monday, October 21, 2013

Victorian values: Steven Wilson - live at the Royal Albert Hall

© Simon Poulter 2003
The Royal Albert Hall holds a special place in the heart of What Would David Bowie Do? For it is within this giant Victorian wedding cake that yours truly began his "career" at the cutting edge of rock writing.

February 19th, 1985, to be precise, in the company of Phil Collins and his 'Hot Tub Club' and on behalf of that august organ of record, the New Musical Express. Yes, I know: enough to have Nick Kent, Tony Parsons, Julie Burchill and the other angry young scribes of punk fold up their tents.

28 years on, it is with a tremendous sense of occasion that WWDBD? finds itself trotting up the steps to Kensington's most famous tribute to Prince Albert (the royal consort, not the - ahem - 'lifestyle accessory') to see a musician with whom it goes back even further - 43 years to be precise: Steven Wilson.

I'll spare you the why and how this vast expanse of time, save to say that here, I am filled with a profound pride at seeing someone I once shared a sandpit treading the boards of one of the most iconic concert venues in the world.

Wilson is, perhaps, the most successful British recording artist you've never heard of. Despite critical acclaim and Grammy nominations, production and remixing work for the likes of King Crimson and Jethro Tull, worldwide success with the band he formed while at school, Porcupine Tree, and work across several side projects and guest appearances, Wilson remains somewhat off radar to mainstream audiences, particularly in the UK.

And, yet, to see crowds of fans thronging outside the stage doors or the Albert Hall and other venues across Europe, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Surrey-born, Hertfordshire-raised musical polymath reassuringly demonstrates that Wilson is far from obscurity. Running into the likes of Steve Hackett (Genesis guitarist during their "classic" period), revered bassist Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel and many, many more), and Robert Fripp in the queue to pick up guest list tickets demonstrates the company Wilson keeps. And deservedly so.

His last album, The Raven That Refused To Sing has done splendid business around the world, winning rave reviews and making it onto the UK album Top 30, the Billboard Hot 100, debuting at No.3 in Germany and being awarded Album Of The Year at the 2013 Progressive Music Awards. No wonder, then that Albert Hall show has been so enthusiastically subscribed to.

Wilson is a busy character: somehow, since The Raven was released in March he has managed to tour the UK and Europe twice, play throughout North and South America, plus Australia earlier this month, record another album with Blackfield, his collaboration with Israeli megastar Aviv Geffen, and start work on new material for a fourth solo album to be released in the summer of 2014.

But for now, there's the small matter of the "home fixture". As soon as the house lights lower, Wilson is out to confound his audience, a 'mood' film backed by ambient drone music, appears to be of CCTV footage of a Home Counties street corner, interspersed with the sort of government information films we British children were forced to watch in the hope we won't kick footballs into overhead powerlines, or mess about on building sites (remember, kids, building sites BITE!). The central figure of the film is a busker, who appears halfway through, and may or not be Wilson, who procrastinates over getting his guitar out. When he starts strumming on screen, Wilson himself walks onto the stage - barefoot as usual, strumming the same guitar as his alter-ego - to perform solo Trains, a song from Porcupine Tree's In Absentia album.

For an artist so enthusiastically embraced by the prog rock movement, Wilson's solo work has veered more towards the sort of jazz fusion that Frank Zappa, Jean-Luc Ponty and Weather Report were doing in their prime, and the choice of musicians he has worked with on these solo albums and tours bears evidence of this. Adam Holzman, son of legendary Elektra Records founder Jac, has contributed his distinctly jazzy keyboard chops to Wilson's most recent solo tours, applying classic Mellotron, Wurtlitzer and piano sounds, while next to him stands in-demand jazz session flautist and brass player Theo Travis. Lead guitar is provided by one of the most sought-after performers today, Guthrie Govan, while the prolific Nick Beggs drives the bottom line with his expressive work on bass and Chapman Stick (a sort of bass guitar that isn't). Completing the line-up is prodigious Californian drummer Chad Wackerman, who was playing drums for Zappa as a teenager.

As the full band launch into Luminol, the expanse of their collective capabilities is brought into sharp focus, shifting from Beggs' thunderous foundation to more sensitive moments of close vocal harmony. Postcard changes the mood, demonstrating Wilson's proficiency in gentler fare, before returning to the infectious Holy Drinker.

