PORCUPINE TREE LIVE IN MANCHESTER – WHAT HAPPENED?
As the sun sets on Manchester’s industrial Castlefield district, bowed by canals and stands selling ‘Cold Beer’, the parapet opens out onto Castlefield Bowl, set up in all its splendour. Thick platform covers the quay that usually inhabits the space and a huge stage dominates the amphitheatre. A sign appears on the back wall: ‘no photos or videos’ – the band has requested it. It is time for a spiritual experience that simply cannot be relived. A cheer rises from the jumble of prog rock fans and polite, restrained claps echo off the surrounding buildings and the passing railway bridge.
The Most Important Band You Have Never Heard Of appears and the realisation hits me that I am staring at British rock legends; Steven Wilson – a relentless songwriter with over 17 albums to his name, comprised of songs with lengths typically over five minutes long; Gavin Harrison – one of the most influential drummers of all time, and the type of player who manages to hit so many cymbals at once you could be fooled into believing he had six arms.
The stage screen slowly zooms in on an uncanny 3D animated representation of an old man’s face, and then scatters and orbits wildly as the band crash into the first song – Blackest Eyes.
Heads nod in appreciation at the steady, polyrhythmic yet chugging rock, and I find myself presented with the challenge of tapping my foot to the rapidly changing timings. For an outdoor venue, Castlefield Bowl sounds surprisingly good – perfect for the prog fans who want a slice of every splash and chord.
Wilson greets everyone as politely confident as per the band’s stoic personality, and comments on the unlikeliness of the “delightful evening”. “I don’t want to tempt fate, Manchester.” Wilson introduces bassist Nate Navarro, who could not make the show due to a family emergency, as “the invisible bass player”, who joins us through the “magic of technology” in the backing track.
And then the visuals transition to the vista of a strange, unnatural hillside, imposed upon by a liminal square of void. Behind the band, the screens tell a story of their own. Later, an unknown protagonist is stalked through a farm, drenched in blood-red. The crowd claps and whoops as Wilson presents the next piece of music – Harridan.
Porcupine Tree plays a variety of old and new songs, switching from acoustic guitars to electric – in some cases, mid-song. A gorgeous sea-blue headless guitar emerges, and I know we are in for some confusing riffs.
During one particularly long stretch of riffage, Wilson throws a pick into the crowd then stalks about the stage as though looking for a fight, drop tuned rhythm guitar and bass sweep through dissonant verses and open into grooving choruses. As the sun passes between the skyscrapers in the background, a guitar solo wails, and I feel as though I’m in a movie. In the dimming light, the strobing lights and fractal visuals become more prominent. “We’re not really known for our songs filled with joy.”
Wilson pauses to talk to the crowd. He mentions that Deadwing – one of Porcupine Tree’s most iconic records – was recently reissued. He comments on the overpriced nature of such commercial gestures. It’s only natural for such prolific and self-assured artists to be introspective about the state of the music industry, and Wilson addresses this, to which the crowd appreciatively agrees. Around me, die-hard fans clap and murmur. There are somelaughs.
“Some of you even bought it and didn’t regret it.” When Fear of a Blank Planet is mentioned, a wave of excitement ripples through the fans, and myself, too. I know this record – I’ve sat at work, subconsciously memorising Harrison’s repetitive yet intricate grooves, tapping on my desk. The band “attempt” and nail Anesthetize, one of Porcupine Trees longest songs, coming in at 16 minutes. “Are you ready for a really long track?”
With a three-song encore, Porcupine Tree ushers in the night, and I’m left feeling humbled by Wilson’s ability to talk calmly and honestly with the crowd, before exploding into dark, calculated lyrics about driving a metaphorical ‘hearse’. Everything about Porcupine Tree is understatedly impressive. This isn’t showy rock to throw devil horns up to, but gradual, repetitive arrangements to contemplate, and it sounded just as good live as on the records.
You can find more information about the band HERE.