Bruce Mason Theatre Auckland, November 13
With many thanks to Chris Zwaagdyk of Ambient Light for the concert photography
If you caught Crave’s interview with Steven Wilson in September you’d have heard an articulate, thoughtful and intelligent artist: someone who made music both to be enjoyed, and as a vehicle for social commentary, on topics ranging from the plight of refugees, to terrorism, or the dangers of social media. Sure he’d like to be popular, he said, but he wasn’t interested in chasing celebrity. He knew he was labelled principally as a prog rock guy, and he was comfortable with that, even though he’d written all sorts of material covering all manner of music genre.
So an interesting performer emerged from that interview, and going in to his concert at Auckland’s Bruce Mason Theatre last night, the question was how he would represent himself on stage.
The answer is, the thinker and the rocker were both there. With a superb band, and with Wilson displaying his own considerable instrumental skills, he led us through two and a half hours of rock, punk and/or heavy metal, ballad, and passages of progressive, at times almost jazz-like music. Sometimes, it felt like all those elements were present in one song. Many songs were accompanied with video, and the second, Pariah, features Wilson trading vocals with an onscreen Ninet Tayeb, the Israeli singer songwriter. The audience were clearly very familiar with the man and his work, and lapped it up.
Wilson’s persona on stage also spoke of someone who knows music can hit you in the heart and the head. In black pants and t-shirt, with hair long at the front, he was a head banger with the best of them. He said his band were there to rock and he bemoaned the seating, inviting everyone to stand later on (they duly obliged, without prompting).
Yet Wilson’s swirling hand and arm movements at other times suggested a balletic, or even (dare we say it) hippy-ish sensibility. The bare feet helped in that respect. He’s 51 but he looks in his late 30’s. Who says rock provides an unhealthy lifestyle? He also displayed an easy and relaxed manner with his banter, cracking a few jokes along the way. A question about who was under 25 in the audience was funny but also nicely mocking of his own longevity as a musician.
The tone of the evening was set with a piece of video and music which was presented even before the band takes the stage. Called Truth, it shows a series of photos with words attached, words like fact, fiction, family, love and hate. But as the video progresses we see the same photos again, but this time with the words mixed up. What was family might now be fiction. It’s a questioning and an unwillingness to accept the status quo, which, having interviewed Steven Wilson, feels entirely appropriate.
Given all this, it was no surprise the setlist does not follow a usual arc. What you might think would be a show ender, the unabashed pop hit Permanating, was played soon after the interval. The encore was, as Wilson explained, two songs which were miserable, but at least the first had a catchy chorus. They were, The Sound of Muzak and then The Raven That Refused to Sing, the latter a beautiful but sad piece of music, accompanied by a haunting and unsettling video.
This was a bravura display in anyone’s book. Wilson played lead and rhythm guitar, acoustic, bass, and keyboards. He could sing in a pop style, a rock style, and with a near falsetto. His band was superb, with the tall, white haired Nick Beggs on bass, of 80’s New Wavers Kajagoogoo fame, forming his own special bond with the crowd. How often does a bass player leave the stage to join those on the front row? Alex Hutchings on lead guitar, Adam Holzman on keyboards, and Craig Blundell on drums completed a band who knew their stuff, and clearly enjoyed it.
The orchestration of the show was spot on, and the band played to video content with nary a falter. At times Wilson played conductor, orchestrating changes with a snap of the finger or a wave of the hand. It was carried off with a deal of panache. This might be an area where some fans of live performance may take issue. If you like your rock a little rough around the edges, and with a little less in the way of production value, the show may not carry the appeal you’re looking for.
For all that, this was a band in top form playing to an enthusiastic audience. Even if you’re not into progressive rock, you’d be hard pressed not to find something to like in this extremely impressive show.
For more concert photography from Chris, check out the Ambient Light website: https://www.ambientlightblog.com/