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Live Review and Photo Gallery: Porcupine Tree at Auditorium • Chicago

| September 22, 2022

Porcupine Tree

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Auditorium Theatre, Chicago, IL

Review by Jeff Elbel. Photos by Andy Argyrakis, courtesy of Auditorium Theatre.

Given Steven Wilson’s prolific nature and the strength of his solo activity, many fans received a welcome shock upon the reignition of progressive rock torchbearers Porcupine Tree. The band’s eleventh full-length album, Closure/Continuationarrived in June. It was the English band’s first release in 13 years, offered with a title designed to suit the band’s undetermined purpose. Was the album meant to close the band’s career arc on a high note? Was it intended to signal the possibility of good things down the road? After witnessing the band’s nearly two-and-a-half-hour display of technical wizardry, songcraft, and intuitive interplay at Chicago’s prestigious Auditorium Theatre on Tuesday, Chicago’s prog audience left with their fingers crossed for more to come.

The devoted crowd rose to its feet before the first notes of “Blackest Eyes” from the 2002 breakthrough album In Absentia. Wilson strode onto the stage barefoot, as usual, flanked by his celebrated bandmates. To Wilson’s right was former Japan keyboardist Richard Barbieri and to Wilson’s left was current King Crimson drummer Gavin Harrison. The familiar trio was augmented by guitarist/vocalist Randy McStine and bassist Nate Navarro.

“Here we are again, twelve years later,” said Wilson when greeting the audience. The singer and guitarist promised favorites spanning Porcupine Tree’s catalog, but he also wanted a fair shot for the band’s new work. In opposition to the norm when a veteran artist announces the intention to play all of a new project, fans cheered madly when Wilson promised the entirety of Closure/Continuation. “I’m glad you think that’s a good thing,” he said with a smile.

The quintet then lashed into three songs from the new album. Porcupine Tree’s affinity for doom-laced prog and grinding riffs remained evident during the bass-driven “Harridan.” Barbieri colored the heavy but intricate guitar arrangement with glistening electric piano and grand orchestral strings. “Of the New Day” began in a comparably gentle mood, laden with melody and vocal harmony before Harrison broke into a Zeppelin-esque odd-time rhythm. Poison-tongued math-rocker “Rats Return” began with a dazzling unison instrumental section reminiscent of Saga before Wilson sang angry lyrics lambasting duplicitous and self-serving politicians.

The mood shifted again for the bluesy prog of “Even Less” and lilting acoustic strummer “Drown With Me.” New fare continued with “Dignity.” Lifted by spacious keyboards, the song was a stirring acoustic tale of a once-promising character struck down by circumstances and rendered homeless. With images onscreen behind the band depicting the difficulties of life on the streets, the song served as Porcupine Tree’s thematic answer to Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” with sonic echoes of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”

“21 years ago, I wrote a song about how music was coming commodified,” said Wilson when introducing In Absentia favorite “The Sound of Muzak.” He described having imagined music becoming something to pick up at the grocery store or rendered as a product for software applications. “Well, thank goodness that didn’t come to pass,” he said wryly. The song’s sublime chorus harbored hard news. “One of the wonders of the world is going down,” sang the audience.

Despite the music’s downbeat themes and challenging construction, the musicians played with communal exuberance and without taking themselves too seriously. Wilson paused for breath at one point, saying, “We’re far too old and wretched, and some of this music is hard, okay?” He added, “If it’s possible, this song is even more bleak than anything we’ve played so far.” The band then offered “Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled.” The song began with what Wilson described as a “cute love song” before drawing from a speech by the leader of the Heaven’s Gate religious cult, who led his flock in a 1997 mass suicide. The sullen but intense “Chimera’s Wreck” found Wilson musing upon the passing of his father and lamenting a fear of happiness. With McStine’s arpeggiated fingerstyle acoustic guitar, the song echoed Pink Floyd’s lonely “Hey You” from The Wall. Navarro’s active but melodic bass line suggested an appreciation for Yes’ Chris Squire.

Following an intermission, the band returned with a set drawing heavily from the landmark 2007 release Fear of a Blank Planet. The unsettling title cut was accompanied by images of disaffected and detached children, left adrift as latchkey kids and desensitized to violence through excessive screen time and overmedication. The band received strong response as Wilson shifted from guitar to acoustic piano for ballad “Sentimental.” Launched with Barbieri’s mesmerizing sound design and driven by Harrison’s grim lurch, “Sleep Together” turned a come-on into a death wish. “Would you like to hear something quite long?,” asked Wilson when introducing the epic “Anesthetize.” Responding to the crowd’s ovation, Wilson sighed, “Ah, such a prog rock audience.”

Closure/Continuation track “Herd Culling” was a highlight of the second set, despite a personal glitch.Wilson had admitted feeling under the weather but promised to get through with the goodwill of the audience. At the emotional apex of the song, Wilson’s voice finally cracked and appeared to be painful. The supportive audience responded with encouragement, cheering Wilson’s effort to hold the show together. “As you will have noted, there are apparently some notes I am not destined to reach tonight,” he said afterward with good humor. “Not many, but that was one.” The unnerving song had been a wary and agitated portrait of a remote homestead under threat by sinister forces and wolves at the door.

An encore of “Collapse the Light into Earth” featured a duet between Wilson and Barbieri. When Wilson announced a final song, the audience groaned that the generous show was soon to be over. “Come on, it’s a long show, seriously,” joked Wilson before adding kindly, “After such a long time away, I’m sorry if we didn’t play your favorite song, but hope you like what we played.”

Before naming the final song, Wilson acknowledged Porcupine Tree’s lack of hit singles. He counted this as a strength, meaning he wasn’t obligated to infinitely rehash a megahit on the order of “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” “Comfortably Numb,” or “Free Bird.” “However, there is one song that seems to have popped up more than the others,” he said. “Help me with the singing.” The crowd roared in recognition of the acoustic-driven anthem “Trains” and eagerly helped with the vocal duties.

Despite Wilson’s propensity for bleak and nihilistic material, the room was paradoxically filled with undeniable joy. It was as if Porcupine Tree and its fans were using the dark songs to exorcise those demons while reaching together for more optimistic alternatives.

 

 

 

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