“We used to play a little theater in Boulder when we came to Colorado…yes, The Fox! I’d say we’ve stepped it up a little bit this time, haven’t we?” As he surveyed the swanky 5,000-seat Bellco Theater in downtown Denver, of which it looked like perhaps 80% had been sold, Steven Wilson appeared slightly smug about his band Porcupine Tree finally getting their due. A year and a half earlier I had asked him the obligatory question about the ever-present requests for a PT reunion at some point, to which he wryly answered, “Yes, the legend [of the band]has grown, hasn’t it?” He was quick to point out how long the group toiled as a cult band, playing relatively small venues year after year, and how it was only after they “went away” for a decade that absence made the heart grow fonder as the legacy of the band seemed to grow.
The demand for revisiting Porcupine Tree finally has been quenched, thanks largely to the touring downtime caused by a pandemic, which led Wilson to scuttle touring plans for his last solo album “The Future Bites” – twice. [He’ll reportedly offer some of that material and stylistic approach when he tours his next solo album “The Harmony Codex” in 2023]. While claiming this wasn’t technically a reunion (“We never actually broke up.”), three-fourths of the quartet known as Porcupine Tree released their first new album in 12 years with the non-committal title of “Closure/Continuation”. The internet having grown considerably during those dozen years, we can now hear thousands of different opinions as to whether or not “Closure/Continuation” is a worthy come-back album. But the overall sentiment seems to be that the band did a pretty good job (here’s our review). Certainly the band thinks so, citing their collaborative songwriting approach as a primary reason for its success. And here, finally, is the chance to experience those songs – and a wealth of back catalog – live in concert. For many, it would be their first time seeing Porcupine Tree live, having discovered the band as the legend grew while being dormant.
The air of anticipation is electric before the show begins. The tour is curiously short, missing many prime markets for the band in North and South America, so any city which actually hosts a show is fortunate indeed. Wearing any color other than black in the audience will make you stand out and there are plenty of metal band t-shirts in attendance, a bit funny considering only a few PT albums have any metal elements on them and Wilson himself has claimed to be bored of the genre for some time now. Apparently this is also very much still a man’s band, as evidenced by the restroom lines which are about a mile long for men and non-existent for women. But enough pre-concert chatter…on to the music!
As the lights go down, the audience roars and the band takes the stage. Still shrouded in low lighting, Wilson already strikes a somewhat righteous pose as the opening intro of “Blackest Eyes” is played. It’s a spectacular if somewhat obvious choice, for many people this may have been their intro song to the band, perfectly mixing heavy distortion with acoustic guitar. The disturbing videos of that “In Absentia” era are projected on the giant back screen and it does indeed appear that Porcupine Tree have returned from the dead.
Flanking the stage are the new boys – Nate Navarro on bass and Randy McStine on guitar and vocals. Is Colin Edwin, the original long-standing PT bassist, missed? Yes, very much so. Surely Navarro has no problem playing all the parts (though unfortunately the mix misses most of the subtlety of his playing and just wallops the audience with the deep notes through the subwoofers) but Edwin’s downcast smile and pocket groove are part of what the nostalgic kid in us loves about PT. But Wilson has little regard for nostalgia, and plenty of reasons why it didn’t make logical sense to include Edwin in this iteration. Not to mention his nod to jazz musicians who change their personnel out all the time, as they are more dedicated to creative evolution than loyal nostalgia. But this is rock and roll and we do like our bands to stay intact, even if it doesn’t actually work for the musicians themselves. So, some of our cherished memories are jettisoned as Navarro ably covers the bottom end, end of story.
As for Randy McStine, his qualifications are beyond reproach, having just come off gigs with ex-Wilson band-mate Marco Minnemann, who is a kindred soul and collaborator of two co-penned albums thus far. Really, check out “McStine Minnemann” if you haven’t already. Drummer Gavin Harrison had played on a McStine album a decade earlier and simply said to Wilson “This is the guy,” when they were looking for a touring guitarist/vocalist (a role previously held by the much-loved, and friend of McStine, Wes Dearth/John Wesley). Fittingly, McStine thoroughly delivers throughout the night, whether during scorching guitar solos originally played by Wilson, or taking most of the high falsetto parts originally sung by Wilson, especially on the new album. Look for a new interview with McStine that we’ll feature in the coming weeks.
