Some artists explode out of the gate with their best work, driven by careless youth and unbridled ambition. Others mature like fine wine, the passage of time expanding their qualities in a way that can’t be rushed. Steven Wilson’s career certainly fits the latter template, with the musician producing today his best music in a career that reaches back to the 80’s. Stopping by Montreal as part of his “To the Bone” tour, he also did an instore signing as part of Record Store Day at Aux 33 Tours. “I think I’ve met a lot of you at the store today” he would quip during his show.
As the lights dropped in the venue, a thought provoking short film was projected on a translucent curtain in front of the stage, pairing images with words. Then the film (called “Truth”) cycled again through the images but with the words randomized to show how easy information can be manipulated and narratives re-written. This very powerful exercise drew uneasy laughter at times, or stunned silence when the juxtaposition got a little too uneasy.
The band entered the stage and kicked things off with “Nowhere Now”, from Wilson’s latest record “To the Bone”. The album would predictably occupy the lion’s share of the setlist, along with its predecessor “Hand. Cannot. Erase.” and the recent vinyl re-issues of Porcupine Tree’s “In Absentia” and “Deadwing”. As usual, the musician didn’t shy away from picking deep cuts, and the first set offered a fantastic version of “The Creator Has a Mastertape”, a track that prior to this tour hadn’t been played in about 15 years. “The People Who Eat Darkness” featured prominently his new vintage Telecaster guitar, and he challenged the crowd to help him find a name for her (“Because guitars need a female name”) by passing suggestions on stage. He would eventually read some of them during the second set, but by the end of the night, this fantastic guitar was still nameless.
The second set started with a much-needed revival of the fantastic “Arriving Somehwere But Not Here”, not heard live since the Porcupine Tree days. It was an obvious marker of a change in Wilson’s live show: while it felt like an instropective piece when played on the “Deadwing” tour, with the then stage-shy Wilson mostly hiding behind his hair, it is now a more showy piece where the crowd is invited to sing along the track title. And that was true of the evening: Steven Wilson is turning into a rock frontman, and untethered by the constant visual projections he had on the last tour, the show feels more and more like a rock act. And that’s not pejorative in any way, just an observation that it’s not just about listening to complicated music anymore.
Wilson’s self-deprecating humour was in evidence, as usual. “I’ve written so many songs over my career. Most of them are shit, but some are really good”, he would quip. As an intro for “Permanating”, he made a passionate plea defending his right to write ‘happy’ music, expressing pleasure at pissing off people who expect him to stay in the confines of a box he’s never acknowledged.
The second set flowed a bit more easily, but the band still pulled off deep tracks like “Heartattack in a Layby” and “Vermillion”. Porcupine Tree’s “Lazarus” is becoming a perennial concert cut for him, and it was again majestic. The set ended with a hard-hitting rendition of “Sleep Together”.
Wilson came back with an acoustic guitar, and, backed by keyboardist Adam Holzman, played a beautiful version of “Blackfield”, the self-titled track from one of his many musical projects, and “Postcard”, from “Grace For Drowning”, which he introduced as “the most depressing song I’ve ever written”. “The Sound of Muzak” brought the band back on stage, and the show ended with “Song of Unborn”, that Wilson introduced as a song of hope for a messed up world.
Steven Wilson is one of the most amazing musicians today, and this show once again proved it. I have to admit I prefered the last tour for its more introspective vibe, but the depth of material he has written made this one so much fun too. Until next time.