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Steven Wilson at Theatre St-Denis

John Kelman By

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Steven Wilson
Théâtre St-Denis
Montréal, Canada
March 2, 2016

Perhaps one of the biggest signs of multi-instrumentalist Steven Wilson's continued upward trajectory is this: less than nine months after selling out two nights at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal in 2015, he brought his top- drawer band back to Montreal for another packed-to-the-rafters show, this time at Théâtre St-Denis, where Crimson delivered two stunning nights last November. Beyond the fact that, despite issuing an EP-length, in-between album called 4 1/2 (Kscope, 2016) and a vinyl-only compilation, Transience (Kscope, 2015) of some of his more accessible material, Wilson is still primarily touring Hand. Cannot. Erase. (Kscope, 2015), his fourth full-length studio album since going solo in 2009 with Insurgentes (Kscope).

If Wilson's past couple of tours were the beginning of his reclamation of material written and performed when he was a member of Porcupine Tree—the group that really began as a solo project for a much younger Wilson (who had already begun playing with singer Tim Bowness in No-Man) but, with its almost immediate success and attention, demanded the formation of a proper band for touring and, therefore, the start down the road towards something that, while still primarily led by Wilson, was more democratic in nature—his 2016 tour has begun to bring back far more Porcupine Tree material than ever before.

For the first time, Wilson's divided his show into two sets, complete with intermission. For his first set, he delivered a complete, front-to-back performance of Hand. Cannot. Erase—a change from his 2015 tour, where the album was played in bits and pieces, with other material from his solo career mixed in. For his second set Wilson covered three pieces from 4 1/2, a tribute to David Bowie with a lovely version of the recently deceased singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist's "Space Oddity," and a full five Porcupine Tree songs—though one, "Don't Hate Me," was revisited in a new but relatively faithful version on 4 1/2—plus one song each from his first three solo albums: Insurgentes's schizophrenic but still radio-friendly "Harmony Korine"; the re-imagined, more hardcore version of "Index," from 2011's Grace for Drowning (Kscope), that Wilson first introduced during his 2015 tour; and the haunting, evocative title track to 2013's The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories (Kscope).

Earlier, during the afternoon before the performance, longtime keyboardist Adam Holzman sat down for coffee, a hang and a short interview. Now in his fifth year with Wilson, Holzman has surpassed the "four years to a day" tenure he held with Miles Davis during the late trumpeter's final years in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Holzman—now on the south side of his 50s but with the demeanor of a much younger man—has been on the scene for decades, largely in the jazz and fusion/funk sphere where, in addition to his own solo projects, he has collaborated with everyone from pianist Michel Petrucciani, the Mahavishnu Project and trumpeter Wallace Roney to singer Chaka Khan, saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. and vibraphonist Mike Mainieri's Steps Ahead. He's also been working with his wife, guitarist Jane Getter, playing on and producing all four of her albums commencing with the more fusion/funk-centric Jane (Alex Merck Music, 1998) and culminating in her gradual move towards more progressive music with her new band, Premonition on its 2016 debut, ON (Madfish, 2016)—a subsidiary label to Wilson's, Kscope. During a relatively short break in Wilson's schedule, Holzman managed to hit the road with Getter for short tours of the US and Europe.

"When I first met Jane she was practically still in the wake of Brother Jack McDuff, so she was 'Miss Straight-ahead,'" says Holzman. "She gradually came to jazz rock and fusion, but it's been over the last 10 years that she's gone more and more towards metal; we listen to all this music in the car and she's gone much more into the heavy stuff than I have. It's very guitar-oriented; she wants to play, so she has also been looking for a context where she can reach more people and have more success while still being able to play. That's where progressive rock is really a logical step...if it isn't done in a cheesy way.

"Putting a brand-new band out on the road with minimal support makes it a real uphill battle," Holzman continues, about touring with Premonition. "There are a number of things that I think would have helped it; that said, the London gig was great. We had a lot of people there; Prog Magazine showed up, Jane's label showed up, all the guys in Steven's band showed up. It was really a great show of support and Jane was completely honored and thrilled, so we left London on a real high note where we felt we had really accomplished something.

