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Steven Wilson at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier


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Steven Wilson
Salle Wilfrid Pelletier
Place des Arts
Montréal, Canada
November 23, 2018

Singer/songwriter Steven Wilson's star has been on the ascendance since he first began releasing albums as Porcupine Tree in the early '90s, a solo project that ultimately became a band when early releases were so successful that it became necessary to form one in order to take the music on the road. When he decided to part company with the group and go solo, under his own name, with 2009's more broad-scoped Insurgentes (Kscope), he was warned that, despite his de facto leadership of Porcupine Tree, he should expect only a relatively small percentage of his audience would go with him into a solo career that, over the course of three additional studio albums on Kscope, from 2011's Grace for Drowning through to 2015's concept album, Hand. Cannot. Erase. , asserted his interest in progressive-leaning music while remaining as stylistically unbound as ever.

First beginning to tour under his own name in 2011, including a staggering performance at Montréal's Corona Theatre in November of that year, and an even more spectacular show at the city's Club Soda in 2013 in support of that year's The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) (Kscope). With expansive musical interests that range from pop and metal to electronic music, drone music and progressive rock, Wilson's similarly superb 2016 date at Theater St-Denis that found him in something of a transitional period in support of Hand. Cannot. Erase.—still catering to his core audience while simultaneously drawing in entirely new demographics.

Bucking all predictions, Wilson has not only managed to retain a large percentage of his Porcupine Tree fans but attract new ones as well, increasingly with each successive solo album. From the very beginning of his time spent on the road as a solo artist, Wilson formed the core of a group that has remained constant to this day, while continuing to grow his audience one city, one show and one album at a time. Wilson's record sales of both studio and live albums have been remarkable enough, given the current landscape of the music industry, but are all the more so given his steadfast insistence on doing everything on his own terms. From the music Wilson writes to increasingly immersive live performances, he's built a reputation for groups with commanding musicianship, along stunning sonics and visuals that many more commercially successful artists, often with much larger budgets, fail to match.

Wilson surprised some of his more progressive-leaning audiences with the release of To the Bone. A decidedly more pop- oriented recording—albeit still imbued with the broad stylistic interests that have driven his entire career and containing songs like the near-disco "Permanating," which sound uncharacteristically joyous from a generally more dark-themed singer/songwriter—To the Bone is still a progressive-leaning album, though one more closely inspired by similarly pop-oriented but still trendsetting '80s artists like Japan, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush—even ABBA, Wilson's self-admitted second-favourite pop group next to The Beatles). Wilson has also clearly moved to the next level with his solo career, moving from Kscope to the larger Caroline International, along with a new management company equally capable of handling an artist whose star continues to rise, with no end in sight.

It's rare that an artist can return to the same city twice within twelve months, rendering Wilson's return to Montréal at Place des Arts' Salle Wilfrid Pelletier, after performing at the Olympia Theatre just seven months prior, particularly remarkable. That said, Wilson has always preferred standing room venues for, amongst other things, the greater energy he gets from the audience, making the seared Salle Wilfrid Pelletier somewhat less ideal. Still, with a first set more disposed towards the progressive side of Wilson's last two studio albums, being seated wasn't as much of a liability, not to mention that Montréal audiences remain amongst the most enthusiastic around, so there was plenty of energy off of which Wilson and his group could feed. With the second set weighing, at least to some extent, towards Wilson's more (but far from exclusively) user-friendly material, the crowd was more than willing to spend the majority of that set on its feet.

The set list intersected, to some extent, with Wilson's recently released concert film Home Invasion: In Concert at the Royal Albert Hall (Eagle, 2018), not to mention his April show at the Olympia. Still, amongst the dozen songs from the Olympia show also performed at Wilfrid Pelletier, Wilson also changed things up with an additional seven songs drawn from Hand. Cannot. Erase., The Raven That Refused to Sing, his interim, EP-length release, 4 1/2 (Kscope, 2016) and some choice material from the Porcupine Tree back catalog.

Wilson has been revisiting Porcupine Tree songs since touring Hand. Cannot. Erase., but he's now including a larger number them—largely, it would seem, answering the question of whether or not that group will get back together, at least in the near-term. Humorously, at one point, during the second set, Wilson recalled getting sent a review from his recent Vancouver, Canada show where, according to the reviewer, he was apparently "covering Porcupine Tree." That before there was ever a touring PT band, Wilson was Porcupine Tree should have been easy enough for the reviewer to figure out, and so Wilson simply responded to the errant reviewer's comment with a forceful "Fuck Off!" that drew a rousing response from his audience.

