Steven Wilson – Live at Variety Playhouse

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On both the strength of his last CD and the infrequency of his visits, I was pretty excited to see Steven Wilson again.  Add to that my son’s enthusiasm, and we’ve been sitting on tickets for months. 


After all that sitting, we decided we’d do the rest standing.  So it was that we arrived at Variety an hour and 20 minutes before the doors opened.  We stood, and we stood.  We listened to a street barker play 70’s songs on a questionable guitar, talking with no one in particular between selections.  The dollars were few in his tip box but he played and played.  Finally, the doors opened.


Another 10 minutes earlier might have placed us on the front rail.  That’s a costly 10 minutes as standing otherwise unsupported wears.  Nevertheless, based on prior shots of how Wilson arranges the stage, we were slightly right of middle where he would stand and to the left of fleet fingered guitarist Guthrie Govan, perfect positioning less the 20” forward or so.

We were reminded by the staff a couple of times about “No photography!”  Wilson argues that all the LCD screens amongst the audience is distracting to others, and they certainly can be.  Which is why a compromise with his fans ought to be possible.  “During this one song, you can take photos...”  But that didn’t happen.

At 30 minutes prior to the start of the concert, a “moon image” from the last CD was projected on the stage background.  Add passing clouds, with ambient music.  The image would soon begin to morph into other sad, tired, or skeletal faces and return to the moon shot.  It was something to watch while, you know, just standing there.

At 8:00 sharp, the band took the stage, launching into “Luminol.”  The song demonstrated his band’s various musical chops, after which he implied an insult to the talents of his prior band, Porcupine Tree, with his accolades of his current group.

And they’re talented.  The afore-mentioned Guthrie Govan can play about anything and play it extremely well, from Vai-like speed to jazzy tones to lead slide to vastly repetitive arpeggios.  Journeyman flautist/saxophonist Theo Travis is similarly versatile and used to great effect.  Bassist Nick Beggs plays and dresses like Tony Levin, the former of which is a great thing.  Keyboardist Adam Holzman brings a keen jazz background and is a perfect compliment to Wilson’s more open approach to composing music. 

Last was Chad Wackerman, playing his third gig with the band as the “full time” drummer was committed to play with Satriani in May.  Wackerman played for Zappa, which means he can play.  But to deliver on the goods with a five hour rehearsal the day before their first U.S. show was amazing, Atlanta being the second.  The percussion parts are very complicated, and he sounded great, sight reading his notes on each song throughout the show.  Pretty amazing.  I suppose there is a difference between playing everything technically vs. with feeling, which makes sense given his time with the material. As it turns out, Wackerman himself had an emergency and the original drummer is returning for future shows until his Satriani rehearsals begin, per Theo’s blog notes).

Steven Wilson is, of course, the star of the show.  He commands the stage, just as he commands the audience.   I’ve lifted pictures from Wilson’s European tours, which very closely resemble this show.

Wilson would eventually play all the songs from his latest CD, as well as four from his prior.  Not exactly being an intermission, a video was projected onto a gauzy screen for several minutes during which the band left the stage.  This was an intro to “The Watchmaker.”  The band shortly returned to the stage to play that song as well as Wilson’s creepiest, “Index.”  Up close, the curtain was distracting.  From afar, maybe it looked better.  My thoughts were those of another progressive rock band’s, “Tear Down the Wall!”  It was extremely annoying, especially considering the fantastic lighting the band brought with them.

Beyond the music, Wilson interacted with the audience to good effect.  He roamed the stage while others stayed near their posts.  Wilson is a fine guitarist and has a preference for aggressive guitar chords amongst all the other intricacies of the music, which somehow seems to excite the crowd.  As close to Govan as we were, I thought his talents might have been used more frequently in a live setting.

Watching Wilson is interesting in the way he conducts himself.  Playing barefooted isn’t a big deal, especially as careful as he is to have carpeting around.  But the way he points in different directions or makes hand gestures at certain musical insertions reminds me a bit of Amadeus, the movie about Mozart.  Is he playing theatrically?  Or is he “seeing” the music in his head, everything in its right place?

All in all, it was a great show.  The concert lasted about 2 hours and 20 minutes, and the set list benefitted from the variety afforded by three solo releases by Wilson.  The pace was unhurried, the musicians seemed to enjoy themselves, and the music was varied in pace and style.   The musicianship was excellent, as expected, and the sound was superb, which is a trademark of Variety Playhouse.  It helped that Wilson engaged the audience, and the crowd was likewise respectful to his wishes in quieter moments.  No breaking of bottles, whistles or pointless shouting kinds of things.

It was worth standing for almost 5 hours, which says something.

4 of 5 STARS



Set List:

Drive Home
The Pin Drop
The Holy Drinker
Deform to Form a Star
The Watchmaker
Harmony Korine
No Part of Me
Raider II
The Raven That Refused to Sing


Radioactive Toy

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