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Show Recap

Show Review: PORCUPINE TREE In Philadelphia, PA 

For the first time in over a decade, Porcupine Tree returned to the stage, bringing with them equal amounts of great music and great memories.

Porcupine Tree 2022 (Photo by Alex Lake)
Porcupine Tree (Photo by Alex Lake)

Ever since prog/art rock darling Porcupine Tree went on hiatus around 2011, fans have been speculating about—and clamoring for—their triumphant reunion. Sure, all four members (guitarist/vocalist Steven Wilson, keyboardist Richard Barbieri, drummer Gavin Harrison, and bassist Colin Edwin) were keeping busy with other projects, yet many people insisted that the quartet would return one day.

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And they were right—well, kind of. You see, Wilson, Harrison, and Barbieri announced last year that they’d be releasing their first new studio album in over a decade: Closure/Continuation. As for Edwin, he wasn’t involved for one reason or another. Although his presence certainly would’ve made the LP feel more authentic and sentimental, Wilson did a fine job filling in on bass. Thus, Closure/Continuation was a highly satisfying and justified follow-up to 2009’s The Incident.

Naturally, the next—and arguably even more exciting—step was for Porcupine Tree to announce a corresponding series of shows (which they soon did). Kicking off earlier this month, the touring line-up sees the core trio teaming up with bassist Nate Navarro and guitarist/vocalist Randy McStine (both of whom have established themselves as popular and proficient solo artists and session musicians). Seeing as how guitarist/vocalist John Wesley routinely supported the former quartet, the fact that they’ve once again become a touring fivesome is perfectly fitting.

This past Saturday, September 17, Porcupine Tree played to a sold-out crowd at Philadelphia’s The Met. Recreating a healthy dose of post-Signify material alongside their latest opus, their roughly two-and-a-half-hour set was a wonderfully consistent celebration of the last decade of their initial run (1999 – 2009). Of course, it also cemented that Closure/Continuation is now an essential part of their legacy, and combined with the deafening applause of countless impassioned devotees, it was a joyously dreamlike evening.

Logically, the concert was broken into two sets (with an encore), and each segment featured songs from Closure/Continuation. In particular, the first half included “Harridan,” “Of the New Day,” “Rats Return,” “Dignity,” and finale “Chimera’s Wreck,” whereas the second half finished off the LP via “Walk the Plank” and “Herd Culling.” To the disappointment of at least one concertgoer, they didn’t play any of the bonus tracks (“Population Three,” “Never Have,” and “Love in the Past Tense”), but that’s totally understandable.

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Always jovially sarcastic, Wilson joked about why so many bands seem hesitant to play more than a song or two from their latest record on tour. It’s a fair point, and considering how great Closure/Continuation is—as well as how impeccably it’s copied here—there’s really no reason to complain about hearing the whole thing in concert.

That said, Porcupine Tree knew that the audience really wanted plenty of products from the nostalgia factory (sorry, I couldn’t resist), so they dished out over a dozen of their most beloved classics. Honestly, it’s hard to describe the wave of excitement and surreal disbelief that washed over the crowd when the introductory blend of blue lights and symphonic ambiance gave way to the opening notes of “Blackest Eyes” (from 2002’s In Absentia). Immediately, everyone in attendance was transported back in time 20 years, and unsurprisingly, the band nailed it.

The same can be said for the other material from In Absentia, such as “The Sound of Muzak” and “Trains.” Wilson prefaced the former with a tongue-in-cheek remark regarding the unintentionally prophetic nature of the tune two decades on, just as he prefaced the latter by saying it was their only quasi-hit song. They also pulled out album closer “Collapse the Light into Earth,” and while it admittedly didn’t sound as angelic as on the record (for obvious reasons), it was still a beautiful tear-jerker.

Along the way, the quintet more or less paid equal attention to the albums that directly preceded and succeeded In Absentia: 1999’s Stupid Dream, 2000’s Lightbulb Sun, 2005’s Deadwing, 2007’s Fear of a Blank Planet, and 2009’s ostensive swan song, The Incident. They even pulled out some B-sides, rarities, and the like, which was an endearing way to reward the diehard followers.

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Combined, these tracks further reinforced the quality and diversity of Porcupine Tree’s heyday. For instance, softer pieces such as “Drown with Me,” “Half-Light,” “Buying New Soul,” and “I Drive the Hearse” were juxtaposed by heftier beasts such as “Even Less,” “Fear of a Blank Planet,” “Halo,” “Sleep Together,” and perhaps their magnum opus, the 17-minute “Anesthetize” suite. Rarely—if ever—has an art/prog rock band demonstrated such a wide array of stylistic approaches and varied yet reliable songwriting.

There was never any doubt that Harrison, Barbieri, and Wilson would be terrific during the entire performance, with as much musical and personal chemistry as you’d imagine. Indeed, the bigger question was always what McStine and Navarro would bring to the table, and thankfully, they fit right in. Specifically, Navarro kept up with Harrison every step of the way, dishing out a combination of faithful Edwin bass lines and characteristic innovations. Likewise, McStine’s guitarwork and singing were typically outstanding, and he effectively filled in for Wesley vocally and instrumentally while infusing his own styles into the sequence.

As with past Porcupine Tree shows—as well as the solo tours Wilson did during the 2010s—there was a lot of traditionally captivating and curious visual spectacle, too. In addition to the requisite abundance of wavering colored lights, the band’s large projector cycled through plenty of intriguing films and photos. From abstract glimpses as farms, space, and molecular biology to animated pedestrians, strange platforms in water, and of course, swirling pills, there were always fascinating sights to behold.   

Seeing Porcupine Tree at the Met would’ve been incredible simply due to its unreal nature. After all, many original fans have grown up quite a bit since the band were last active—for instance, I went from being in my mid-20s to being in my mid-30s—so it’d make sense if a few people needed to be pinched just to make sure they weren’t having a stupid dream (again, I couldn’t resist).

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Fortunately, their performance was also incredible because, well, it was packed with both great memories and great music. Backed by the faultless support of McStine and Navarro, Harrison, Wilson, and Barbieri held the audience in their hands from start to finish. True, attendees who’ve been around since Wilson’s earliest home demos may’ve been disappointed by the lack of anything from 1996’s Signify or before, but it’s difficult to complain about what they didn’t play considering all of the gems that they did.

Above all else, Porcupine Tree was able to simultaneously bond with older fans and blow away newcomers. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, their music—especially the later albums presented here—culminates in one of the greatest catalogs in modern popular music. No matter where the primary trio goes from here, then, their ability to reproduce so many classics for a new generation (amidst giving every longtime admirer an experience they never thought they’d get again) was reason enough to rejoice.

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Exhausted and frustrated creatively, the band drifted into the background until this year.

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