Steven Wilson – Shepherds Bush Empire, London, 31st October 2011

Grace for Drowning was one of the most eagerly awaited albums this year, and certainly lived up to all expectations in my book, so my anticipation for this show had been building for some time, ever since my esteemed colleague PW managed to acquire the tickets some months ago.

Not knowing what time Steven was due on stage, and vaguely recalling a posting on his Facebook page asking the fans to get there early, we were seated to the right hand side of the upper tier by 7:20. The stage is shrouded by what my mate referred to jokingly as a “net curtain”, and some ten minutes later the house lights dim and Lasse Hoile’s trademark bleak images, changed every ten minutes or so, are projected onto the thin gauze accompanied by Bass Communion’s ambient drones, which are an acquired taste at the best of times. This carried on for an hour, which was probably at least half an hour too long. One wonders why we were asked to arrive so early? Another of Steven’s polite requests was no photos please, which I have adhered to, but judging by the tens of mobiles going off all through the evening it was an instruction that was largely ignored. Assuming the request was down to Steven’s perhaps understandable dislike of low quality images, it is somewhat ironic that a recent slideshow on his Facebook page is comprised of amateur iPhone images taken by an audience member at the previous week’s Paris gig. Ho-hum…

Come 8:30 eventually one by one the band take up their positions and begin playing the opening song. For the first 20 or so minutes of the set the “net curtain” remained in place in front of the band, occasionally used as a backdrop for more of Lasse’s images, which were much better displayed later on the backdrop behind the band. I now know how a poor unfortunate suffering from cataracts must view the world. It wasn’t until the veil was lowered during Sectarian, to a big cheer from the sell out crowd, that I really began to enjoy the gig.

Steven acted mainly in a conductor’s capacity throughout, playing occasional keyboards or guitar, and of course singing. He said he was going to be taking a back seat and would let the band do their thing, and a splendid “thing” it was too! Nailing down the beat to thunderous effect but also displaying subtlety where needed was Marco Minneman, on bass and Chapman Stick was Nick Beggs, who is now something of a prog stalwart, being a long time member of Steve Hackett’s band. He sure has come a long way since Kajagoogoo, but he still retains a slightly daft haircut! Lead guitar duties were performed with panache by Aziz Ibrahim, formerly (and briefly) with the Stone Roses, his guitar was a light show in itself. Nick and Aziz along with Steven showed their undoubted technical skills on the fast syncopated parts of the epic Raider II, Nick even got to do some guitar god posing, and they all looked to be having a jolly good time.

On keyboards was Adam Holzman, who when he got to play the jazzy piano fills showed his chops off to fine effect. Last, but by no means least was Mr Flute himself, the redoubtable Theo Travis, whose wonderful playing is all over Grace For Drowning. Unfortunately he often suffered in the louder sections particularly from being a bit buried in the mix, which was a shame.

You can see from the setlist below that a varied selection was played from both the solo albums, and the highlights for me were the ultra creepy Index, Raider II which was simply magnificent, Deform to Form A Star, which as my mate says sounds like it could have been a Porcupine Tree song from 1997, Harmony Korine was excellent, and the encore, Steven replete with gas mask, was a moment of triumph.

After an over-long introduction, and the “net curtain” overstaying its welcome, the gig eventually became a truly jaw-dropping display of musical excellence, and was certainly well worth the wait.

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