It begins with the sound of children playing, accompanying projected images of dark satanic tower blocks and urban motorways, all designed to scene-set and grab attention prior to the band taking the stage some eight minutes later.
For most acts, such an immersive opening would be unthinkable, but Steven Wilson has attained such respect that there are no murmurs, heckles or vital toilet visits from the crowd, simply an expectant concentration. Moments later, Wilson joyously delivers the Who-like acoustic guitar riff that heralds the upbeat 3 Years Older and it hits you instantly: tonight is going to be special.
Naturally, the focus is on new album Hand.Cannot.Erase. The exhilarating title track is a rare optimistic moment and even the extensive spoken section during Perfect Life somehow works in this lofty setting, also the home of the Halle Orchestra. The use of taped vocals on Routine doesn’t feel incongruous, even if Wilson’s revelation that the choirboy is Tony Blair’s son is met with mixed – jovial and mutinous – audience grumbles.
The key to Wilson’s live artistic vision is unquestionably the calibre of his musical ensemble. His blond hair clashing with his all-black attire, bassist Nick Beggs plays to perfection; Guthrie Govan has an unmistakable guitar hero aura, his face repeatedly veiled by his wild thatch; drummer Marco Minnemann provides a faultless rhythmic backdrop. Hidden at the back, their unassuming keyboard player Adam Holzman appears to shun the limelight yet retains a strong audible presence. Awkwardly hunched over his keyboards in a position that screams ‘repetitive strain injury’, he’s able to play complicated parts easily, often glancing at the projections during his solos. This is an extraordinarily talented group performing multifaceted music with the relaxed air of a pub band.
The reliance on constant projected images can often disguise musical inadequacies, or worse still, become a nagging visual disturbance. Wilson, though, has managed to ensure that the music is enhanced by the cleverly shot footage, depicting scenes that perfectly match the timbre of the music.
For all the concentration on his current album, Wilson is mindful to break the cycle with songs from his past. The perfect, wistful pop of _Lazarus _gets the loudest reception of the evening, and Harmony Korine, despite the slightly pretentious projections of a bloke donning a crow mask with Worzel Gummidge hands, is extremely powerful.
On stage, Wilson appears ever more comfortable, repeatedly engaging with the audience. Explaining the lyrical themes that appeal to him, such as social networking, nostalgia and regret, he omits the old favourite – “serial killers” – but the inclusion of the sinister Index, replete with disturbing imagery of captured women, covers the topic.
The lowering of a gauze curtain prior to the encore signals the appearance of the elderly, staring eyes of The Watchmaker, with Wilson centre stage, bathed in an eerie aquamarine glow. The Porcupine Tree favourite Sleep Together leads into closer The Raven That Refused To Sing. It remains a magnificent song, even if the rather despondent lyrics have the audience leaving on a spiritual low.
Wilson is continuing to develop as a solo artist at a startling rate. Performances like this indicate that Porcupine Tree is swiftly becoming a distant, nostalgic memory. One not to be erased, though…