"It's never completely wasted; there was some hard running around but by the time we got to London the band was totally whipped into shape and I feel really positive about it," Holzman concludes. "It put Jane on the map in Europe, and it showed to Jane's record label that she was ready to work and kill to make this happen. And the band sounded great; she has this guy, Randy McStine; he was in the Pink Floyd Experience. I didn't really know about him until Jane introduced me to him, but he was great; he played really, really well, learned all the parts and sung really well. It was amazing. He sang all the songs that [Living Colour vocalist] Corey [Glover] sang on the album, he sang harmony with Jane...the whole vocal thing was a much stronger presentation. I mean, it was great having Alex [Skolnick, who plays second guitar on the record] soloing side-by-side with Jane, but I think, after awhile, the strength that Randy brought on the vocal front helped the show overall. So Randy's turned out to be a great addition; he's a really smart guy, talented...I was really impressed with this guy. It was the perfect group for the project. I think Jane's finally at a place now where someone could step in and do some serious booking."

But Holzman's own profile has also been on the rise since beginning to play with Wilson in 2011. While he's participated on many projects with many artists, playing with Wilson has, for the first time, really helped him to reach an audience beyond jazz. Being one of two members of Wilson's band that have remained constant since he first toured solo in 2011 hasn't hurt, the other being bassist/stick player/vocalist Nick Beggs. "Playing with Steven has definitely helped my profile. You can play great sideman gigs with great people, but it isn't until you're in a situation like this, where even though you're a sideman with Steven as well, there is clearly more of a band concept. The band members are featured a lot more and there is also a consistency; when you're a sideman, say, for Chaka Kahn, unless you take a blazing solo no-one is really going to notice you—and they shouldn't, because you should be serving the gig. Playing with Steven is a different sort of thing, as he likes to give everybody a little bit of play and so we're somewhere between hired guns and a real sort of band."

Holzman was already a fan of Porcupine Tree when he was approached by Wilson for the 2011 Grace for Drowning tour and, while he's likely come to be a bit less of one in the ensuing years, it's great to see that a musician of his caliber can still be a bit of an enthusiastic "fan boy" when the occasion arises. Just a few months into the first tour, Wilson released a limited edition CD that contained about 70 minutes worth of music (subsequently followed by a full show on the CD/DVD/Blu Ray release, Get All You Deserve (Kscope, 2012)), Holzman reveals that he "was so psyched when Catalog | Preserve | Amass (Headphone Dust, 2012) came out. I love that little live album; that was so great for me because I was a Porcupine Tree fan before I started playing with Steven. So when you do a tour and within months out comes this little live CD? I thought, 'Wow, this is so cool.'"

Of course, Holzman has since released his own "little" live album, culled from the 2013 The Raven tour: The Deform Variations (Burning Shed, 2015), a 40-minute solo piano outing culled from his short introductions to one of Wilson's most beautiful tunes, Grace for Drowning's "Deform to Form a Star." Consisting of 27 snippets, named simply after the cities in which they were recorded and ranging from a mere 37 seconds to just over two-and-a-half, it's a wonder of selection and editing; a cohesive, uninterrupted 40 minutes of music beginning with the intro and ending with the outro that he played every night but with improvisations played in-between that, here, come together with remarkable cogency and interrelated relevance. It's not an album that prog fans would necessarily buy were it not associated with Wilson, but like guitarist Nels Cline and the growth of an audience for his own avant-centric jazz music since he joined Wilco in 2004, Holzman has definitely benefited from his association with Wilson.

"It's pretty much the forum it's being sold in," Holzman says. "Most of what's been sold has been at Steven's gigs. The numbers are not big but it's a solo piano album based on improvisation—and I'm happy with it. I think that my vision of it, with the packaging and everything, was to have it be a part of that Grace for Drowning family: Grace for Drowning, Catalog | Preserve | Amass and Get All You Deserve. It's kinda aimed at Steven's fans, and you know a lot of them have probably never bought a solo piano album, so it's a bit of a stretch.

