Not even a year has passed since progressive rock’s Renaissance man, Steven Wilson, last played in Helsinki. However, he recently paid another visit to Finland nevertheless. This time he played two shows, the first of which took place at Pakkahuone in Tampere on the 11th of February, 2016.
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Steven Wilson’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. was my 2015 album of the year, and last year’s show at The Circus was an amazing experience, so I jumped at the chance to see him and his band live again. When it was announced that the set on this European tour would be divided into two sets and the first would include a full performance of the aforementioned record, my excitement only grew.
At 19:50 the show began with a 10-minute intro video that included a city montage and was accompanied by hypnotic keyboards, just like last year. Keyboardist Adam Holzman was the first to enter the stage for the opening instrumental “First Regret,” and was soon followed by the rest of the band. “3 Years Older” got the show to a proper start with a guitar riff influenced by The Who, and after that it was time for the album’s radio-friendly title-track and the electronic “Perfect Life.” Though almost all of Hand. Cannot. Erase. got played on last year’s tour, performing the album from start to finish – only interrupted by Wilson’s speeches between a few songs – was definitely the right thing to do, and made the experience more effective. Wilson introduced “Routine” as “his entry in the competition for the most depressing song in the world.” Jest or not, the performance of the song truly tugged at your heartstrings. The 13-minute epic “Ancestral” was equally powerful, building up to an intense crescendo. “Regret #9” displayed the musicians’ instrumental finesse, and Wilson breathed new life into “Happy Returns” with additional wordless vocals in the intro.
Though Steven Wilson was the undisputed star of the night, the high-caliber musicians sharing the stage with him got plenty of time in the spotlight as well. Since Guthrie Govan (guitar) and Marco Minnemann (drums) were on tour with The Aristocrats, the backing band included guitarist Dave Kilminster and drummer Craig Blundell in their place. The two substitutes put their own stamp on the music, and it was interesting to hear the familiar songs performed by a different line-up. Though Govan is a talented guitarist, I felt that Kilminster’s more rocking style was a better fit for the selection of songs in the set, and he seemed to have a stronger chemistry with Wilson, playing some solos side-by-side with him. While Blundell maybe wasn’t as entertaining to watch as Minnemann, his actual drumming wasn’t any worse at all – some of his fills were just crazy! The most flexible guy in the band has to be Nick Beggs – in addition to playing bass and Chapman Stick and singing backing vocals, he played some keyboards on “Home Invasion” and guitar on the folky “Transience.” Keyboardist Adam Holzman handled his job gracefully as well, and offered the funniest moment of the night when he presented rock poses that he’d learned from Wilson.
The second set opened in an unusual manner with “Drag Ropes,” a song by Wilson’s Storm Corrosion project, which also features Opeth boss Mikael Åkerfeldt. Instead of pumping up the crowd, this minimalistic 10-minute piece created a sinister atmosphere that was strengthened by the dark animated music video that accompanied the song. Impressively enough, Wilson pulled off the mantra “lies are manifold and the truth shall now be told” in the middle of the song without losing his breath.
The show continued with less abstruse material, as the band launched into the shoegaze-tinged “Harmony Korine,” which included fierce drumming by Blundell. “Index” was another old setlist staple, and the live arrangement with finger snapping and spoken verses blew away the original. Porcupine Tree’s “Lazarus” was appropriately dedicated to David Bowie, as the song is about a character called David and shares its title with a track from Bowie’s recently released Blackstar record. Wilson also talked about Bowie’s influence on his musical philosophy, which puts artistry above entertaining the masses.
Wilson’s latest release, the mini-album 4½ was represented with three songs in the set. “My Book of Regrets” was quite possibly the highlight of the show, ranging seamlessly from guitar rock to a chilled-out atmosphere. The solo band’s take on Porcupine Tree’s “Don’t Hate Me” was livelier on stage than the somewhat disappointing version on the new EP, and the intensified middle section received a loud applause. The imagery in the screen projection also matched the lyrics and the vibe of the song perfectly: rain, London cityscape, and of course trains. During the instrumental “Vermillioncore” there was a transparent curtain in front of the stage, and a trippy video was projected onto it. This visual effect was stunning, and the song itself had an irresistible rhythm – who said prog can’t be groovy? The curtain remained for a crushing rendition of “Sleep Together,” which marked the end of set two.
The encore began with another tribute to Bowie in form of a cover of the late star’s signature hit “Space Oddity.” Wilson, Kilminster, and Holzman performed the song as a three-piece, and Kilminster harmonized with Wilson beautifully in the chorus, while the crowd clapped at the appropriate spots. The audience participation continued with the Porcupine Tree classic “The Sound of Muzak,” which Wilson named “one of the few catchy songs” he had written. He challenged the Tampere folk to sing louder than the people in Sweden, where the song had apparently been met with a tumbleweed response. Luckily a bunch of faithful fans did as asked and sang along to the music business critique that is as relevant now as it was in 2002. The night ended with “The Raven that Refused to Sing,” one of Wilson’s personal favorites from his catalog. The song was very pretty, but not “Routine” beautiful, and perhaps a bit of a downer as the concert closer – “Sleep Together” or “The Sound of Muzak” would’ve ended the show on a high note.
The crowd was full of people of both genders and various ages, which is a testament to the accessibility and diversity of Wilson’s music. The man himself was happy with the variety of people gathered at Pakkahuone, comparing the situation to that at his previous show in Tampere with Porcupine Tree, when the audience had consisted of “a bunch of progressive metal fans.” For some reason he never mentioned his previous band by name during the night, despite performing various songs he’d recorded with the group.
I have to give props for the sound mix, as it was the absolute best I’d ever heard at any concert and was like listening to an album on a good stereo system. This combined with the top-notch musicianship, Wilson’s engaging stage persona, fascinating visuals, and the satisfying setlist made this a night to remember. I’m sure the majority of the people at Pakkahuone felt fulfilled at the end of the concert. If Steven Wilson and co. are playing nearby, don’t hesitate to go!
1. First Regret
2. 3 Years Older
3. Hand Cannot Erase
4. Perfect Life
6. Home Invasion
7. Regret #9
10. Happy Returns
11. Ascendant Here On…
12. Drag Ropes (Storm Corrosion song)
13. Harmony Korine
14. My Book of Regrets
16. Lazarus (Porcupine Tree song)
17. Don’t Hate Me (Porcupine Tree song)
19. Sleep Together (Porcupine Tree song)
20. Space Oddity (David Bowie cover)
21. The Sound of Muzak (Porcupine Tree song)
22. The Raven that Refused to Sing