Steven Wilson at Club Soda

John Kelman By

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Steven Wilson
Club Soda
Montreal, Canada
April 25, 2013

When currently ex-Porcupine Tree founder/front man last played Montreal in November, 2011—touring in support of his second solo recording, Grace for Drowning (Kscope, 2011)—it was clear by the end of the performance that the next time he came to the Canadian city, the crowd which filled the 800-capacity Corona Theatre was certain to grow. Not exponentially, as Wilson's solo career has unveiled in a methodical fashion that is, for anyone who knows him, absolutely consistent with his personality. Wilson is undeniably a risk taker, but he's a careful one.

It may have been a risk to walk away from Porcupine Tree (at least, for the time being) to launch a solo career where, in his 2012 All About Jazz interview, he recounted how he'd been told by ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett to ..."expect your audience to fall by 80 percent." At the time of the interview Wilson had already managed to buck the odds, managing to retain about 50 percent of his Porcupine Tree fans. Less than a year later, with the release of The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) (Kscope, 2013) still fresh—and selling extremely well—that number is now more like 80 percent, and for a variety of reasons. No mean feat, considering he's in a more progressive arena than Porcupine Tree, writing material that blends deeper complexity with unmistakable lyrical appeal.

Wilson now has a band that, with the addition of guitarist Guthrie Govan to the pre-existing lineup of woodwind/reed multi-instrumentalist Theo Travis, keyboardist Adam Holzman, bassist/stick player/background vocalist Nick Beggs and drummer Marco Minnemann, is one of the best—if not the best—progressive rock groups on the road today, bringing a strong jazz sensibility to what is still undeniably a progressive rock show. And while he's still, for the most part, touring smaller venues than he did with Porcupine Tree, his audience is gradually building, and it's likely that, just as the Grace for Drowning tour grew his fan base, this year's extensive world tour will do the same...and, perhaps, even more.

For his return to Montreal, Wilson moved to the 940-capacity (standing) Club Soda, which was home to Jaga Jazzist's tremendous 2011 Montreal Jazz Festival performance, where the crowd's over-the-top response surprised a Norwegian jazz/prog group well-used to overzealous reactions. Montreal has long held a reputation for its particularly ardent audiences, and the sold-out Club Soda crowd didn't disappoint, responding to Wilson's show with so much enthusiasm—and so completely unwilling to let the group get away with just one encore—that Wilson decided to do something he's only done one other time on this tour: return for a second one.

The first encore was also something of a surprise, a version of Porcupine Tree's early, Pink Floyd-informed "Radioactive Toy," from 1991's On the Sunday of Life... (Delerium). Wilson explained that since the first three recordings were really solo recordings (not forming a touring band until he needed one a few years later), he figured it was fair game to include a song from that repertoire. True enough, but a second encore medley of Grace for Drowning's "Remainder the Black Dog" and Insurgentes' "No Twilight Within The Courts Of The Sun"—its unusual segue between tunes explained away by Wilson backstage after the show as, "there's no easy way to get from 15 to 21," referring to the two songs' irregular meters—only demonstrated, in very clear terms, just how far Wilson has come as a writer since those early days, from 1988-1991, when he conceived, wrote and recorded that important first album.

Montreal's outrageously enthusiastic response to Wilson's show was not without extreme good reason; if his 2011 show was superb, his April 25, 2013 Club Soda performance was even better, an intense, dramatic show filled with epic writing, memorable melodies and stellar playing. The group has clearly come a long way in 17 months in terms of chemistry, comfort and trust, but it's the addition of Govan that has finally completed Wilson's band; a guitarist as compelling, capable, imaginative and dynamic as the rest of his band mates, it's the final piece of a puzzle Wilson has been creating since he first toured Grace for Drowning two years ago.

The tour hasn't been without its upsets: after committing to Wilson's tour, Minnemann announced, not long before it was to commence earlier this year, that he'd be unable to make the North American leg of the tour. There was no shortage of outrage at the heavily populated progressive rock forum Progressive Ears, one thread actually titled Steven Wilson North American Tour WITHOUT Marco Minnemann!!!!. Wilson managed to find a more than suitable replacement in Chad Wackerman—a Frank Zappa and Allan Holdsworth alum who, while not necessarily sharing Minnemann's inherent chemistry with the rest of the group, would certainly have brought something of his own to the group. Called home unexpectedly to deal with an urgent family health matter, the good news is that Minnemann was available to handle the North American dates until Wackerman can return, and so Montreal was treated to a performance by the full band that recorded The Raven.

As strong as Wackerman would have been (and, if he is able to return, undoubtedly will be), the fact is that, for the first time since going solo with Insurgentes (Kscope, 2009), Wilson has written an album with this specific lineup in mind, and so changing any component was destined to alter its complexion. With Minnemann demonstrating his usual uncanny ability to drive a groove with effortless and, at times, near-unbelievable virtuosity—never playing the same thing twice—he engaged the rest of the group with the same near-telepathic interplay that's become a touchstone for every member of the band, even newcomer Govan.

And, while Govan has clearly integrated fully with the band, both on record and in performance, he's still the relatively new kid on the block. Grace for Drowning's "Sectarian," for example, did not make its way into the nearly two and a half hour set list because he wasn't quite comfortable enough with it yet (but watch for it on later shows in the tour). That said, when the group ran It down during soundcheck, it sure seemed close to ready, with Holzman contributing a staggering Fender Rhodes solo that he'd be challenged to top (and did) later that evening. There's no denying that a group can be driven to greater heights by the reciprocal energy of an enthusiastic crowd, but it's also true that magical things sometimes happen during soundcheck, where a group can be more relaxed, with less to prove.
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