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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