"There were over 50 improvisations recorded, so I selected the best ones and edited them together," Holzman continues. "So with some, I chopped off the beginning or the ending so I could create segues. It took a little bit of tweaking, but it flowed easily. It took about a month or so, but fortunately I wasn't under a lot of pressure. [Wilson Manager] Andy [Leff] actually suggested it. He's a big jazz fan—a big Keith Jarrett fan—so he was always really supportive of that bit in the show and he said, 'Man, you should make a record of this.' So when I got the go-ahead from him, I didn't have to ask too many peoples' permission, and Steven was supportive too. I've never put out a solo piano record and would like to do a proper one in a studio someday, but I was really glad to get the chance to do this one."

Beyond continuing to record and tour with Wilson, Holzman still has plans for his own band, Brave New World— though even those plans have been impacted by the work he's done with Wilson.

"For my next record i realty want to go back to a full-on assault," says Holzman. "A band record. I've got a lot of stuff written but I'm still trying to figure out how exactly I want to do it. and I haven't really had much time. The last break I had with Steven was three months, which seems like a lot but that also included Jane's tour of the States, so that pretty much obliterated any time I had. I really need some time at home to work with the guys and figure out where I want to go, because I want to explore some combination of the usual stuff that people expect from me—funky, good grooves, cool chords—and, at the same time, try to do things that are not so note-oriented...more sound and noise. Also working with public domain science fiction film soundtracks; there's a lot of low-budget-y sci-fi stuff that's been in the public domain from the '50s."

In his 2012 All About Jazz interview, Wilson talked about the difference of being in a band like Porcupine Tree and one where his name tops the marquee. "I think the difference is that I would never ask the guys in Porcupine Tree to play music that I did not feel they would enjoy playing" said Wilson. "Whereas the difference, when you're hiring guys, is that although you still want them to enjoy playing the music, because they know it's my thing, they are more willing to try their hand at something else. Sort of like, 'You know, it's not what I'm into, but you know what? I'll go with it and I'll play it.'

"When you have a band that's been together as long as Porcupine Tree, there are all sorts of internal politics, and I simply wouldn't want to be performing something with them if I didn't think they were enjoying it," Wilson continues. "By definition, that then becomes the band sound, and although that is limiting, I use the word in the sense that it can also be a positive."

Still, while Wilson is, indeed, the composer and bandleader, it's clear that he provides plenty of latitude for his bandmates—why, after all, would he hire players of this caliber, many with strong backgrounds in jazz and improvisation, and hobble them by giving no freedom? And so, there's plenty of solo space in any Steven Wilson show, where Holzman, rotating guitarists and drummers Dave Kilminster/Guthrie Govan and Craig Blundell/Marco Minnemann respectively, and bassist/stick player Nick Beggs are featured. But as much as it's Wilson who defines the actual script, even that is open to input from his band members.

"In Steven's band, people will make suggestions and sometimes he'll say 'Yeah, that's cool' and then we'll try it out; sometimes it works...and sometimes it doesn't, so then we just shrug our shoulders and move on to the next thing—which is much healthier musically, because it's all about what's going to work."

Although the interview was shortened by a number of fans coming up to the table and looking for Holzman to sign an album for just chat for a few minutes ("This only happens," he quips dryly, "when I'm in a café across the street from the venue"), it was still a nice opportunity to catch up with him, discuss his relationship with Wilson—now the longest-standing musical relationship of his entire career—his work with Jane Getter and future plans for his own work.

With Holzman heading back for sound check, there was just enough time for a quick bite and then it was time to head over to the venue for a show that—having covered Wilson's Montréal shows in 2011 and 2013, and having attended his 2015 show across the Ottawa River at Gatineau's Casino du Lac Leamy—requires no stretch to suggest that his show at Théâtre St-Denis was the best one so far.

Last year, guitarist Dave Kilminster and drummer Craig Blundell, while undeniably fine, still seemed to be finding their way into Wilson's music—no small task, given how complex much of it is and, even more so in a live context, where there's coordination with the striking visuals—both lighting and projections—that have become fundamental to Wilson performances. This year was a completely different story. Not only did the Kilminster and Blundell feel more grounded in the music, but the group, together with mainstays Beggs and Holzman, felt like it had created its own chemistry—not better or worse than the group with Govan and Minnemann...just different. There also seemed to be more risk-taking with the solos and even in interpreting scored lines.

