Steven Wilson…Nothing short of AMAZING last night at Toronto’s Massey Hall with but one slight discouragement, the curfew on Toronto concerts at 11pm. GRRRR!!!! Yep it’s been I don’t know how many years since the city evoked such a ridiculous rule but it truncated Steven Wilson’s second set ever so slightly. That said, it was two sets of brilliant Prog by the former Porcupine Tree frontman gone solo a number of years ago.
Massey Hall is one of THE best venues in the city to see any artist perform at due to its rich history of bands that has graced its stage over the years; King Crimson, David Gilmour, Jethro Tull just to name a couple. The acoustics are stellar, the stage is plenty big enough to accommodate any size band and the audiences that attend shows at Massey Hall are generally well enthused and respondent to the band on stage. Steven Wilson carried the show like a master showman as always and this performance far superseded his performance at the Danforth Music Hall last year which was also incredible. Barefoot and dressed in black he stood miles above all of us in the seats even up in the balconies where I was in awe throughout. The band he has assembled is top notch musicians from England and the US; Dave Kilminster, guitar(who also played on Roger Waters’ initial Wall concerts in 2010), Nick Beggs, bass(see earlier blog on The Mute Gods), Adam Holzman, synths and keys(see Mute Gods blog), Craig Blundell, drums and percussion who by the way is an absolute monster behind the kit, incredible drummer that you’re gobsmacked at watching anytime during the show and a special guest appearance by Israeli singer, Ninet Tayeb.
The first set was the entire performance of his last full solo album, “Hand Cannot Erase” in a stunning display of musicianship and an even more heightened presentation of the songs than he has previously implemented. The show commenced with a buzzing synth drone of the beginning of the record with the visuals of the apartment from the album pictures followed by band members walking on stage to an uproar of applause from the audience who braved the “end of the world” as Steven described it as outside as the winter onslaught pummelled the city in heaps of snow. His humour between songs was in fashionable British style, direct, blunt and dry, just the way us Canadians love it as he said he comes form a England where it just rains and rains and it’s very drab and he’s not used to this kind of weather. The band were in above the board form last night delivering a command performance to a hungry Toronto crowd that ranged from all ages, cultures and surprisingly a lot of women too! With Prog, sorry to say it’s usually a “Sausagefest” crowd but it had quite a number of female fans in attendance which is awesome to see at a Prog show as the genre grows more public attention and that women are becomming a driving force in the Prog scene as musicians/singers over the last decade or so which is an attractive attribute to the genre and about time! Prior to that there really was only Annie Haslam of “Renaissance” as the main female voice in Prog Rock and women were subjected to being in mostly Mainstream Rock,Pop, Country, Opera and jazz. So combine the jazz, rock and some opera aspects and you have Prog vocals in many ways and a lot of today’s Female Prog singers incorporate so much more vocally and lyrically to the genre so kudos to perhaps some future Prog musicians!
The entire album is something to be experienced live as the band blends the album with the live sound as extreme as possible. Not a flubbed note to be heard as they execute each song from the album with pristine precision and tonal inflections that are as crisp as the ice was forming on our cars outside. Stand out tracks, besides all of them, “Hand Cannot Erase“, “Home Invasion” and “Happy Returns” were all exceptionally well done, as were the other songs but these stood out slightly higher than the rest. Some of the effects in the mid sections of songs were reminiscent of the middle of The Pink Floyd’s “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” as they warbled the sound effects through synths and guitar pedals. I can’t remember what song they did it in but at the very end of it the band seemed to have paid homage to a Canadian icon, Rush, with what sounded exactly like the beginning of “Xanadu“, anyone else catch that besides me and the guy sitting in front of me? Films provided for songs weren’t a distraction to the music as is often the issue I find at some shows, you get caught up in the visual and drown out the audio as if looking for the remote to turn up the TV but not here. The films are avant-garde and captivating as they relate to the songs and perhaps don’t to some extent but you find a way to merge the two and the twain shall meet through the speakers to your ears and eyes. It was done very tongue-in-cheek as they seemed to have added in that little snippet unexpectedly to see how many of us were paying attention as we were in wrapped attention to what was a display of audio/visual candy for the 3 hours we were there for. Every song cut with precision tool effect and applied generously through the P.A. System sending everyone in the audience in to hyper overdrive Prog dreamworld land. “Routine” was sung by Ninet Tayeb who has guested on Steven’s albums before and she did this one with absolute earnest dedication and you could feel the words she sang as well as hear them and the most depressing song Steven has ever wrote by his own admission. With short anecdotes between songs about the weather and how miserable music makes us feel good for reasons unknown Steven spoke to us as if he was in our living room and we were having 2 o’clock tea with him. Very casual and informative as he regaled about musicians, music and themes on what he writes about. Introducing the band earlier on rather than near the end which is not your usual form for intros, so a Prog element applied live for us to appreciate!
A short 15minute break between sets allowed to clear our heads somewhat and digest the first set mentally as we speak to our neighbours in the seats beside, behind and in front of us about how good it was. Lights down and set two begins with the ominous “Dark Matter” song, a Porcupine Tree number from the “Signify” Lp as Steven told us earlier on that the second half would be a bit of old and new and the old material has been slightly reworked to bring it up to speed a little for the modern day. His last album offering, an Ep, “4 1/2” that you can read about in the blogs on here earlier on provided us with three songs from it and they were again guested by, Ninet Tayeb on the Porcupine Tree song,”Don’t Hate Me” which was originally intended as a duet but on the original album but was just Steven Wilson singing it so we were gifted with this version of how it was meant to be. The marginally redesigned version of “Index” was brilliant and Steven’s voice in this one with effect on it gave it a more darker and sinister approach to it making an outstanding rendition of the song here. Perhaps the heaviest song of the evening was the instrumental, “Vermillioncore” that was delivered signed and sealed with perfection and a side order of PROGtacular demonstration of tour-de-force musicianship as the band shredded the airwaves of Massey Hall with this brilliant soundscape of electrified virtuosity. A short flub with a microphone prevented Ninet from the beginning of their cover/tribute to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and a restart commenced shortly thereafter to the chuckles and banter from both audience and Steven. With audience participation of some clapping the song was a beautiful rendition of a Bowie classic to which Steven claimed that the death of Bowie was a door closed on experimental music in the traditional sense as he said that really no “New” artist is doing this nowadays which is ever so true.
So due to the time restraints on Toronto concerts we were ripped off of “The Raven that Refused to Sing” so our last song was “The Sound of Muzak” from the 2002 Porcupine Tree album, “In Absentia“(see earlier blog on that album review) to which we were all asked to stand up and sing along to what he described as a catchy lyric and a rarity in his writings followed by how in Germany no one sang along and they stood there like tombstones in a graveyard with tumbleweeds rolling through! As we sang and cheered the band finished to boisterous applause as the band brought Ninet back out and took their bows completing the evening’s performance at the glorious Massey Hall, still THE best venue to see anyone in the city.
Steven Wilson is one of the best artists I have had the opportunity to see perform live and he never disappoints anytime I have seen him, twice now and heard him through bootleg albums, many of those and his albums he has released have all been superbly recorded, engineered and produced. He literally does get better every time he does and album and tour. Truly an absolute joy to see and hear anytime. For those of you who were there I am certain that like me you definitely got your money’s worth and mind filled with the amazing sounds of Steven Wilson’s music. Gratefully blessed to see him perform and well beyond worth the price of the tickets and admission.