My late mother used to tell me I had a gift for understatement. We would see something spectacular, and I would simply say, “Well, that was pretty good.” Me getting worked up rarely amounted to more than a quick outburst, followed by a slow burn of appreciation represented via a wry smile.
I’m often complimented on my passion for music. I certainly have no intention of denying it. After all, I love music. Still, I try to keep the over-the-top superlatives to a minimum. One can only have so many “transformative” musical experiences before the word is rendered meaningless.
Still, now and then an artist steps onstage and proves himself worthy of any and all top-flight superlatives. That is precisely what happened on May 1 at the Vic Theater in Chicago, Illinois. The recipient of this deservedly high praise is none other than Steven Wilson.
For the fourth time in six months, I left my home in St. Louis to venture some 300 miles with the sole objective of seeing one artist/band in concert, because they weren’t coming to my hometown. I went to Nashville to see John McLaughlin’s farewell tour, and took separate trips to Chicago for Grizzly Bear and The National. Now I was back in the Windy City to see the one of two remaining artists I positively MUST see before I pass on. (For the record, the other is Peter Gabriel. St. Louis positively SUCKS when it comes to getting my kind of musicians in concert.)
Wilson was playing two shows in Chicago. My day job (which I had to hustle back to) prevented me from catching both performances. In retrospect, I should’ve altered my schedule a little further. It would have been worth any minor loss I would’ve suffered, because Steven Wilson put on one of the best concert performances I have ever had the privilege to witness. For a man often short on superlatives, I find myself working desperately to keep from overdoing it here. Still, words like “amazing” and “incredible” don’t do Wilson, his band, or the music adequate justice.
Maybe I should put it this way: had I dropped dead upon exiting the Vic, my final words would have been, “WORTH IT!!!”
Wilson and his band (Nick Beggs on bass and stick, Adam Holzman on keyboards, Alex Hutchings on guitar, and Craig Blundell on drums) were on tour in support of To the Bone, a record with a bit more of a pop sheen to it than the “prog” legend’s previous releases. I put Wilson’s label in quotes, because the artist took a moment to address the elephant in the room to his enthusiastic audience, some of whom may have taken umbrage with the overall tone of the new record.
He’s aware of what some of his fans demand from him, but Wilson refuses to be pigeonholed. “What kind of music did Frank Zappa play?” he asked the audience. “What kind of music did David Bowie play? What kind of music did Prince play?” Wilson correctly asserted that the artists he mentioned created music that defied simple definition, and our “prog” hero was a fan of all of it, and much more, including disco legends ABBA and the BeeGees.
As such, Wilson sees no reason not to draw on ALL his influences. “I’d like to think that after all these years I’ve earned the right to play Steven Wilson music,” he said somewhat defiantly. His stance was met with overwhelming enthusiasm, particularly from me.
I’ll be the first to admit that To the Bone took some getting used to when I first heard it, because I, too, had thrust my burden of expectations onto Steven Wilson. But hearing the songs live, starting with show openers “Nowhere Now” and “Pariah” gave me a much deeper appreciation for the new material. Not only did the songs sound spectacular, but they were beautifully augmented with stunning visuals projected onto a translucent curtain in front of the band. It has to be seen to be truly appreciated. Words don’t do it sufficient justice. Suffice it to say, I was experiencing the music on a whole new level.
My night was made by the band’s third selection, “Home Invasion/Regret #9” from Wilson’s previous album, Hand. Cannot. Erase. The latter track contains five of my all-time favorite minutes of music, consisting of brilliant solos by Holzman and Hutchings. I joked to the man sitting next to me that I could leave after that, because I was all set. I was kidding, of course, but I was on a cloud from that moment on. This is NOT there performance I saw, but it will help establish the gist.
Wilson and company also unearthed a few gems from the Porcupine Tree catalog, much to the delight of the audience. I was glad to hear them, too. But something tells me Wilson was doing this because PT isn’t coming back any time soon. That made me a little sad, even though I completely understood Wilson’s desire not to go back to that musical world just yet. His solo work is just too damned good! The band opened the second set with “Arriving Somewhere, but Not Here,” which is probably my favorite PT tune. It felt at times like Wilson read my mind before taking the stage, because the band also played “Vermillioncore,” my favorite track from the 4 1/2 EP. What were the odds?
A frontman is only as good as his band, and this group was firing on all cylinders. Beggs, in particular (and as usual) seemed to be making the most of the occasion. He’s one of those musicians truly adept at leading from the side. Then again, so is Holzman, who went about his business of kicking ass in his usual workman-like, low-key fashion. Hutchings relished in the guitar parts I’d heard played by Guthrie Govan and Niko Tsonev, and made them his own. Blundell brought the perfect mix of groove and flair to the drum kit. This was a band well-prepared to do its job once they took the stage. Of that there could be no doubt.
I was so mesmerized by the songs I heard, it didn’t occur to me to think about the songs I didn’t hear. Wilson and company performed the perfect mix of old and new material, covering two sets over some two-and-a-half hours. An entirely different set was planned for the next evening. Man, I wish I could’ve been there to see it!
Wilson also took a second to express his displeasure in playing before a seated audience. He said the show’s energy is better experienced by a standing crowd. And while he would tolerate the audience being seated (for the final time on tour, he noted), Wilson asked the audience to stand up and move during “Permanating,” a lovely piece of pure pop from To the Bone. The funny thing is, once the audience rose, most of them (including Yours Truly) never sat down again. And you know what? Wilson was right! The energy — which was never lacking — was completely different! The momentum carried all the way through the end of the band’s set, and the encore. Like everyone else, I hated to see the evening come to an end.
Of all the musical trips I’ve taken, this was far and away the most worthwhile. Transportation, lodging, food, a souvenir t-shirt, and the ticket itself … it was worth every penny to experience this show. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. You owe it to yourself to make every effort to see this band!
That Steven Wilson … he’s pretty good.