Wilson performed the popular "Even Less," from PT's Stupid Dream (Snapper, 1999), as the first of four encores following the two main sets (separated by a brief intermission). Similar to the version released, during his PT days, on We Lost the Skyline (Tonefloat/Transmission, 2008), recorded at a 2007 in-store appearance by just Wilson and guitarist John Wesley, here Wilson was further reduced to a lone voice, single electric guitar and small amplifier, which he brought onstage with him specifically for that tune—and a lovely amp it was. Wilson also included another popular PT song, "The Sound of Muzak," in the encore. First heard on 2002's In Absentia (Lava), Wilson turned it into an audience participation tune, with the crowd fully expected (and complying) to sing its chorus, bemoaning where the music industry was then—and, sadly, is still heading:

"One of the wonders of the world is going down.
It's going down, I know.
It's one of the blunders of the world that no-one cares.
No-one cares enough."

The generally dark-themed Wilson has also grown as a wordsmith, with songs like To the Bone's hauntingly beautiful, bleak yet somewhat optimistic "Pariah," the first set's second tune, possessed of particular power. Co-singer Ninet Tayeb may have been absent in form, but she was most definitely there in spirit, with a recording of her voice made all the more real through a black and white rear-projection close-up of her face on the large video screen behind the group, singing her part until, as the song reached its conclusion, her face exploded in a wash of color that seemed to leap out into the hall.

Throughout the two-and-a-half-hour show, but especially during the second set, Wilson chatted up the audience about his love of pop music; in some ways, it sounded a touch defensive—understandable, perhaps, given the response of some hardcore progressive rock fans to To the Bone's lack of the progressive earmarks of his earlier solo albums, specifically lengthy instrumental passages with virtuosic soloing. Still, it's a terrific album, made even more compelling in a concert setting.

Wilson really needn't have defended his love of pop; the crowd at Wilfrid Pelletier was clearly as excited to experience his newer, more prog-pop (and, in some cases, straight pop) material in a concert setting as they were his deeper draws on the PT back catalog and, indeed, the more progressive-leaning material from 4 1/2, and Hand. Cannot. Erase. (which dominated the first set). Still, while it should really come as no surprise, given his broad musical tastes, that another of Wilson's favorite artists is Prince, few could have anticipated his tribute to the late Purple One, covering the title track to Sign o' the Times (Paisley Park, 1987), though with a far heavier arrangement than Prince might ever have imagined.

Followed by "The Sound of Muzak," Wilson's closed the evening with the only nod to his earlier, more decidedly progressive rock records, though the title track to The Raven That Refused to Sing remains one of his most melancholically beautiful songs, with its heartbreaking story told even more vividly through the same animated video footage used since touring that album in 2013. Ending with Holzman alone on piano and under a single spotlight as the rest of the band members left the stage, it was a perfect way to bring Wilson's performance—by turns exhilarating, delicate, pulsating, melancholic, majestic, and yes, even uplifting—to a close.

Wilson opened the first set, as he did in April (and on Home Invasion) with "Truth." A short film/video montage, initially underscored by what sounds like '40s/'50s dancehall music, it began with a variety of images over which the words "truth," "family," "science," "fact," "news," "compassion," "love," "information" "sincere," "security," "happiness," "father," "life," "lie," "enemy" "religion," "fiction," "fake," "indifference," "hate," "disinformation," "ego," "threat," "grief," "oppression" and "death" were layered. Not unlike To the Bone's opening title track, which begins with spoken words that challenge the absoluteness of the word "truth," the film initially displayed images that made some sense (at least, to those of conscience) against the words to which they were "normally" associated. As the images began to assume more foreboding connotations, with the words twinned with the same series of images but in shifting (and increasingly disturbing) order, they suggested how the truth is becoming something far less than absolute. The music was gradually overtaken by an increasingly loud drone as the band came onstage and kicked into a potent version "Nowhere Now" that far surpassed that on To the Bone.

