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Porcupine Tree – Live at the 9:30 Club

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Porcupine Tree
w/Robert Fripp
September 26th, 2005
9:30 Club, Washington, DC

If you mention the name Porcupine Tree to anyone but the most sophisticated prog-rock connoisseur, you will most likely be greeted with the standard Porcupine WHAT? They have simply just not caught on here in the U.S. like they deserve to, although the success of 2002’s In Absentia and this year’s Deadwing albums, along with some relentless North American touring are working to cure that travesty. Even though some of their more accessible songs such as "Trains", "The Sound Of Muzak", and "Lazarus" would have easily embarrassed most of the current top-forty slosh, you’re more likely to see James Taylor play Ozzfest before you hear a Porcupine Tree song on the radio. This is why I haven’t listened to FM radio in about ten years.

Porcupine Tree are now at the top of my "must buy/must see" list. They are that good. Their sound is as progressive, moody, and complex as Pink Floyd, yet as tight and powerful as Led Zeppelin in their prime. The best of both worlds. As I immersed myself in their music, marveling at the complex arrangements and Steve Wilson’s brilliant production work, I often wondered if they could really pull this stuff off live. On a rainy Monday night in my nation’s capital two weeks ago, I finally got the chance to see. All of my questions were answered.

Legendary guitarist Robert Fripp opened the show and performed a 45-minute set worth of material from his latest collaboration with Brian Eno. I will admit that I am totally unfamiliar with Fripp‘s work outside of King Crimson, so I had no idea what to expect. What we were treated to sounded like one continuous fusion of incredibly sustained guitar notes and harmonics played over a broad synthesizer landscape, which Fripp would pause to adjust every few minutes. This may have been a fascinating performance for die-hard Fripp fans, but I found it more appropriate for an intimate Fripp headlining gig. I though it made for a terrible warm up for a band like Porcupine Tree. While most in the audience were quietly respectful of his performance, others were not so polite and openly voiced their displeasure. I took the opportunity to show my 18-year old daughter around the club (there is no minimum age at the 9:30), as this was her first time in the club, and her first ever concert.

Porcupine Tree hit the stage just before 10PM and kicked things off in pure heavy-metal fashion with the Deadwing rocker "Open Car" followed by In Absentia‘s heaviest song "Blackest Eyes". Band leader Steve Wilson has recently done some fantastic production work for the Swedish, progressive, death-metal band Opeth, and they have apparently rubbed off on him. I wouldn’t go as far as to label Deadwing a metal album, but it is easily the band’s heaviest outing. This show couldn’t have been more different than the psychedelic, space-rock fusion we heard on Coma Devine Live in 1999. With the exception of two songs, they focused entirely on the two most recent albums.

Wilson threw his fans a few bones this night by including a couple of non-album cuts in the set. The Rush inspired instrumental "Mother And Child Divided", a song that only appears on the DVD-Audio version of Deadwing, and the fabulous "So Called Friend", a B-side to the "Lazarus" CD single, certainly kept the show’s heavy theme in full throttle. It tells you how good Deadwing is when you can cut a song as good as "So Called Friend" and not miss a beat. I would have added it instead of the Lightbulb Sun remake "Shesmovedon", which is included as a hidden track.

The highlight of the first set was easily "Arriving Somewhere But Not Here", the multifaceted, 12-minute masterpiece, and my personal favorite, from Deadwing. This epic song showcases everything this band is loved for – the harmonized vocals, the layered guitars, the symphonic landscapes, the brilliant narratives, and the second-to-non musicianship. Although Porcupine Tree is very much Steve Wilson’s baby, they have been a full-fledged band since 1993 when Richard Barbieri (keyboards), Colin Edwin (bass), and Chris Maitland (drums) permanently completed their four-piece lineup. In 2002 Maitland left the band and was replaced by Gavin Harrisson, just in time for the In Absentia sessions. Along with John Wesley, helping out on guitar, this was the fantastic lineup that performed this night.