“Closure/Continuation” receives a large amount of air time during the first set, “Harridan” being the absolute standout with an incendiary performance accompanied by stunning video visuals. No question that this is a worthy modern PT classic. However, tragedy strikes five songs-in. Just as the opening chord of “Even Less” is setting the stage for his signature slide guitar entrance, Wilson is not pleased with the tone coming from his amplifier. “It sounds like a banjo!” he exclaims as he actually stops the song. A second attempt results in “Pathetic!” His tech swaps out an amplifier while a concert-goer suggests, “Gavin knows jokes!” to fill the unexpected down-time. Instead, Wilson is forced to prematurely introduce the new touring band members, after which a third attempt at the song comes…not up to Mr. Wilson’s satisfaction. At this point he is clearly flustered, not being able to pull off perfectionist remedies in front of thousands of waiting fans who are having their buzz killed. Begrudgingly he admits, “We’ll do our best to carry on with the first set and remedy this during the break.” And carry on they do, sounding nearly as good as the audience would have ever expected, but the rattling of their bandleader has taken a toll on the collective energy of the room.
Nonetheless, there’s plenty of tasty material offered, from the rare “Drown With Me” – “At least we’re safe with an acoustic guitar” – to the epically titled “Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled”. Gavin Harrison is the official “band director”, and known by most as one of the premier drummers in rock today. Although looking serious and slightly hunched over, his playing is always original, interesting and flawless. The new album boasts some of Harrison’s best work but tonight we also get to enjoy some early masterpieces like “Sound Of Muzak”. Richard Barbieri shines frequently, too, his sonic treatments sometimes revealing that what you thought was a processed guitar solo was really him all along. There’s a few songs in the set-list where he clearly comes to the fore in performance and co-writing, such as on the beautiful new track “Dignity”, replete with videos of the forlorn and homeless on city streets. By the time Wilson makes a much-anticipated escape at the end of the first set, he’s wiped away most of the tech fallout by closing with a blistering take on “Chimera’s Wreck” which is accompanied by a mind-expanding computer-generated video.
Set two is largely dominated by “Fear Of A Blank Planet” which the metal-oriented crowd eats up. Wilson addresses the concert-goer’s conundrum head-on: whether to sit or stand, and he offers relevant suggestions for each section of their sprawling epic “Anesthetize”. There’s something for everyone in this 18-minute centerpiece, from the Alex Lifeson-penned guitar solo which McStine nails and then some, to the crunching middle section, to the hypnotic atmospheric ending where ocean waves on the video screen careen overhead of the band. Above all, this is Harrison’s master-class, leaving all air drummers bewildered and inspired.
“Buying New Soul” is a welcome rare track to elicit the feels even more, while “Walk The Plank” is perhaps Barbieri’s best statement of the evening, along with McStine’s wild guitar squonks and perfectly placed backing vocals. Indeed, sometimes his backing vocals sound so much like Wilson’s voice that it’s a question if there’s a “Steven Wilson Vox” effect pedal at his disposal…or if he’s just that good. Barbieri also has a little alone time with Wilson on the never-before-performed “Collapse The Light Into Earth” which they offer as a duet.
A few songs come and go from the set-list throughout the tour. Tonight we lose “I Drive The Hearse” but we gain “Sentimental” and during the encore “Halo” makes a surprise appearance, the sole song chosen from the “Deadwing” album which Wilson is able to belt out despite the sounds of a cold which inhibits his voice a bit. Pity, really, that there’s not more from that album and many others but Wilson makes a knowing apology at the end, “We’re sorry if we didn’t play your favorite song tonight but hopefully you did enjoy the songs we did play.” The audience responds with a resounding “Yes!!!!” They close, somewhat unsurprisingly, with “Trains”, after a lengthy monologue about the lack of signature classic PT songs that have captivated the #1 Billboard chart for weeks. Yes, it’s still true that in many ways Porcupine Tree remains a cultish band. Perhaps with Closure it will always remain that way. Or there’s always a chance that one day there will be a Continuation and they may yet win attention from the masses. The legend has grown, hasn’t it?