One of the first things noticeable about Wilson and his band's delivery was that, if To the Bone seemed like a significant departure for the 51 year-old singer/songwriter, in the context of live performance its music blended seamlessly with material from albums dating as far back as 1999. Bassist/stick player/background vocalist Nick Beggs and keyboardist Adam Holzman have been touring (and, to varying degrees, recording) constants with Wilson since 2011, and have helped maintain a dependable yet, at the same time, unpredictable consistency for the leader. Drummer Craig Blundell joined the group in 2016, a monstrously virtuosic player capable, at the same time, of anchoring the music with effortless groove, while Alex Hutchings is the relative newcomer in the list of guitarists who have toured with Wilson since 2011.

As the fifth six-stringer in a list that's also included John Wesley, Niko Tsonev, Guthrie Govan and Dave Kilminster, Hutchings had only been touring with Wilson for a couple of months when Home Invasion was recorded in March, 2018, making his performance at that show all the more impressive. Eight months later, not only has he integrated even more fully with the band, but he demonstrated, from the first moments of the first set, how Wilson continues to make group chemistry a priority, ensuring how it's cultivated, even with occasional personnel changes, and even as it evolves over time.

It's that very chemistry which elevated virtually every song played during Wilson's Wilfrid Pelletier concert to a level well beyond the original studio versions...and, in many cases, even prior live performances. There was palpable energy flowing off the stage, from the first moments of "Nowhere Now" through the course of Wilson's two sets and four encores, broken up only by a short intermission, with the second set climaxing in the fever pitch of a fist-pumping, head-banging closer, "Sleep Together," from Porcupine Tree's Fear of a Blank Planet (Roadrunner/Atlantic, 2007).

Wilson has been playing more guitar (specifically, solos) over the past couple of tours, but when it came time for more effusive virtuosity, he still turned things over the Hutchings, whose command of his various electric and acoustic guitars was as potent (more, in some cases) as any who've occupied the chair since Wilson went solo. Somewhere between Kilminster's more traditional rock roots and Govan's jazzier proclivities, Hutchings proved himself the perfect player for where Wilson is now, as capable of delivering crunching power chords and metallic riffing on tracks like 4 1/2's "Vermillion," while acting as the perfect, seemingly effortless über-guitarist during his solos on the progressive-leaning tracks culled from Hand. Cannot. Erase.

While not delivered in album order, the five Hand. Cannot. Erase. tracks occupying the majority of the first set demonstrated that Wilson was in no way completely deserting his progressive rock roots. At the same time, Hand. Cannot. Erase. songs like "Routine" (ranked, by Wilson, amongst the top three "most depressing tunes" he's ever written) and the more buoyant title track were retrospective evidence that he was already transitioning towards the more pop-leaning direction that defines To the Bone. "Home Invasion / Regret #9" and the back-to-back album-closers "Ancestral" and "Happy Returns / Ascendent Here On...," on the other hand, were clear set highlights as both Holzman and Hutchings delivered solos of profound depth and high octane instrumental/tonal mastery, with Beggs and Blundell doing far more than just anchoring the proceedings. Their interaction with Holzman, Hutchings and Wilson demonstrated just how much these songs have grown since they were first toured in 2015—and how much the chemistry of this relatively new lineup has already asserted itself.

Holzman, as ever, possessed a broad stylistic reach on his various keyboards, moving from grungy Fender Rhodes textures and delicate grand piano emulations to Jan Hammer-like, guitarist-informed synth lines and lush mellotron strings. Like Beggs—even more so, perhaps, given his more extensive contributions to To the Bone, on which the bassist contributed far less than on Wilson's previous two studio albums—Holzman has acted as an instrumental thread for Wilson, providing a certain consistency across both Wilson's albums and tours of the past eight years, even as Wilson's music, taken in the context of live performance, remains unequivocally his own, even as the singer/songwriter brought together elements from a multiplicity of musical interests.

Few artists, in fact, could deliver a set list where songs like To the Bone's funkified fusion, deeper lyricism, expansive orchestration and metallic overtones on "The Same Asylum as Before" could be played, back-to-back, with 4 1/2's episodic revision of Stupid Dream's "Don't Hate Me" (here, with Wilson singing all the lead vocals rather than sharing them with Tayeb, as he does on the EP), the four-on-the-floor, booty-shaking "Permanating" and programmed beat-driven "Song of I." Similarly, few could place the melody-rich "Lazarus," first heard on Porcupine Tree's Deadwing (Lava, 2005) but revised and included on Wilson's compilation of "user-friendly" songs, Transience (Kscope, 2016), alongside To the Bone's propulsive "Detonation," In Absentia's balladic "Heartattack in a Layby," 4 1/2's gradually intensifying "Vermillioncore" and, finally, the ear-shattering "Sleep Together."

