Porcupine Tree Boston 22 June 2002

“I know something you don’t know, doo-dah, doo-dah…” I admit, I was in a bit of a silly mood as I walked up the aisle of the plane flying from Boston to Heathrow. The night before had been a treat, a feast of sight and sound, and there was unlikely to be a single person on the flight who would have a clue what I was listening to, or what they were missing. Should I try to explain, no doubt they would smile kindly back in the knowledge they were sitting next to one of those people who takes some things just a little too seriously… After all, it was only a band, surely?

Perhaps they would be right. Perhaps… No, scratch that thought. The Porcupine Tree gig in Boston the night before was worthy of the highest accolades, indeed it deserved to be shouted from the rooftops and church spires across the land. The final, lingering, memorable moment, of five musicians and artists ranged across the stage, their eyes alight with joy and embarrassment as they absorbed the collective delight of the audience during the second standing ovation of the evening, was testament to the whole event. Such an unlikely success – the Berklee Center was assigned seating only, balconied more like a cinema than a music venue, hardly conducive to building a rapport with the audience. There was no bar, no loosening of minds, bodies or spirits – not that dancing was an option. The joint billing with Opeth, who had had first bite of the cherry, and the ludicrously early curfew of 11 pm meant that the Tree’s set was restricted to an hour and a quarter, leaving little room to manoeuvre. On the upside the sound was good, the stacks of speakers designed to fit with the acoustics of the theatre, a location which prided itself on its musical heritage.

And somehow, everything just came together. By the time eleven o’clock hit and the band attempted to leave the stage for the first time, it had already been a perfect night. Perhaps the desire to stand came as much from being forced to sit through more than an hour of music that was designed for anything but sedentary listening, but nobody would deny the rapturous applause was deserved. Something must have happened offstage, for though the clock on the wall facing the band read a minute past witching (or at least legal licensing) time, Steven Wilson led his players back onto the stage for an unexpected encore. “We’ve just got time for this,” said Steve, his acoustic at the ready, leading into a version of Trains as a sea of death metal and psychedelic rock fans meekly sat back down again. Not for the first time that evening, I considered how Porcupine Tree was a guitar band, with Richard Barbieri’s aural canvas, and Gavin Harrison’s intricate rhythms serving as a complex click-track for the layers of interplay from the three guitarists standing before them. And the vocal moments, though essential, sometimes appeared as little more than a respite, a sorbet between the courses of guitar. Throughout the gig it had been the same, admittedly because it had concentrated on the heavier, more guitar-filled numbers such as, well, most of In Absentia.

There were a few older songs, including Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth and one I had never heard before, but even the so-called slower numbers had their fair of share of “rock posturing”, as Mr. Wilson would put it. And songs such as Strip The Soul were a take-no-prisoners, full-on barrage of axe-wielding with Steve and John Wesley, the on-tour guitarist who fits in with the other members of the band on stage like he has been playing with them for years ( and I dearly hope he will continue to do so) – Steve and Wes were playing off each other so in sync, that there appeared to be some kind of telepathic link between the two. It is no criticism of Wes that the best guitar moments came from Steve, as his hands whirled across the frets like dervishes. Being the front man, band founder, virtuoso and musical visionary has its perks, after all.

The sound was impeccable, at least to my untrained ears (Ian on the sound desk was as self-critical as ever). That’s not to say it was like listening to a stereo that’s not turned up too loud. I felt the bass ripping at the legs of my trousers as I sat, the drums and guitars waged a war of attrition against my senses with only the occasional solo Barbierism or break of acoustic guitar to soothe my perforated eardrums and stress-fractured brain cells. That’s not quite true of course. There were the gaps between the songs, filled with amusing banter from Steven, who seemed as bemused as the audience by the seating arrangements – or indeed requirements. “You will have to seek alternative ways of expressing yourselves,” he said once, using the same line to good effect later to silence a heckler.

From the very start of Porcupine Tree’s set, opening as they did with the currently obligatory Blackest Eyes, they set themselves apart from the band that had preceded them. This is not to fault Opeth, who played a thoroughly convincing set of guitar rock. Having said this, Opeth (“most of you will know us more as a death metal band,” said the singer) didn’t seem entirely comfortable with their new material, being a little more melodic and mellow than their usual fare. So I am told – I confess to being an Opeth newbie. It felt a little like if Marylin Manson had been asked to play at a party for underprivileged children – good music, good songs, clear competence, but just a little unsure and stilted. In comparison, the band that followed was almost choreographed in the completeness of its sound, and was relaxed in a way that only people that are at the peak of their art can be. Heck, maybe the Opeth fans saw it the other way around.

As we left the venue, opinions were divided on whether the enforced seating had helped or hindered the enjoyment of the performance, but one thing was for sure – that it had been the best Porcupine Tree gig that any of the crowd I was with had seen, if not one of the best gigs ever. As it was only my third, I couldn’t comment too deeply. Walking back towards the hotel, I remember wondering that if Porcupine Tree are this good now, how much further can they go? I know something you don’t know, perhaps, but as they continue to tour and build a US following, I hope this is a situation that doesn’t last for much longer. Shout it from the rooftops indeed.

Porcupine Tree Boston 22 June 2002

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