The last time Porcupine Tree graced a UK stage was the 14 October 2010 at the Royal Albert Hall at the culmination of their tour for The Incident album. This would be the last we would hear of Porcupine Tree for eleven years.
Porcupine Tree – OVO Wembley Arena – 11 November 2022
Words: Robert Adams
Photography: Steve Ritchie
Steven Wilson covered the Royal Albert Hall gig at the start of his wonderful autobiography, Limited Edition Of One. He states that at that point in Porcupine Tree’s career, they were burnt out. The tour for The Incident was a long slog, and what started out as small annoyances ended up becoming too much to take anymore.
The band left the stage that night at the end of a long show that Wilson himself says was an average performance and wouldn’t step foot on stage again until 2022.
Fast forward to 11 November 2022, and over 12,000 people are waiting with the undisguised expectation of seeing their idols live once more. This is the last gig of Porcupine Tree’s massively successful Closure / Continuation tour that saw the band sell out arenas all over North America and Europe and play their first ever show in Chile.
MetalTalk have a glorious vantage point as the house lights dim, and a taped version of Even Less / Stupid Dream introduces the band on stage. Master of ceremonies Steven Wilson, centre stage and predictably barefoot, looks suave in black jeans and a grey button-down shirt with his PRS gold top around his neck.
A white-haired Richard Barbieri is perched atop a riser stage right surrounded by his banks of keyboards. Drummer Gavin Harrison is atop his riser stage left. Original Porcupine Tree bassist Colin Edwin is surplus to requirements these days, and Nate Navarro from Texas, in the United Kingdom, according to Mr Wilson, is holding down the bottom end in front of Gavin Harrison.
Randy McStine, from New York City – also in the United Kingdom, again from the Steven Wilson world atlas, is on lead guitar and vocals and is in front of Richard Barbieri on stage right. It’s quite telling that both Navarro and McStine never venture far from their allocated positions at either end of the stage as the show progresses.
Blackest Eyes kicks off proceedings properly, and it’s a sight and sound to savour. The visuals on the huge screen behind the band show a bald-headed fellow that all of the crowd are familiar with, writhing around as the wonderful light show swathed its way across the stage and crowd.
The sound is crystal clear, which is no mean feat in a shed like Wembley Arena.
The crowd almost take the roof off Wembley at the end of the song, and the whole band look justifiably proud and thankful. Wilson then informs us that it’s going to be a long show. He also states that this is only the second all-seated show they have played on this tour. He tells those on the floor that they can stand up as long as they stay within their allocated seating space. Almost as one, the entire floor area stands up.
“That’s better already,” Wilson says.
He says they are going to play a lot of songs, including the whole of the Closure / Continuation album, and he playfully berates someone in the crowd who hadn’t bought it. We then continue with Harridan, Of The New Day and Rats Return from Closure / Continuation, and they sound incredible live.
Again, major props to the sound man. Porcupine Tree’s music has a lot of subtle nuances, and absolutely nothing is missed in this live mix. It’s remarkable to hear. To perform this music at this level means that everyone on stage has to bring their A-game, and they really did.
Wilson introduces The Sound Of Muzak by saying this was a song he wrote 21 years ago about how music was becoming a commodity and mere content for online streaming. He then called himself a visionary.
Before playing the catchily titled Last Chance To Leave Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled, Wilson asks the crowd how many were listening to Porcupine Tree in the 90s. As a lot of the crowd cheers, he then asks where they all were when they played a gig in London in 1995 to only 14 people.
A truly jaw-dropping Chimera’s Wreck closes the first set, and we have a 20-minute break, probably so we can get our heads around what we have just witnessed.
The second set starts with the title track from the band’s Fear Of A Blank Planet album, with Wilson cheekily changing one of his lyrics to “he plays in a band, they sound like Japan”, much to ex-Japan keyboard player Richard Barbieri’s amusement.
New songs Walk The Plank and Herd Culling again sound astonishing live. Wilson then points out that there are a few Heavy Metal fans in the crowd. “The next song is a long one,” he says, “which obviously means it’s better than a short one and also because I wrote it.” We are then treated to the sumptuous Anesthetize. Randy McStine pulls off Alex Lifeson’s solo from the studio version with comparative ease before the song’s heavy section kicks in. Gavin Harrison is making the most intricate drum fills look like child’s play, and he does this throughout the whole show.
The set closes with an incredible version of Sleep Together before the band briefly leaves the stage.
Wilson returns and takes a seat on his keyboard riser along with Richard Barbieri to his right. We are then given a beautiful rendition of Collapse This Light Into Earth. After the first chorus, Barbieri encourages the crowd to light their phone torches, and before you know it, Wembley becomes a sea of twinkling lights. The normally unflappable Wilson is taken aback at the sight that greets him, saying, “You’ve made me forget the words Wembley.”
Wilson then straps on his guitar for Halo, and he still hasn’t regained his composure as he forgets the lyrics halfway through the first verse. Barbieri points Wilson in the direction of the big screen behind the band, which has the song’s lyrics scrolling across it. This causes the pair of them much amusement as the song rattles along. At no point during those lyrical mishaps did anyone in the band miss a note musically.
Wilson then tells us that we’ve reached the last song of the evening and that they are going to play a medley of Don’t Fear The Reaper, Enter Sandman, Hotel California, Sweet Home Alabama, NOT Freebird. He says he’s joking, as that would sound awful.
His point is that Porcupine Tree doesn’t have any songs like that. He says that all the Porcupine Tree songs have been failures, and that used to bother him a lot. He says he quite likes that fact now – although not many in the crowd believe him. He then goes on to say that there is one song that’s become less of a failure than others and has risen to become a fan favourite.
So the show ends with the beautiful Trains with the crowd belting out the last refrain of “It’s ok” at the top of their lungs.
Many present tonight thought they would never get to see Porcupine Tree live again, myself included. What we witnessed tonight was almost three hours of some of the most beautiful songs ever written, performed by a band at the very top of their game.
Wilson’s stage presence can be viewed as a mixture of confidence and arrogance, but when you are as talented as he undoubtedly is, his touches of arrogance are justified.
If you missed this show, fear not. The band’s gig in Amsterdam was recorded for a live album / DVD release, and they will be doing selected festivals next summer – including Manchester’s Sounds Of The City festival in June.
Miss them at your peril.
Porcupine Tree – Setlist
Of The New Day
Drown With Me
The Sound Of Muzak
Last Chance To Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled
Fear Of A Blank Planet
Buying New Soul
Walk The Plank
I Drive The Hearse
Collapse The Light Into Earth