The “To The Bone” tour has been good for Steven Wilson, who’s reached new heights artistically as well as commercially with this release. For his second appearance of 2018 in Montreal, the English musician made a point of mixing up the setlist to offer return concert goers (of which there were many) a different experience. His “B” setlist features most of his previous album “Hand. Cannot. Erase.” in the first set, and a variety of Porcupine Tree tracks and solo numbers in the second. I was fortunate enough to catch his “B” set in Paris last summer, and the second set we got last night differed vastly from that show too, so he’s really mixing it up.
Wilson’s dry wit was again in full form last night, although seeing the show for the third time I couldn’t help but roll my eyes a few times when he recycled jokes. His self-deprecating humour remains endearing: bemoaning the fact that Place-des-Arts is very much a seated venue, he gave the audience permission to stay seated for the first half because “‘Hand. Cannot. Erase.’ is utterly miserable from beginning to end”, as he put it.
Bleak or not, that record remains a masterpiece, and its themes of isolation in a world of unlimited communication channels resonate deeply in a live setting. “Routine”, with its poignant accompanying video is a particularly powerful statement, and many in attendance were discretely wiping away tears from their eyes at the end. The title track is as upbeat as it gets for that record, and acts as a beacon in the middle of the dreary stories told.
Of course, the show featured plenty of instrumental virtuosity from his whole band (Nick Beggs on bass, Adam Holzman on keyboards, Alex Hutchings on guitar and Craig Blundell on drums) who navigated the complex song structures and precise syncopations with brillance. Wilson played acoustic guitar, keys and bass at times, but spent most of his time on electric guitar rocking a gorgeous Les Paul Gold Top and a beat up Fender Telecaster that sounds just divine.
The second set kicked off with “Same Asylum As Before” and “Don’t Hate Me”, before Wilson launched into a heartfelt defense of “pop music”, urging the crowd to finally get up for the highly danceable “Permanating”. “Judging from some of the t-shirts I see, some of you may never have before attended a concert where you are expected to move, or even enjoy yourself. I suggest you start by tapping your feet, then nodding your head a bit”. To the guy in the King Crimson shirt who stayed seated: he was probably talking about you…
“Lazarus” was another Porcupine Tree gem gracing the setist, brilliant despite being played a tad too slow. “Heartattack in a Layby” was another, and the labyrinthine “Vermillioncore” gave another opportunity for the band to show its stuff. A quasi heavy metal rendition of “Sleep Together” closed the show, and left the crowd wanting more.
Wilson was of course willing to oblige, coming back on stage alone with a small practice amp. He bemoaned a recent review of his Vancouver show that claimed he played “Porcupine Tree covers”, ranting multiple times about it (“Can you tell I have a chip on my shoulder about it? These are my songs, and Porcupine Tree played A version of them.”) He launched into a beautifully raw rendition of “Even Less” that gave the song an edge the studio version lacks. Rejoined by his band, Wilson paid homage to one of his idols, Prince, with a lively version of “Sign ‘o Times”, before the concert staple “Sound of Muzak” (“It’s a miserable song but at least it has a singable chorus”) and the bleak “Raven That Refused to Sing” (“It’s miserable from beginning to end and doesn’t have a singable chorus”) which ended the show on quite a downer song, despite its beauty.
But that’s the magic of Steven Wilson. His songs are a catharsis for all forms of sadness and sorrow, and a beauty emerges from the darkness. His artistry is at a career high, and the coming end of the “To The Bone” touring cycle brings with it the anticipation of his next project. We have no idea what it’ll sound like, but you can bet it’ll be brilliant.