Photo credit: Mario/Flickr
“But you didn’t come here to listen to be talk about the death of the music industry,” Steven Wilson said during the second half of the show, “or maybe you did.” According to Wilson, the music industry has stopped championing innovation and experimentation, a chapter of music that on the night he said died with David Bowie, who was the springboard for his discussion on the topic. At first it seems that he wants to avoid doing any covers in tribute, and so plays an old song of his called Lazarus, with the same title as the Bowie track, and coincidentally about a man named David. “My David don’t you worry / This cold world is not for you”, the song released back in 2005 takes on a new poignancy in this heartfelt performance. Later, as part of the encore, Wilson and guest vocalist Ninet Tayeb who features on the new album, Hand.Cannot.Erase, cover Space Oddity. Far from feeling forced or cliché, it’s easy to tell that Bowie meant a lot to Wilson, and represented a lot of what he loves about music – innovation, experimentation. Indeed, Bowie died during the early stages of the tour while the band were in Germany, so the cover was developed and inserted into the setlist mid-tour.
“By the way, we’re at number 8 on the UK album charts!” a great cheer erupts, Wilson seems to be bucking the trend he perceives in the industry, making a success of frequent album releases (he remembers fondly the years when bands would release a new album every year, a model he said encouraged experimentation because not as much rode on each release) and complex, experimental music. Wilson’s set-up for the night was suitably prog. Drum kit with more cymbals and toms than audience members – though still less than the likes of Peart, Portnoy and Mangini. Triple keyboard desk. Numerous racks full of all kinds of guitars. And, one of the most prog things I’ve ever seen, a bodyless 8-string (I think) bass guitar: just a fretboard, such that it can only be played by tapping. This seemed to be bassist Nick Begg’s (also of 80s New Wave band Kajagoogoo, best known for their number 1 single Too Shy) go-to, which he played with mesmerizing ability.
As expected from any prog act, especially one headed by Wilson, the band were impeccably tight – not a note out of place, even amongst the burst of utter chaos. The music ranges from gentle and sad to cacophonous and fast in the best way, without a single hitch. The first half of the show was a start-to-finish performance of the new album, with only a few interjections to introduce the audience to the band members, and to politely ask us to stand up so that they don’t feel like “the only twats dancing at the disco” during their louder parts. Highlight of the show for me came in the introduction of Tayeb on 9-minute song Routine, accompanied by the music video projected behind the band. Wilson introduced the song as “the very nadir of misery” on this “hour long descent into misery” – a description his manager ascribed to it when he listened to the demo. The song certainly delivers on that front, a powerful examination of a woman whose husband and two children died in a school shooting. Tayeb’s vocals were breath taking and utterly flawless.
Before the band came on, the audience were introduced to the visuals that would accompany the whole show. Following from his concept for the album of a woman living alone and isolated in a city, the projections show bleak scenes of urban life, melding seamlessly with the music. Wilson has spoken before of his approach to music – his favourite instrument is the recording studio: it’s about the bigger picture for Wilson; the art comes first. Appearing suitably humble in all audience interactions, Wilson conducted the show. And that’s what it was: conducting. Sometimes retreating to his mixing desk, sometimes playing guitar, sometimes bass, sometimes solely vocals, something nothing at all, Wilson has a vision of music, and surrounds himself with the people – musicians, lighting technicians, and so on – that execute it.