© Simon Poulter 2003

Wilson is not, by his own admission, a singles artist. This is not, he says, out of some snobbish aversion to commerciality, it's just that he does not do, in his own words, "short". Even an abridged version of Grace For Drowning's epic Raider II runs to a mere 15 minutes. Drive Home is, however, being released this week as a single, but in typical Wilson style, part of a DVD or Blu-ray Disc audio-video package. Cute marketing, one might say, but he has a tremendous love of the visual arts and film making, which has resulted in commissions for independent film makers to create small films for both Drive Home and the title track of The Raven, an album inspired by the sort of spooky short stories written by Edgar Allen Poe.

Drive Home is a beautiful song and a touching love story inspired by artist Hajo Mueller, and one that I really can't understand why it hasn't been picked up by mainstream radio. It also has a solo from Govan that should be considered right up there with David Gilmour's on Comfortably Numb.

Wilson's prolific output is not, surprisingly, the result of being a restless soul - he's one of the most laid-back people you could ever wish to meet - but more the result of a restless creative seam. Even when not touring or recording and producing with others, new material appears effortlessly, such as the "work in progress" Wreckage, which receives a live debut at the RAH. "Still missing a few things," says Wilson, in incomplete form it takes a minimalist direction, Portishead-style trip-hop beats and a filtered vocal suggesting an interesting new direction for the next release.

© Simon Poulter 2003

Back to The Raven, and The Watchmaker closes the show's first half (with no support band, Wilson must observe some arcane Albert Hall regulation for holding an interval). It's a frenetic song, and another slice of macabre from Wilson's love of ghost stories, in which the eponymous horologist decides to off his wife of 50 years and bury her under the floorboards. Not the most joyous of pretexts, but it's a powerhouse of a number played live, and perhaps understandably leads to a well-earned 20-minute breather.

Back on stage, and Index - a story about a seriously disturbed collector of all manner of flotsam and taken from the Grace For Drowning demonstrates a band indulging in trading off each other with complex rhythms and even bolder time signatures. Sectarian from the same album, follows, and brings to the show an expanse that film buffs might be tempted to mix metaphors for, and describe as "cinematic".

The late-model Porcupine Tree stormer Harmony Korine blasts away, a few metalheads in the audience appropriating Devil's horns gestures, while another swathe of seated rockers nod their heads frantically, resembling - from my eyrie at least - a row of Beavis and Butthead fans headbanging away.

© Simon Poulter 2003

Like Drive HomeThe Raven That Refused to Sing is another beautiful ballad, and one which really underlines the quality of Wilson's songwriting. With a genuinely moving accompanying film, animated in the style of East European cartoons from the 1970s, it is, according to Wilson himself, a very simple song, about loss, perhaps inspired by the loss of his own father a couple of years ago.

Telling the story of an old man "who is waiting to die",  he discovers a singing raven in his garden that he believes is the manifestation of his dead sister. Again, not a jaunty tale, but it's lyrical and melodic simplicity conspire to provide a compelling structure to what actually becomes an uplifting end to the show.

© Simon Poulter 2003

Not being a hits factory, Wilson doesn't exactly go in for concert singalongs. But for his encore he unearths a very old song indeed: Radioactive Toy. One of the first songs he wrote under the guise of Porcupine Tree, and before it evolved from bedroom project to fully-blown band featuring Japan's Richard Barbieri, it provides a lighthearted finale to the show, replete with audience participation on the chorus or "what I call a 'chorus'", as Wilson self-depreciatingly deadpans. It has been a PT live favourite for many years, a popularity reflected by the gusto with which the stalls join in.

This tour will roll on until the end of November, setting forth tomorrow night in Europe again, but the gig at a venue as prestigious as the Albert Hall provides an odd form of ending. It's the home show, attended by family and close friends, but in Wilson's own words, it's almost the start of something new. Beyond the tour there will be work to commence on his fourth solo album and, no doubt, plenty of appointments with the assorted alumni of classic rock who are queuing up to make use of his talents.

There is something of the Victorian work ethic about Steven Wilson. Which makes the setting of Queen Victoria's tribute to her late husband all the more appropriate.


  1. The Watchmaker opened the 2nd half of the show rather than closed the first half and Harmony Korine is from his first solo album Insurgentes