Concert Review: Porcupine Tree at The Warfield

Last night, I caught British prog-rockers Porcupine Tree at the midsized Warfield in San Francisco. I had already seen them deliver a mind melting spectacle at the House of Blues in Boston last September, so I was interested to see if Steven Wilson and company were able to mix things up enough to create a memorable new experience.

But first, the opener. As Wilson later informed the audience, this show was to be the only appearance of Australian band Karnivool on the tour. I have a friend who listens to them but I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised: Karnivool play melodic heavy rock a la Tool, chock full of clanky bass riffs and polyrhythmic guitar interplay. Lead singer Ian Kenny was quite impressive, delivering a pitch-perfect, soaring vocal performance. His slicked back haircut, crisp polo shirt, and robotic gestures also win him the prize for most eccentric stage personality of the night.

I usually don't like to break down bands by individual members, but Porcupine Tree's distinct musicians drawn upon their disparate influences to create their multi-faceted prog-rock sound. Keyboardist Richard Barbieri creates wind-swept, Pink Floyd atmospheres, while perpetually smiling bassist Colin Edwin lays down creamy, jazzy lines. Gavin Harrison's extremely technical drumming puts him right up next to the likes of Dream Theater's Mike Portnoy and Mastodon's Brann Dailor. Guitarist/vocalist Steven Wilson provides David Gilmour guitar heroics, melancholy melodies, and a keen songwriting ability. He also runs about the stage barefoot, clad in sweatpants. Finally, touring guitarist John Wesley also provides smooth backing vocals.

After about 15 minutes of a sustained tuning chord, Porcupine Tree took to the stage with a monster extended version of "Even Less" from 1999's Stupid Dream. That song set the theme for the night. Because this was the only concert of the tour that the band wasn't coheadlining, Wilson explained that Porcupine Tree would be experimenting with playing older and less-known songs. He made good on his promise. Within the two hour long set, the group played deep cuts like "Russia on Ice," "Pure Narcotic," and, most surprisingly, non-album track "Stars Die" from 1994.

The band did a great job playing a balanced selection from their enormous discography. For every mellow acoustic moment like "I Drive the Hearse" and "Time Flies," Porcupine Tree crushed a few skulls with the drop-tuned assaults of "Circle of Manias" and "Anesthetize Pt. 2" (one of the few danceable prog-metal songs created, ever). One minute everyone was singing along, the next, heads were bangin'.

I cannot say enough about the visuals, specifically Lasse Hoile's video creations for the band. Whether during the beautiful countryside time lapses of "Time Flies," the eerie apparitions of "The Seance," the stop motion animation of "Octane Twisted," or frenetic, druggy images of "Anesthetize Pt. 2," Hoile's work was perfectly synched to the live music.

The performance was far from flawless. Wilson gave a few false starts and jumbled up several lines. However, the frontman took all his mistakes with humor, remarking, "I bet you didn't see that level of imprecision at the Rush concert last night," after tripping up on a guitar solo towards the end of the show. And honestly, nobody cared during such a remarkable performance.

Here's an edited version of Lasse Hoile's surreal "Time Flies" video. Watch this in HD. You will not regret it.

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