In voice, presence and relaxed stage banter, Wilson has grown significantly as a band leader. Even though he wrote most of Porcupine Tree's material, he's claimed to have always thought of himself, in those days, as a guitarist who also sang with the group. Since going solo, his confidence as a frontman has increased almost exponentially, with the singer/songwriter now able to actually sing some of the set's material without "hiding" behind a guitar or keyboard. Compared to the last show seen in 2016, WIlson's growth as a frontman was clear, his vocal range never broader and his expressiveness all the more palpable.

Beggs continued to prove himself not just a powerful player, but demonstrating taste as impeccable as his breadth of tone and absolutely unshakable grooves; his fretless bass work on "The Raven That Refused to Sing," as just one example, was especially lyrical, his choices absolutely note-perfect, even as he was a strong and vividly charismatic visual foil. More, perhaps, than any past show with any prior lineup, every member of this band was clearly fully engaged, with Hutchings also a strong visual presence. Holzman and Blundell may have been a little more limited—tied more strictly in place, as they were, to their instruments; but their connection with the rest of their band mates was still absolutely clear to see.

Together, the group has been evolving its source material, with the selections from To the Bone, in particular, assuming greater life, power and relevance. The pieces from Hand. Cannot. Erase. were even more visceral than in 2015, while Wilson's reinventions of Porcupine Tree material ranged from relatively faithful ("The Sound of Muzak") to reinvented (an even more delicate "Heartattack in a Layby" and his recent arrangement of "Lazarus") and far more vicious ("Sleep Together").

With Hutchings in tow, this was also the first time since Wilson has gone solo (barring occasional guest appearances by Ninet Tayeb) that he's had another backup singer alongside Beggs, with the guitarist adding a third voice to make the three-part, staggered vocals of "Heartattack in a Layby" possible.

If Wilson set a high bar for his live performances early on, he's only raised that bar with each successive tour. Here, not just lighting up the stage but, at times, the entire Salle Wilfrid Pelletier, Wilson delivered on his promise of creating a show that was both sonically and visually immersive, with lighting seeming to come from every direction and rear projection videos that, at times, seemed to leap out of the screen and into the hall.

These days, most artists may make records but, with album sales largely down (and, for a number of reasons), they usually lose money or, at best, break even from their release, earning their living largely from touring. Wilson, on the other hand, seems to have built a career more old school in complexion: his album sales remain surprisingly strong, while he apparently tends to do less well on his tours, between paying the band and road crew and, perhaps, most importantly, aiming for consistently larger-than-life visuals. In fact, that some of the halls into which he's booked are actually incapable of supporting the scale of his live shows, it's a little bit reminiscent of when Peter Gabriel was at a stage, in his career, where he encountered similar problems, with some of the venues simply not big enough to handle his stage, sound and lighting setups.

Does this mean that Wilson's next album will, as every one since Insurgentes has (and, in particular, since he began touring Grace for Drowning in 2011), represent another leap forward in the singer/songwriter's career? It's hard to predict but, if past history is an indicator of future events, it's not beyond the realm of possibility to see Wilson make the next jump into arenas—or, at the very least, to increasingly large theater venues like Salle Wilfrid Pelletier.

With the To the Bone tour now extending into the winter of 2019, and then some time off required to write and record his next studio album, only time will tell. But if, amongst Wilson's unfettered musical interests and how they translate into his own broad-scoped music, there's any constant, it's this: Wilson keeps making records that sell more than the last, and draws crowds not only increasing in size, but more demographically mixed as well, with younger faces and more women in attendance than the gray/no-haired baby boomers who represented his core audience for so many years.

Given Wilson's strength at building his audience over time, it's not hard to imagine him making the next big leap in time for his next record. Meanwhile, with performances like his Salle Wilfrid Pelletier date, studio recordings like To the Bone, live releases like Home Invasion and North American and European tour dates continuing through to March, 2019, any opportunity to catch Wilson and his band is truly not to be missed.

Photo Credit: Steven Wilson and Eagle Vision

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