I was so impressed with the live musicianship on display this night, that I was joking with myself, "did Wilson go out and get Rush as his backing band?". With Harrison’s Peart-like drumming, Edwin’s dynamic bass, and Wilson’s own soaring guitar solos, it was easy to draw comparisons. Wesley’s superb rhythm guitar and backing vocals added some essential elements to the mix, which helped to accurately reproduce Wilson’s dense arrangements. Porcupine Tree ended the first set with a stunning version of "Halo", which definitely gave me a new appreciation for the album cut. After a short break they kicked off the encore with the sweet, ear-candy of "The Sound Of Muzak" and then dug all the way back to their debut album, On The Sunday Of Life, for the fan favorite "Radioactive Toy". The crowd participation on that song proved that there were plenty of fans in attendance who have followed the band from the very beginning.

The 1,200 person capacity 9:30 Club was not sold out for this show, but I’d estimate that it was about 80% full. I was not expecting this big of a turnout for Porcupine Tree, but having just played here earlier this spring, they probably made a lot of new fans. I was pleasantly surprised at how great the audio mix turned out for this show. The instrument separation and clarity were superb. The light show, which was centered around a large video screen that showed rapidly changing and often bizarre images, perfectly enhanced the bands performance. You’ll see me first in line the next time these guys come around.

Open Car

Blackest Eyes
Don’t Hate Me
Mother And Child Divided
Gravity Eyelids
So Called Friend
Arriving Somewhere But Not Here
Heart Attack In A Lay By
The Start Of Something Beautiful

The Sound Of Muzak
Radioactive Toy

Read all of my DVD concert reviews at Roy’s Reviews

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About Paul Roy

  • Jeff in L.A.

    Great review–you really captured the essence of the band. If only Porcupine Tree could get the smallest bit of airplay, I think they could find a similar level of success as Radiohead and Coldplay. Looking forward to seeing them again in L.A. later this month.

  • guppusmaximus

    Very nice review, Paul:) I can understand the appeal to have Porcupine Tree on the radio but I am very happy that they haven’t gone that route. The song “Blackest Eyes” or “Trains” I believe was played on MTV. Again, I don’t think the mainstream crowd would fully understand Steve Wilson’s work seeing how Coldplay and Radiohead are rather over-produced and over-pretentious. Porcupine Tree has that cutting edge progressive style with a great mixture of catchiness…Way too smart for the mainstream! When you can appreciate and actually play the music that he is into, that’s when you can actually be called a musician. Steve Wilson has done the production for Opeth since “Blackwater Park”. He has also used his production genius for O.S.I.:Kevin Moore(Ex-Dream Theater) -Keyboards;,Jim Matheos(Fates Warning) -Guitars;Mike Portnoy(Dream Theater)-Drums, and did guest vocals on the song “ShutDOWN” on their debut album which if you like PT then you’ll love this stuff. Also try out:

    Spock’s Beard
    Attention Deficit
    Liquid Tension Experiment

  • Guppusmaximus, I’ve got the O.S.I. album, most of Spock’s Beard, both Liquid Tension albums and some Magellan. Prog-rock at its finest. I’ll have to check me out some Attention Deficit and OysterHead based on your recommendation. BTW, I forgot to mention that Porcupine Tree are recording their Chicago shows this month for DVD.

  • My friend, welcome to the PT family of fanatics. GREAT review, well written and thought out. I’m also a huge Rush fan and I’v seen them 28 times. (BTW, Neil Peart is also a fan of PT and he added them to the pre-show music on the R30 tour) I’ve been a fan of PT since the Stupid Dream disc, which at the station I was working at (at the time of release) we PLAYED. Now of course, with the deregulation of ownership rules company’s like Clear (aka CHEAP CHANNEL) Channel are completely taking the fun/variety out of radio, so I don’t blame you for not listening to the radio anymore. I was on-air in the market I’m in from 1988 til last month, when I quit. The reason? Not being able to play bands like PT on air. Has I handed my PD my key and he asked me why I was leaving I told him that I couldn’t compromise my beliefs anymore. Word of mouth is always the best advertising anyway, and I tell anyone I meet thats into music PT is what they should be listening to…