Steven Wilson–Live at Variety Playhouse

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I looked at Steven Wilson’s tour schedule last year, following the release of his fairly awesome To the Bone CD, and was disappointed that he followed that with an extensive tour to Europe and elsewhere.  I get that fans deserve the opportunity to see him wherever they might be, but I harbor some resentment when his touring plans don’t include me.  Patience.  A benefit of living in Atlanta is that he reliably gets here, having played following his last two releases.  Even better, this show was at Variety Playhouse, my favorite local venue, where sound, lights, sight lines, and local pre-concert options all add up to a great evening.

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The show began with a short video which perhaps sums living in the age of #fakenews, #imavictimof(insertoppressorhere) and #hearmeroaronsocialmedia.  It began with an innocent enough piano track as various photos were presented with what most would agree are apt words to describe them: truth, family, science, fact, news, compassion, love, information, sincere, security, happiness, father, life, lie, enemy, religion, fiction, fake, indifference, hate, disinformation, ego, threat, grief, oppression, death.  This would be an interesting group discussion, figuring out how individual perspectives agree or disagree with the associations of word to pictures.

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But there was more, again leading with “truth.”  Same images, same words, but rearranged to form new associations to test how we associate the words to the images.  The associations that may have represented freedom, move towards to totalitarianism.  A photo of a surveillance camera moves from “security” to “oppression.”  The video begins with a sort of schmaltzy piano tune, but as the video moves along, it fades and is replaced by bass tones provide a suitable undercurrent to the third rearrangement, where the point may be that there are different truths.  We feel that in the political world through our particular opinions and filters.  That said, as you get into the third round, there is a sense of brainwashing, but maybe you get the point.

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The band enters, and it’s a relief to give up the initial challenge.  Wilson has a talented band, and they play the type of music I like - progressive rock, often with a harder edge, including instrumentals that reveal the artistry of the musicians without yielding to conceit.  Just as with the video, Wilson’s music is consistently thoughtful, though rarely optimistic.

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Wilson played seven of 11 songs from his last CD, and while these were all good or better, I was disappointed that he did not include “People Who Eat Darkness.”  Sure, it’s strangely titled, but I don’t know of anyone else who writes about the everyday life of a terrorist, going about the rituals of living before ending lives.

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Each of Wilson’s solo albums has a general feel about it, but the set list really pulled all of his work together as a seamless whole, including a generous helping of songs from his Porcupine Tree days.  Wilson announced this to be a three hour show, less a 20 minute intermission, and it was close to that.  The set featured 20 songs, only one of which might be considered “short,” that being his only nod to pop songs thus far, “Permanating.”  So, let’s just say an average of 7 minutes each. 

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On his “The Incident” tour, Wilson was fairly controlling - no cameras, more of a listening room experience.  Beginning with Hand. Cannot. Erase., he’s desired venues without seating for the energy.  My observation is that his shows are longer, and while standing for over three hours is taxing as I age, it’s still incredibly worth it.

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An early highlight included “Pariah,” accompanied virtually by Ninet Tayeb, whose voice complements Wilson wherever she shows up, to the point that it would be interesting to hear him rework many of his past songs to give her a regular voice... and justify bringing her along on tour.

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There were no weak points, and much of the set list I bring to the gym for both the energy and artistry.   “Refuge,” “Detonation,” “Lazarus,” “The Sound of Muzak,” a thundering “Ancestral” - they come and go and leave you waiting for the next song.  There’s abundant artistry on the stage, and it’s hard to imagine anyone not liking Wilson’s music - if they ventured beyond a classic rock diet to see what else might be out there.

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I watched from a couple different positions, and I have to say bassist Nick Beggs is a wonder to watch, whether on a traditional bass or the Stick.  While the more recently acquired guitarist Alex Hutchings aced his role, I think Beggs has made more of his role, generally out-hustling the guitar theatrics from song to song.   Wilson calls the shots, but obviously he’s let Beggs do it his way. 

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Drummer Craig Blundell also impressed, and though his kit was expansive, everything was obviously in its right place.  He easily intermixed a forceful or deft touch as each song required.  To that end, Wilson recalled playing in Japan several weeks ago where the audience clapped heartily but absent any sense of timing.  This became a game of sorts, with Wilson’s encouragement, to unsettle the drummer by clapping off-beat without any synchronization. 

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For his part, Wilson was front and center with a practiced confidence from touring for decades.  To his credit, he took the time to chat with the audience, which aside from being entertaining, moves a concert from “being in audience” to something more personal, regardless whether spontaneous or not. 

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To close with “The Raven Who Refused to Sing” is probably his best option for a closer, slowing things a bit and featuring a dynamite graphical interpretation of the song.  Still, this was the third consecutive show in Atlanta closed that way... maybe it’s time for “Trains.”

