Porcupine Tree – Royal Albert Hall 14/10/10

It’s been a long time coming, but on Thursday October 14th Porcupine Tree played a very special sold out gig (well nearly sold out, if it wasn’t for Cliff Richard….but that’s another story) at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London. I’m sure I wasn’t the only fan sat there in the hallowed home of the Proms feeling more than just a tinge of pride at the fact that Steven Wilson and the boys had defied the odds of a woefully disinterested music industry to become, effectively, the biggest UK band that no one has ever heard of! A cursory glance around the various bars before the gig reveal something wonderful about Porcupine Tree’s audience which is they are, to quote the title of a recent Tree song, remarkably “normal”. A wonderful feeling that anyone and everyone is allowed into the party based on their love of the music, rather than how much prime time exposure the artist has accrued, or what the current state of their love life is in Heat magazine. Refreshing indeed.

The Albert Hall gig was the second of two special fan orientated shows (the first at Radio City in New York) that aimed to explore the back catalogue more fully throughout an expanded three hour set starting with an acoustic opening slot. Wilson and the band came across extremely relaxed on stage as the first of many Cliff Richard references were made (Sir Cliff was in the middle of a run of shows at the Hall), and the atmosphere was intimate and friendly from the start. But this was never going to be a greatest hits show as was instantly made apparent by starting with two songs rarely, or never played live before: Stranger by the Minute and Small Fish. Considering that when Small Fish was first released in 1993 on the Up the Downstair album it probably sold less copies than there were people in the Albert Hall, it was a surreal experience. After five acoustic songs the stage was cleared to make way for the electric instruments, and as the house lights faded the familiar orchestral opening chord of Even Less faded in over the PA and, for me, the gig begin for real. But of course this being no ordinary gig we were instead treated to the full length 14 min version of the song. I’d been at a gig in 1997 when Porcupine Tree opened with this same long version of Even Less as an unknown “new” track, and then having to wait until 1999 for the song to appear on the album Stupid Dream albeit in truncated form. There were maybe thirty people in the room at the first gig, but 13 years on the song is if anything even more powerful as it blasted out to thousands of fans who all unanimously abandoned their seats in favour of standing for the vast majority of the three hours. Following up with a crowd pleasing Open Car from Deadwing established the vibe for the rest of the evening with longer, older pieces being interspersed with new tracks: in the “oldies” camp were such epics as the Sky Moves Sideways (phase 1) and the title track of Up the Downstair, both of which reminded the audience of a side of the band that has long since been left behind – dance influenced beats and long spacey improvisation that all sounded as relevant and thrilling now as anything the band has released in recent years. Wilson really let himself go on many of tunes with some great effects laden guitar solos at ear bleeding volume. In fact, the sound in general was easily the best rock sound I’d heard in that particular hall, with Steven’s voice in particular crystal clear above all of the intricate textures. The lights and visuals were also to the same standard, with the great yet disturbing robot animation for Bonnie the Cat really standing out.

The new album was not played in full as many had expected seeing as it was the last night of the tour, but a generous enough portion of it was played, possibly for the last time in a while – 13 months is a long time to be playing the same stuff over and over again – but it all sounded as good as it had a year before when I’d heard it at Bristol’s Colston Hall, albeit with a little less of the nervous tension that surrounds the early days of a tour. A final treat came in the encore in the form of one more epic tune – the centre piece of the Deadwing album Arriving Somewhere But Not Here. And of course Trains  rounded things off complete with Gavin Harrison magic trick and a mid song thank you to everyone that had made the tour such a success, including a slightly anxious looking lighting engineer who was giving Wilson the “look at your watch” hand signal as the band’s 11pm curfew was dangerously close.

I’ve been lucky enough to see a few special Porcupine Tree shows: Shepherds Bush Empire, the first headlining slot at the Astoria and the aforementioned “intimate” performance on the tail end of the Signify tour. This show probably beats the lot in terms of being “special”, but ironically there were so many unique elements to the three hours that it somehow didn’t manage to eclipse the show a year before at Bristol – not least because of seeing a complete performance of the Incident at that show, plus a few rarities such as Remember Me Lover and Buying New Soul. But, at its best Porcupine Tree at the Albert Hall were as mesmerising and powerful as any rock band, progressive or otherwise, could hope to be – and the real impression was simply one of celebration of all that they have achieved with hopefully a lot more still to come.


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