I have a deep respect for the levels of fandom that lovers of music portray. There are bands we like, we’ll listen to them once in a while, maybe catch them live if life permits it. Then there are bands we love. We listen to them often and usually make a point to catch them when they come around. Then there are the bands we put in the fanboy/girl category. We own their complete discography, and know it word for word and note for note. We adjust all other life situations when they come to town no matter what, and if it was necessary, would probably take a bullet for them. Three days ago, Steven Wilson fell into the second category, but in the last two nights, he and the brilliant musicians playing with him on his Raven that Refused to Sing Tour made a firm argument for me putting them into the latter, never before has an artist stock gone up so high in my book in just two nights.
When I first got his latest album, the dates were announced for the tour, and the May 9th show was on the slate at San Francisco’s historic Fillmore Auditorium. Knowing that it would be something special because of the constant praise from friends, I bought a ticket. Two weeks before the show, a friend informs me that the night before the show, the band would be doing a small performance and signing at Amoeba Records in San Francisco (thanks Jackie). Days off were secured, and I headed out to the City for the first of two nights.
Accompanying Steven for the shows were bassist Nick Beggs, guitarist Guthrie Govan, drummer Marco Minnemann, keyboardist Adam Holzman, and Theo Travis on the flute, clarinet, and sax, the same musicians that recorded The Raven album. The scene at Amoeba records was nothing short of surreal. A small stage in the corner was packed full of equipment, with the tiny mixing board housed in the country music aisle. The sound check consisted of the full band minus Steven jamming for ten minutes. Crowd was prepped, all 100 of us. After about a thirty minute wait, the band came out and got everybody’s attention with a blistering performance of No Twilight Within the Courts of the Sun. Then, citing the lack of equipment they were able to bring, Steven told the crowd that only one more song would be played, one that the Fillmore crowd wouldn’t hear, Radioactive Toy from Porcupine Tree’s debut album. The crowd was very pleased to say the least. The band nailed it, I was stunned by how good the sound was in such an awkward environment, nearly pristine. Steven’s passion was brilliantly matched by his band mates, and they set the crowd up perfectly for the next nights show. After briefly meeting the band and collecting autographs(they are all incredibly gracious gents I must say), I headed home to rest up.
With the fire of that show in me, I decided to head out early. The Fillmore is a general admission venue, and I managed to get there early enough to nab a front row spot in the shadow of Begg’s microphone. About half an hour before start time, the lights dimmed a bit and the video screen lit up with an ever-changing shot of the Raven cover. Then, at eight sharp, the band came on and burst into Luminol. It was a perfect opener, we were bum rushed by a blistering bass led instrumental that the rest of the band was more than happy to jump on, then a chorus of introductory vocals and we were off. After the opener, Steven announced that the complete Raven album would be played, along with selected other tracks. Next up came Drive Home, highlighted by the unbelievable guitar work of Govan. Then came The Pin Drop, one of my highlights of the evening. This for me was where the band pushed it way over the edge, harmonizing the two different melodies of the song into an explosion of controlled chaos. I was sold, completely, and still had two hours of music to go. Every single member of the band was playing lead, and all were having a great time doing it. Minnemann was an especially colorful character with his offbeat smiles and the random displays of a small plastic pig that he floated around his kit, a kind homage to Pink Floyd in my eyes.
Then came the first non-Raven song, Postcard, a wonderfully emotional and soulful piece. Holy Drinker bled over the stage with passion and precision, and they closed out the first half with a heart wrenching Deform to Form a Star, punctuating said end with the dropping of a gossamer curtain in front of the stage. Immediately the tick tock sounds of the Watchmaker’s workshop began to sound off, signaling the next song. The one disadvantage to being so close to the stage was not being able to take in the full effect of the stage show, which was in full effect over the next few songs, but it didn’t matter really. Steven’s stage persona for me stood out best in Index, as he frantically rushed around the stage, taking in and collecting sounds from each instrumentalist, then passing them on to the audience. It was effective on the border of disturbing in context of the song, it truly made every aspect of the piece come together brilliantly. After a series of numbers from earlier works, including the mind-blowing twenty minute plus assault of Rader II, he closed the show with the title track off The Raven that Refused to Sing. Once again, all the pieces melded together, the band sharing the soul of the song with the audience to perfection. After a brief break, the encore medley of Remainder the Black Dog and No Twilight Within the Courts of the Sun closed the show, and the band took their most deserving ovation from the audience.
Every aspect of this show was perfect. All the band members were playing like they were poisoned and the antidote was in the music. They needed to lay it out as they did, and I don’t think any of these brilliant musicians are capable of any less. I do believe I will have to make room on my top shelf of fandom for Steven, and I for sure will not be missing any future performances of his.
Authors note: Out of respect for the wishes of the artist, no pictures were taken of either of the actual performances. The full video of the Amoeba Records show will be available on their website soon.