Steven Wilson. Gothic Theatre. 11.12.16
Images of pigeons, pecking their lives away atop buildings, were transitioned into various street scenes around London, as Adam Holzman set the stage at the Gothic Theatre with “First Regret”. The rest of the band appeared one by one, while the ominous keyboard sounds silenced the sold-out crowd. We had all become voyeurs peeking into the windows of the apartment building projected on the screen in front of us. Lights cycled on and off, representing the lives being lived inside each bedsit, as the time-lapsed film fast-forwarded through the days and nights and weeks and years. Only one window stayed lit the entire time. The television flickered forever behind the curtains in that room, broadcasting banality to a ghost. But that was just a preview of the inevitable devastating conclusion. As the guitars and percussion came to life for “3 Years Older”, so did Wilson’s beautifully tragic protagonist.
The unbelievable story of Joyce Carol Vincent, an attractive 38-year-old woman who lay dead in her bedsit for almost three years before being discovered, weighed heavy on anyone with even the slightest sense of decency, but for Steven Wilson it was something he just couldn’t escape from. So, being Steven Wilson, he used Vincent’s story as a foundation for a concept album about isolation. With Hand. Cannot. Erase., Wilson created a fictional character and backstory to fill in the gaps of the real-life tragedy, while also providing his own commentary (and criticism) on how disconnected society has become in the age of the internet and so-called ‘social media’. Written from the point of view of the female lead, the story contained within the songs was expanded with a blog, diary, and various short films and videos. With so much time and effort put into the concept, it only made sense that the whole album would be performed in its entirety.
A beautiful (very much alive) girl is shown walking around the city, smoking cigarettes. Her attention to style, her tattoos, and her pretty face mask the anxiety within, while Wilson exposes her innermost secrets in song. The music is powerful and all encompassing, as huge guitar crescendos give way to the pristine ringing of keys. Wilson’s melodic voice softens the blow of the gut-wrenching lyrics (“you think of love as just a memory; a fog that smothers you, it’s hard to breathe”) before filling the room with the soaring chorus (“I can feel you more than you really know; I will love you more than I’ll ever show”). Having watched the Dreams of a Life documentary and read the handcannoterase blog, I feel a weight bearing down on me…as if I’m attending a memorial for a woman I have never even met. The whole thing is almost too much, but then the song comes to an end and Wilson speaks for the first time…
“Thank you very much. Do I call you Denver or Englewood? I think this is the first time I’ve ever been here.” When reminded he had actually been here twice, he claims to be extremely embarrassed, but then goes on to promise “an extremely sexual show,” with “no politics, except to say we are here to make pop music great again.”
That type of banter continued throughout the show, thus acting as a valve to release the pressure that built with every song. The performance continued with the title track from the album. Despite the rather grim (but extremely honest) outlook on relationships and love, the song was extremely upbeat and provided the first sing-along session of the evening. The official video, showing the unnamed woman and a previous lover drenched in water, played out while the band fed off the energy of the crowd. Wilson then switched over to a synthesizer for ”Perfect Life”, while Katherine Jenkins’ recorded voice narrated the images of a sister long lost and nearly forgotten.
“Do you like miserable music? That’s a trick question, you’re here.”
I’ve been asked if I ever listen to happy music by quite a few friends. I usually answer that ‘real’ lyrics always make me feel good, no matter how depressing they are. Wilson said it better than I ever could have when he spoke about melancholy music being a part of a shared human experience. He spoke about The Cure and Joy Division and how they meant so much to him growing up in the 80’s. This was all to preface how miserable the next song was going to be. And as if “Routine” (“about the stages of grief”) wasn’t miserable enough, the animations which accompanied it were seriously overwhelming. A woman, wearing all black with puffy and bloodshot eyes, goes through the daily routine of packing lunchboxes, cleaning up toys, making dinner, and setting the table for a family who is obviously dead. It’s all simple strings and keys, so there is nowhere to hide from the reality of it all. By the time the drums come in and Ninet Tayeb gives voice to the rage deep inside the woman, you want to jump through the screen, into the Beetlejuice house, and comfort her. But then Wilson ends up doing just that himself. His softer voice clears the storm clouds (“don’t ever let go; try to let go”), giving way to a purple sunset and some form a closure.
Wilson had been going through guitars faster than the bartenders had been pouring cheap liquor, but it wasn’t until “Home Invasion” when he took over bass duties from Nick Beggs. The centerpiece of the story focuses on the antisocial aspects our digital age of information, while simultaneously being one of the heaviest tracks on the album. Something about the song reminds me of Roger Waters’ Amused to Death, so it was fitting that I was able to focus on Dave Kilminster for the first time. Having toured with Waters for the past eight years, he obviously picked up a few things from the man. Wilson addressed the deaths of 2016 by saying Bowie, Prince, and Cohen were “the blueprint makers.” He said all musicians were using the music vocabulary created by those guys. “Music hasn’t evolved and I don’t think it can.” So, I don’t think I’m out of line when I say there were times throughout the night when Kilminster reminded me a lot of David Gilmour; not in an imitating fashion, but in a ‘following his blueprint’ fashion.