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Setlist:

  • Nowhere Now – To the Bone
  • Pariah – To the Bone
  • Home Invasion – Hand. Cannot. Erase.
  • Regret #9 – Hand. Cannot. Erase.
  • The Creator has a Mastertape – In Absentia
  • Refuge – To the Bone
  • The Same Asylum as Before – To the Bone
  • Ancestral – Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Second set:

  • Arriving Somewhere but Not Here - Deadwing
  • Permanating – To the Bone
  • Song of I – To the Bone
  • Lazarus - Deadwing
  • Detonation – To the Bone
  • Heartattack in a Layby – In Absentia
  • Vermillioncore – 4 ½
  • Sleep Together – Fear of a Blank Planet

Encore:

  • Blackfield – Blackfield
  • Sign of the Times – Prince cover
  • The Sound of Muzak – In Absentia
  • The Raven that Refused to Sing – The Raven that Refused to Sing

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Delta Rae Revival–Live at The Basement

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A vacation day to burn and a $10 ticket to see one of my favorite bands led me to make the trip from Atlanta to Nashville with, as expected, no regrets.  Delta Rae is performing a 16 week “residency” at The Basement, an internet-described “dive bar,” that is a basement and, if it were absent the the transformation into Delta Rae’s “revival church,” it most certainly would look like a dive basement.

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I was fortunate to come across Grant Emerson, the band’s bassist, for a short conversation.  Nothing revelatory, really, but how often do you get to chat with a member of a favorite band?  The band has essentially relocated to Nashville from Durham, NC, which makes sense for access to all the talent, publishers, studios, etc. that are available.  We also touched on their new classification as a country act, which probably makes marketing and economic sense, and Emerson pointed out that they’re not singing the stereotypical country lyrics.  And, sadly, there was no hint of an album.

Do albums matter anymore?  The band keeps releasing singles and EPs, so I guess they add to the same, but I’m a traditionalist.  In any case, if the remainder of the band shares Grant’s general humility and positivity, they should stay together for quite a while.  How they can afford to do so for $10 a ticket, is another question, especially in a spot where maybe 100 people can uncomfortably stand, and where the band could easily ask double that without a second thought.   That second thought should have led to even a higher price for this type of experience. 

A Delta Rae concert doesn’t normally have a venue factor involved, other than sightlines and sound quality.  The Basement, with a sellout crowd, is poor for seeing the artist, great audibly when the artist is acoustic or low volume, and less impressive when a band pumps the volume, as Delta Rae did… or maybe it’s the additive effect of seven musicians on the stage. 

In any case, the band converted the basement to a chapel of sorts, with faux stained glass windows, a candelabrum, several lanterns hanging from the ceiling, and a vicar warning of certain judgment.  This plays well into a ghost story written by the mother of several of the band members, and their own account that their audience frequently mention that they’ve been “taken to church” following one of their concerts, which is fitting.  They’re really, really good. 

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Here’s just an intro to the ghost story, accentuated by fishing line to tug on the overhead lanterns…


In December 1715, a small congregation was founded in the woods outside of Durham, North Carolina.  They built a white shotgun chapel and practiced their rituals fervently.  A year after its founding, this tiny community was swept with a paranoia over witchcraft.  They accused a young widow living alone in the unincorporated lands outside their village of practicing dark magic and a contingent of men and women from the chapel leadership were charged with bringing her in to face trial and judgment before the church.

The rest can be read on their Twitter dated 11/29/2018, if you’re so willing.  And then we have the recurring recital between the opening acts… it’s kind of campy, but it worked, as well as leading the way to a splashy entrance for the band’s ladies, appearing from the light, so to speak.

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Above and below you can see the windows, which initially show the four singing members of the band.  As the concert progresses, video is included as well – an unexpected visual treat for, well, a basement.

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This was my fourth time seeing the band – the first just after the release of “Carry the Fire,” when they introduced each song in depth and blew away the audience.  The second was when they passed through Atlanta basically on their way from one place to another, and an impressive concert at Atlanta’s also-small Eddie’s Attic.  Their showmanship has advanced year after year, increasingly featuring the band’s two female singers, Brittany Holljes and Liz Hopkins, who complement each other perfectly.

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I can’t find a setlist, but their early songs “Bottom of the River,” “Morning Comes,” “If I Loved You,” and “Dance in the Graveyards” continue to define the best tendencies of the band – crafted lyrics, adventurous musical stylings, and a powerhouse delivery when the singers come together.

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From their second album, “Outlaws,” “I Will Never Die,” and I think “Scared” and “Run” were covered, which pretty well fit the thematic aspect to the ghost story.  The band is no stranger to singing for a cause, and also included “Dirty Work,” a plea for people to get out and vote.  It’s a good song for the purpose, but it’s a unicorn stylistically to their other work and didn’t fit as well unless… you consider the “year of the woman” and the caliber of the evening’s supporting acts. 

Chloe Gilligan opened, endearing in the way she introduced her songs and seemingly lives on the edge of cracking herself up.  “San Francisco” was really good.  Elise Hayes was more polished, “but” her songs were probably better appreciated by those more in touch with their feelings.  And for a couple of songs, Delta Rae was joined by Maddie Rose, who had an excellent voice.  Later listens on the internet have piqued my interest – she’s really good, sort of soulful country.  I’m fairly certain “Pull You Through” was one of the songs she sang from her new album.

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Overall, it was an awesome evening, and reinforces what everybody says that I’ve taken to see them live – they deserve a bigger stage.  Maybe they’ll catch that break to get there soon, but until then, the $10 tickets are a steal, and I’d hate to have to watch them from an upper deck in a colosseum anyway.

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