And while the original group with Minnemann and, since The Raven, Govan was and remains its own powerful force of nature, one thing that Kilminster brought to the stage—a bit last year but even more so at Théâtre St- Denis—was a stronger sense of showmanship that the largely stationary Govan did not. It also created a sense of symmetry onstage, with the similarly charismatic Beggs on the far stage right and Kilminster across the stage on far stage left, with Wilson—who, over the past five years, has created his own onstage image complete with unusual hand gestures—holding down centre stage. It also created a sense of levity and fun at times, with Wilson also engaging with Beggs and Kilminster— separately and, at more than one point, together. During "Harmony Korine," for example, during the head-banging build-up to the final chorus, all three stood still, their instruments raised vertically above them as they pounded out a single, thunderous note/chord. Elsewhere, at one point during the Hand. Cannot. Erase. set, all three dropped to their knees for another dramatic, theatrical moment.

There was also a greater sense of playfulness; part of it is undeniably due to Wilson's greater comfort as a frontman—a role that, for most fans, he also served in Porcupine Tree but, in his 2015 All About Jazz interview, he revealed as being different:

"There wasn't a moment in a Porcupine Tree show where I could put the guitar down and be a front man," said Wilson. "Now I have these guys in my band where there is very little reason for me to have an instrument at all, because these guys are capable of doing everything. So I'm free to stand up without any instruments. And that's something psychological: it's my name; it's my band. It's not Porcupine Tree and I can't hide behind this kind of group identity. This is my name on the marquee so this is my show. So I'm now the ringleader—the director. And that was a big leap for me psychologically, and I think a building of confidence over the last two or three years in terms of growing into that role and fulfilling that role, rather than hiding behind this group identity or hiding behind being a guitarist."

That said, despite Kilminster delivering an endless series of exhilarating, inventive solos on a number of guitars, ranging from a Gibson Les Paul to a Fender Telecaster and others (and Holzman contributing the same on instruments ranging from Fender Rhodes and Hammond Organ to MiniMoog), Wilson played far more guitar solos at his Montréal show than he has in previous ones, oftentimes beginning a solo segment, only to hand it off to Kilminster. There's no doubt that Kilminster's a more overall accomplished player, but the truth is that, beyond anyone who has followed Porcupine Tree, those who have listened to the demo versions of music included on the Deluxe Editions of Wilson's solo albums already know that Wilson's instrumental capabilities are far greater than he often lets on in performance. There's little doubt that he has grown as a player through association with guitarists like Govan and Kilminster—both of whom possess a far great knowledge of advanced harmony—but equally, it seems that, just as he has begun to reclaim his past by incorporating a series of Porcupine Tree songs into his second set, Wilson is beginning to reclaim his role as a lead guitarist when appropriate, which makes for an even broader-reaching show...and that can't be anything but a good thing.

Wilson was also, as he was in Gatineau last year, far more relaxed and talkative with the audience than he was in prior tours. From muscle poses with Holzman when he introduced the keyboardist to describing Beggs as "a man so sexy his clothes can barely contain him," Wilson's rapport with his audience has grown significantly in the past couple of years, and while it's all business when it gets down to playing his music—much of which has always been dark and serious in tone and subject—his evolution as a frontman has made a tremendous difference in the overall presentation of his shows.

An unexpected bonus for Wilson's tour of the Americas that began in Canada and concludes at the end of March in Buenos Aires, was his decision to bring along Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb. Tayeb's voice is fundamental to a number of songs on Hand. Cannot. Erase., which Wilson wrote and, consequently, was able to sing himself during last year's touring; but having her on-hand to sing the important storyline of "Routine," both alone and in harmony with Wilson—also delivering its mid-song, ear-shattering scream, which leads to the song's gentle conclusion, was a real advantage...and a clear treat for the enthusiastic audience, which gave the whole band standing ovations on more than one occasion, but also gave Tayeb her own as well.

