The music of Hand. Cannot. Erase., the new album by the English musician and producer Steven Wilson, is quite fitting for the big city environment. The record, Wilson’s fourth as a solo artist, is a concept album based off of the disturbing tale of Joyce Carol Vincent, an Englishwoman who was discovered dead in her London flat after two years. Remarkably, no one had missed Vincent during the two years in which her body lay rotting in her apartment; despite having family and friends, she had successfully “erased” herself, to use Wilson’s words, to the point that her presence could go unnoticed for two years. In various interviews for Hand. Cannot. Erase., Wilson points out that if one truly wants to disappear, she should, counterintuitively, go to where there are the most people: the modern metropolis, cities like London, New York City, and, perhaps, even Chicago. About ten minutes before Wilson and his band take to the stage, a projection showing long shots high-rise buildings sets the mood for the two and a half hours of music that follow. The buildings are not unlike the many that dot the nearby Old Town and Lincoln Park neighborhoods.
Although the real-life basis for Hand. Cannot. Erase.‘s story is bleak and troubling, Wilson’s 5 June gig at Chicago’s Park West venue is anything but either of those. Wilson is quite familiar with Park West, as it is the venue that Porcupine Tree recorded their excellent 2005 live DVD Arriving Somewhere…. Wilson’s reputation as the reigning king of the progressive rock world is no doubt in large part due to Porcupine Tree, which he created and fronted up until the group’s hiatus, which began in 2010. As it turns out, that band has yet to leave Park West; even though Wilson has plenty of solo material to play on tour, he resurrects two Porcupine Tree tunes for this gig, namely the Fear of a Blank Planet (2007) closer “Sleep Together” and one deep cut, the charming waltz of “How Is Your Life Today?” (from 2000’s Lightbulb Sun).
Those two tunes, in addition to a cover of Alanis Morrisette’s “Thank U”, are welcome additions to the setlist, particularly “Sleep Together”, which rounded out the first of the two encores. However, it’s the solo material, especially the songs of Hand. Cannot. Erase., that prove the most compelling.
Pulling off the music of Hand. Cannot. Erase. in a live setting, though, is not without its challenges. Most notably, the song “Routine”, the highlight of the record, is structured in such a way that Wilson’s band can never fully re-create the album experience. On the record, “Routine” is structured as a three-way vocal performance between Wilson, Arab Israeli vocalist Ninet Tayeb, and a young boy chorister named Leo Blair (son of Tony Blair, the former Prime Minster of the United Kingdom). Wilson lists off both of those performers as he sets up the song to the Park West audience, and after he names each one, he curtly states, “Not here.” Rather than try to pass off those vocals to someone else in his band, Wilson tells the audience that they will play the pre-recorded vocals, a compromise that is essentially unavoidable. In the end, while it would have been ideal to have all the vocalists onstage, Wilson and the band execute the song splendidly, capturing the powerful dynamic shifts in the song as if that was the way it was meant to be played.
The same holds true for the 12-minute “Ancestral”, a track that Tayeb is a key aspect of on Hand. Cannot. Erase. As the longest tunes on the new LP, “Routine” and “Ancestral” are tailor-made to be expanded upon in a live setting, and the players do not disappoint the Chicago audience, who give standing ovations after each one. (Park West is a seated venue, with a configuration akin to a comedy club; slightly awkward, yes, but ultimately not a barrier to audience participation and enjoyment by the time the evening is up.)
On the matter of Wilson’s band, there’s never a worry onstage that any one of the musicians is going to have to pick up another’s slack. Unsurprisingly, Wilson has with him a gaggle of musically dexterous players, many of whom have toured with his solo band in the past. Keyboardist Adam Holzman and bassist Nick Beggs are returning instrumentalists in the lineup, while drummer Craig Blundell and lead guitarist Dave Kilminster represent new additions, taking over for, respectively, Marco Minnemann and Guthrie Govan, who had to step out of the tour due to obligations with their Aristocrats project. Wilson himself has improved as a guitarist considerably, but he gives Kilminster the lion’s share of the guitar noodling. Beggs once again proves a savvy multi-instrumentalist, switching between bass, Chapman stick, and even keyboards. Blundell proves to be a master of the drum fill, slipping in quick flashes of virtuosic playing in between the main beats of the songs. In a group of all-aces musicians, however, it’s Holzman who stands out most distinctly, wowing the audience with a Moog solo in “Regret #9” that should certainly sate any prog cravings in the audience for a couple of weeks or so.
The songs and the musicians are the two main aspects of the Hand. Cannot. Erase. tour, but there’s one other integral aspect to this live experience that is on par with the other two: the backing visuals. Filmed with directors including Youssef Nassar, Jess Cope, and frequent collaborator Lasse Hoile, the videos that accompany many of these songs are inextricably bound to the music. Their presence on the back projector (and, in the case of “The Watchmaker”, a white drape that hangs at the front of the band) is not as mere wallpaper that happens to complement the music. Wilson has long likened his mind for music as akin to filmmaking; David Lynch is one of his biggest influences, which bears itself out quite evidently on the Nine Inch Nails-indebted “Index”, one of the highlights of the Park West gig. The visuals for the Hand. Cannot. Erase. material are as stunning as has come to be expected from Wilson, with the poppy title track getting an especially striking treatment.
On all accounts, Wilson and his band do not disappoint the Park West audience, including a sizable number of folks who had attended the prior evening’s show, which, like the 5 June gig, sold out nearly a month prior. In an age where the phosphorescent glow of smart phones (and, for those especially inconsiderate audience members, tablets) is a common feature of the concert experience, it’s remarkable to see how little light emanates from the audience during Wilson’s musically and emotionally complex set. Admittedly, Wilson’s audience, as evinced by the age makeup of the Park West crowd, isn’t dominated by screen-addicted millennials (a term I use while recognizing that I fall under it), but it’s nevertheless refreshing to see eyes affixed onstage rather than on yet another digital distraction. (Full disclosure: I think I checked my phone once.)
Hand. Cannot. Erase. may in very compelling terms depict the malaise and depression that often accompany big city life, but there’s nary a sad face to be seen by the time the group closes out the evening with a beautiful rendition of The Raven that Refused to Sing‘s (2013) title cut. Par for the course with his sterling reputation in the art and progressive rock realm, Wilson leaves Chicago with a triumphant presentation of a triumphant album.
1. First Regret
2. 3 Years Older
3. Hand. Cannot. Erase.
4. Perfect Life
7. Home Invasion
8. Regret #9
9. Thank U (Alanis Morissette cover)
10. Harmony Korine
12. How Is Your Life Today? (Porcupine Tree song)
14. Happy Returns
15. Ascendant Here On…
16. The Watchmaker
17. Sleep Together (Porcupine Tree song)
18. The Raven That Refused to Sing