Porcupine Tree In Concert: Not Closed, Continuing

Porcupine Tree, Auditorium Theatre, Chicago, Illinois, September 20, 2022.

The kick-off of Porcupine Tree’s first Chicago show in twelve years was nothing if not dramatic: a deep drone booming out as automated stage lighting menacingly swept the 3,000+ plus audience, the house lights dimming at the point of maximum tension — then a full-on visual assault from lights and screen, tracking with the slashing hard rock riffs of In Absentia’s “Blackest Eyes”.

At stage left: Richard Barbieri, ensconced in his wraparound nest of keyboards, conjuring up fearsome sonic webs of mist, gloom and abrasive noise as required. At stage right: Gavin Harrison, similarly surrounded by an overwhelming array of drums, cymbals and percussive accessories — and somehow appearing to be able to hit them all at once. And at center stage: Steven Wilson, throwing shapes on guitar as the power chords crashed, scrambling toward the mike on bare feet to chime in with typically sunny lyrics about a serial killer making a move on his desired prey.

It was an impressive opening, but something seemed off, and Wilson quickly acknowledged the state of affairs — sickness had been running through the band, and tonight it was effecting his voice. Promising his best efforts on both the Tree’s back catalog and the whole of their new album Closure/Continuation, singer and band proceeded to a nimble, ominous reading of “Harridan” and a lilting take on “Of The New Day.” Here Wilson’s challenges for the evening became apparent, as congestion and pitching problems crept into passages sung with less than full power. By “Rats Return”, though, Wilson had his voice under control, excoriating the cowardice of political strongmen both at the top of his lungs and in chilling undertones, while vicious fuzzed riffs raged around him.

The rest of the first set was completely stunning, mixing new tracks with superbly chosen throwbacks like the Floydian angst of “Even Less” and the doomy drive of “Drown With Me”. A zesty “The Sound Of Muzak” had it all: a bitterly hilarious Wilson intro (“21 years ago, I wrote a song about how music was becoming commodified — something you picked up at the supermarket, or as part of a software application. Well, thank goodness that didn’t come to pass!”), one bewilderingly brilliant Harrison drum fill after another, and a spontaneous audience singalong to the choogling chorus. Then it was Barbieri’s turn to stoke the darkly atmospheric “Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled”, its instrumental build eerily synced with the video suicide note of Heaven’s Gate cult founder Marshall Applewhite. And after senseless death, mourning: the new “Chimera’s Wreck” finally clicked into place for me as a survivor’s lament, Wilson diving into the depths of human experience, probing extremes in search of exorcism and catharsis. But after that emotional a ride, what do you do for the second half?

Porcupine Tree’s answer: pull out the heavy metal thunder! While Barbieri still had his moments in the second set (setting up the slow burn of the rarity “Buying New Soul”, duetting with Wilson on keys for the full-on electronica of the new “Walk The Plank”), the focus was on the 2007 album Fear Of A Blank Planet, a blistering portrait of desensitized, overmedicated youth desperate to feel something, to escape their hopeless lot by any means. The title track, which kicked off the set, was a breathless, frenzied gallop — though whether in pursuit of oblivion or fleeing from it was hard to say; the ballad “Sentimental” was a devastating snapshot of a fogged, nihilistic mental state; and the complete epic “Anesthetized” (introduced by Wilson as “something quite long” to fevered applause) proved utterly riveting, from its opening tribal polyrhythms through its brutal, wall-of-downtuned-noise climax to the elegantly spent, Beatlesque epilogue. Wilson and Harrison went to town here, and guest players Randy McStine (who provided point-sharp backing vocals and second guitar all night) and Nate Navarro (who excelled at channeling both the deep, resonant throb of original PT bassist Colin Edwin and Wilson’s clattering foundational work on Closure/Continuation) kept up stride for stride.

But the night had, inevitably, taken its toll on Wilson’s voice: the final new track “Herd Culling” featured a nasty crack on a key high note (“There are apparently some notes I am not destined to reach tonight. Not many, but that was one.”) and he audibly struggled through the last song of the setlist, an otherwise hypnotic “Sleep Together”. So the encore was shortened, with Deadwing’s “Halo” (not a favorite of mine) apparently biting the dust for the evening. Instead, we got a lush “Collapse The Light Into Earth” (another graceful Wilson/Barbieri duet) and a spirited “Trains” (where Wilson asked for and received vocal help from the delighted audience).

All in all, the reunited Porcupine Tree delivered as promised: fine new music and a generous selection of classics, rendered with piledriving instrumental panache and a game vocal effort from a remarkably genial Wilson. The band has hinted that, while a new album isn’t out of the question, this will probably be their last tour together; based on their Chicago show, my recommendation is see them if you can. And save your shekels for the inevitable live album/video if you can’t. An engrossing, thoroughly satisfying night.

Setlist:

  • Blackest Eyes
  • Harridan
  • Of The New Day
  • Rats Return
  • Even Less
  • Drown With Me
  • Dignity
  • The Sound of Muzak
  • Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled
  • Chimera’s Wreck
  • Fear Of A Blank Planet
  • Buying New Soul
  • Walk The Plank
  • Sentimental
  • Herd Culling
  • Anesthetize
  • Sleep Together
  • Collapse The Light Into Earth
  • Trains

— Rick Krueger

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