It was also a treat to have both Wilson and Tayeb sing the more progressive-leaning "Ancestral," but while Wilson suggested, in his 2015 All About Jazz interview, that bringing her on tour then would have made little sense as she only sang on two of Hand. Cannot. Erase's songs and there was little room for her in the rest of the setlist, for his 2016 show and with the release of 4 1/2, having Tayeb in the band made a lot more sense. Her voice was just one of the reasons why 4 1/2's "Don't Hate Me"—a Porcupine Tree song from 1999's Stupid Dream (Kscope) but, according to Wilson, only played on one tour with that group—is so much more successful in its 2016 incarnation, its basic tracks recorded live on tour in Europe last year, with overdubs, edits and final preparation done in the studio.

Holzman, who, along with many of his bandmates, embodies the concept of progressive rock being the consequence of musicians trained in other disciplines like jazz and classical music, wanting to bring those sensibilities into a rock context. His solo on Catalog | Preserve | Amass' live version of "No Twilight Within the Courts of the Sun" (first released on Insurgentes, but with different players) absolutely defines the spirit and, even further, the language of jazz, despite the music being the furthest thing from jazz; here, at St-Denis, his gritty Fender Rhodes solo on "Don't Hate Me"—at one point even evolving into an ascending cycle of fourths—further demonstrated those same qualities.

Tayeb also brought another strong, charismatic presence to the stage and, while her subsequent New York show, just a few days later, demonstrated this even more—when, hobbled by a lost voice due to illness (hard to believe, based on how well he sang in Montreal, that this would happen just three days later) , Wilson worked with her that day so that she could sing the entire night—even in Montreal, when Tayeb's voice took the stage front and center, Wilson backed away from the spotlight...a generous move compared, say, to ex-Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, who always seems hell-bent on ensuring that there isn't a moment during any of his shows where all eyes aren't on him. But that generosity will be no surprise to Wilson fans who've been to other shows on other tours; anytime he features any member of his band, he always ensures that the spotlight and the focus is on them, an appreciation made clearer still in his individual introductions to the band members.

In a setlist where the second set was made up of five Porcupine Tree—including the new version of the pop-ish "Lazarus," first heard on Deadwing (Roadrunner, 2005) but revisited in a newly recorded version on Transience and as a bonus track on the Blu-Ray edition of 4 1/2 (and played last year in Gatineau)— the only complaint might be Wilson's going a little light on material from his first three solo albums. With each record only represented by one track, it might have been nice to hear a few extra songs like the Insurgentes' "No Twilight Within the Courts of the Sun," Grace for Drowining's "Deform to Form a Star" or "Sectarian," and The Raven's "The Holy Drinker" or "The Watchmaker."

Still, that's a relatively small quibble for someone who put on a show that, with intermission, came close to the three-hour mark and included a potent three-song encore that began with David Bowie's "Space Oddity" (performed with only Wilson on acoustic guitar, Kilminster on electric, and Holzman replicating Rick Wakeman's mellotron part from the original, with Wilson and Tayeb handling the vocals); hit a stronger stride with a song he said was one of his favourites, "The Sound of Muzak"—first heard on Porcupine Tree's In Absentia (Lava, 2002) and becoming the second of two consecutive audience participation pieces at Théâtre St-Denis (hand claps during "Space Oddity" also mandatory); and closed with the powerfully dramatic but heartbreaking title track from The Raven That Refused to Sing, complete with that song's evocative video footage.

There will always be songs that don't make it into a setlist—with Holzman revealing, in the interview, that they were rehearsing a few additional songs for their upcoming two-night run in Mexico City so that they can avoid playing two identical nights. And with Wilson now reclaiming his vast Porcupine Tree catalog, it's going have to to be an expected that there simply won't be enough time in a show to hear everything you might want. But with a killer band that, in the case of the Kilminster/Blundell incarnation, has finally gelled with its own distinctive sound and internal chemistry, a growing setlist from which to draw upon, and Wilson's seemingly unrelenting ascension both artistically and commercially, it may be impossible to predict what will be coming next, but one thing is certain: it will be worth experiencing, whether living in a city where Wilson is playing—or, as was the case for the many who came to Montreal after catching his tour opener in Quebec City, traveling from elsewhere because one show simply isn't enough.

Photo Credit: John Kelman

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