The lack of visuals allowed for the audience to focus on the band during “Home Invasion”, but as the song slipped into “Regret #9”, we were once again reminded of the woman who was coming dangerously close to the end. Her eyes were infinite pools of wonder; pulling you in as they reflected the world outside, while providing the perfect camouflage for the pain that lie beneath. Wilson broke the spell with band introductions when the song ended. “Dave Kilminster on lead guitar, Adam Holzman on keyboards, Craig Blundell on drums, and the blonde bombshell, oh what a tart, Nicolas Beggs on bass.” Then they took things down a notch (“Going to go Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young,”) for “Transience”. Wilson gave up his guitar, sat down with legs crossed and bare feet exposed, and very simply flashed back to a time of childhood; a time when the future was still a possibility. It was the beginning of the end and the woman was thinking back on the advice her father provided when she was young (“it’s only the start”).
“Ancestral” is the longest song on the album. At a runtime of 13 minutes, it is essentially an exploration of all the progressive rock elements that have influenced Wilson up to this point. Pink Floyd, Genesis, Jethro Tull… Honestly, it is my least favorite track, but watching it performed live made me appreciate the collective talent on that stage. It also made me realize the genius of Steven Wilson; he stood up there, literally conducting the band, as they brought his vision to life. Lyrically dark, but musically uplifting, the piece gives a false sense of hope; leaving you on top of the world, only to shove you into the abyss with “Happy Returns”. Joyce Carol Vincent’s skeletal body was found surrounded by wrapped, unaddressed Christmas gifts. No one knows who they were for. If she cared for anyone enough to buy them gifts, shouldn’t they have cared enough to realize she had disappeared for three years? That mystery will never be solved, but in Wilson’s fictional tale, those presents were for her nieces and nephews. As a final dagger to the heart of his listeners, he makes us believe there was hope at the end…
I feel like I’m living in parentheses
And I’ve got trouble with the bills
Do the kids remember me?
Well, I’ve got gifts for them
And for you much sorrow
But I’m feeling kind of drowsy now
So I’ll finish this tomorrow.”
Those are her final words. She pops a sleeping pill, lies down on the couch, and takes one last look at the gifts before going to sleep forever. Her death is imagined as visitors, from a more forgiving world, coming to take her away. In her last dream, she looks up at the night sky and sees green and purple lights as “Ascendant Here On…” marks the end of her life.
The character, based on Joyce Carol Vincent, will never wake from that dream, just as Vincent never woke in London in 2003, but those of us in the audience at the Gothic Theatre in Englewood, Colorado awoke to find ourselves in need of another drink before the second half of the show. It had been an hour and fifteen minutes since Steven Wilson and his band took the stage, but there was still another entire set, as well as an encore, to come.
I could literally write another 1,500 words on the second half of the show, but I have a confession to make. I had never listened to Steven Wilson, or any of his bands (including Porcupine Tree), before this past weekend. The only reason I attended the show was because a friend invited me. I listened to Hand. Cannot. Erase. for the first time on Friday night. That prompted me to stay up until 3:00am. I listened to the album at least three times. I read the blog. And I watched the Dreams of a Life documentary. I became obsessed with the album and all the events that led up to it being created. I was so blinded by the exceptional story, and Wilson’s dedication to the concept and music he wanted to construct around it, that I didn’t have time to explore anything he had done prior. The songs that made up the second half of the show were all new to me. That being said, it was another incredible performance full of great music and extremely entertaining banter.
The second set, along with the encore, included one song from each of Wilson’s other solo albums, as well as a handful of tracks from the 4 1/2 EP, and four Porcupine Tree selections. “Dark Matter” kicked things off, before the industrial (almost spoken-word) “Index”, from Grace for Drowning, followed. “My Book of Regrets” was an outtake from Hand. Cannot. Erase. and it would have fit perfectly into the first half of the show. “Lazarus” was dedicated to David Bowie and it seemed to be a crowd favorite. “Harmony Korine”, from Insurgentes, also sent everyone into a frenzy. It was followed by “Don’t Hate Me”. “Vermillioncore” acted as an instrumental bridge to “Sleep Together”.
The encore kicked off with a tribute to Prince. “I’ve been slightly confused by the reaction I’ve gotten about Prince in the United States. Someone yelled ‘faggot’ at one of our shows… They must have had disinformation, because Prince was not gay… Not that it would have mattered if he was… In my opinion, Prince was the best performer ever.” What followed was an intense cover of “Sign o’ the Times”. I was probably the only person in the audience who knew the words to that song more than the next one, so when Wilson demanded everyone sing along with the “catchy chorus” on “The Sound of Muzak”, I was the only one who could not comply. I’m a quick study though, so by the end of the song I’d joined along. “It’s one of the blunders of the world that no one cares; no one cares enough!”
Steven Wilson is a prolific man. He admitted to such when he spoke about the “decline of pop music and the frequency of album releases that passes for acceptable.” Recalling the 80’s, when artists released an album a year, and then charting it through the 90’s, 00’s, and 10’s (“18 months, 2 years, 3 years, and then Tool“) he said the infrequency was to blame for artists playing it safe. His point was that while he may release too much music, it allows him to take risks. You might not like everything he puts out there, but at least you know something new is around the corner. All that being said, he has his personal favorites as well. He feels “The Raven That Refused to Sing” is the best song he has ever written, so that is what he decided to leave us with. The beautiful meditation on mortality was the perfect close to an amazing three hours of music. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t as emotionally drained as the lonely old man in the animated video by the end, but I was grateful to be alive…and exhaustion had never felt so good.
3 Years Older
Hand Cannot Erase
Ascendant Here On…
My Book of Regrets
Don’t Hate Me
Sign o’ the Times
The Sound of Muzak
The Raven That Refused to Sing