Blackfield, the collaboration between Steven Wilson and Aviv Geffen, has produced two studio albums so far and remains an active, if not full-time, project for the duo. It isn’t full-time because Steven Wilson fronts the prolific prog-rock act Porcupine Tree while Geffen is a longtime Israeli rock star just now trying to break himself worldwide with his first English-language album. This live CD and DVD set captures a performance by the band in March 2007 at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom, shortly after Blackfield II was released. The set contains all but one of the tracks from Blackfield II, another eight from Blackfield, and one cover.
The two discs are essentially the same, with all of the same songs. The only thing missing from the CD version is a little bit of stage banter, and there isn’t much of that. The performance, in front of an enthusiastic but respectfully quiet crowd, is strong and energetic but not very personable. The renditions of the individual songs, though, aren’t significantly different from their original album versions. Plus, from what I can tell, this particular set was already released in a dvd-only version back in late 2007. So the appeal of this new edition may be limited to hardcore Blackfield completists and curious newcomers.
As one of those newcomers who happens to be a longtime Porcupine Tree fan, the nearly 80-minutes of material included here is a robust introduction to Steven Wilson’s most prominent side project. The set opens with the pounding drums of “Once”, a bright rock song that takes full advantage of Wilson’s soaring vocals. It sounds exactly like you’d expect a more mainstream rock project from Wilson to sound- catchy and concise, yet with a bit of a hard-rock edge. Geffen takes over on the second track “Miss U”, a mid-tempo rocker about a lover leaving. His lower, fuller baritone voice contrasts nicely to Wilson’s, although I’ll admit that his thick Israeli accent was a bit of a distraction at first. Wilson is back on lead next for “Blackfield”, a melancholy keyboard-driven song that wouldn’t feel out of place on Porcupine Tree’s albums from the early 2000s. Wilson sings again on “Christenings”, a cynical song about a fallen former female rock star.
From this point on, the set is much more balanced between the two frontmen. As the show goes on, though, a pervasive mopiness starts to reveal itself in Blackfield’s songs. The songwriting remains strong from both men, but the parade of “woe is me, a woman hurt me”-style lyrics casts a bit of a pall over the concert. True, Blackfield is far from the first band to concentrate on these topics, but after the upbeat opening of “Once” it’s a bit of a downer for the rest of the concert to be so much in the “life sucks” vein (song titles include “The Hole in Me”, “Pain”, “Cloudy Now” and “The End of the World”). The upbeat mood of “Once” is probably why they play it for a second time during their encore; they don’t have anything else that as much of a rocking crowd-pleaser.
There are a few moments in the middle of the show where the gloom lifts a bit. The band’s surprising cover of Alanis Morrisette’s “Thankyou” turns out to be a wonderful choice. Steven Wilson’s clear and clean vocals bring out the song’s melody and hopeful feeling more than Morrisette’s more nasal, sarcastic-sounding original. The band’s spare, pretty arrangement of the song makes it sound quite positive. The song that follows, “Epidemic”, may be the best of the duo’s collaborations. The lyrics are just as depressing as the rest of the band’s material, but the songwriting is a cut above. The song starts with a simple, arresting piano line and gradually adds in the rest of the band as the track turns into a full-on rocker, complete with squalling guitar solos from Wilson. The two singers trade off vocals and harmonies effectively, as well, making it a showstopper.
The DVD is a no-frills document of a solid performance. There is nothing particularly exciting about the camerawork, but the video is full of long shots that let you watch the band actually perform. No quick-cutting MTV-style clips here, the focus is firmly on the band. The light show is restrained to the point of boredom, mostly cloaking the band in blues and greens and hardly ever changing noticeably during a song. Watching the video, the personality differences between Wilson and Geffen are immediately apparent.
Geffen is the more flamboyant rock star, taking the stage in glittery eye shadow. He also gradually removes his jacket, and then his shirt, performing the last quarter of the concert with his sculpted six-pack abs in full view. Wilson is a much more restrained performer, playing to the crowd with his guitar solos, but mostly letting his voice and passion do the work. The rest of the Israel-based band lets the two frontmen keep the spotlight while they do strong backing work on drums, bass, and keyboards.
For the established Blackfield fan, the appeal here is the DVD, if you don’t already own it. The CD is worthwhile as a slightly different combination of the band’s songs, but with only two albums in the band’s catalog and performances that are pretty much note-for-note renditions it seems a bit superfluous. For newcomers, though, NYC serves as a solid introduction to the band. You get a live dvd and a cd with something like 80 percent of the band’s material in one place. That makes it worth a mild recommendation, at least, even if that material tends to be a little too self-involved.