Prickly as a Porcupine Tree – Kunst!rasen

Is it actually possible for concert-goers to enjoy a concert in 2023 without cellphone selfies/images/videos? A sense of “If there are no pictures, did it actually happen?” fills the Bonn Summer air as Porcupine Tree tested that theory out at Kunst!Rasen this week.

There are no adverts about forthcoming attractions. There’s just a large notice on the giant screen behind the Kunstrasen stage when I arrive at 6 pm: “Good evening and welcome to the show. The band wishes this concert to be cellphone free. Please respect this wish and do not take videos or photos during the show”. It sounds like a request, except it is somewhat more serious than that, and the mere sight of a cell phone above waist height has security guards descending on the phone holder in seconds. The press themselves were not immune to the band’s ‘wishes’ either. A contract arrives in my email box an hour before the show, and only on-site are we told that the photo pit is out of bounds – only shots from the faraway soundboard are permitted. Of course, if we had known we would have bought longer lenses… Even the handful of images you see here had to be cleared by band management. By the time Steven Wilson and co arrive onstage, I am dreaming of that halcyon day years ago when the great BB King gave a smile to each and every one of us behind the camera. we were there to do a job, just like BB himself was, and he understood it.

‘Blackest Eyes’ from the band’s 2002 album ‘InAbsentia’ gets the show underway in a heavy, somewhat doom-laden manner that is actually the band’s forte, and has been so since its formation in 1987. There are not a lot of laughs to be had at a Porcupine Tree concert. A wry smile from singer/songwriter Steven Wilson, when he sings the wrong words mid-song in part two, is all you get where ”happy’ is concerned.

Wilson is well aware of the band’s reputation though. When a threatened rain shower finally turned to reality he shrugged it off with “Wherever we go we bring the rain. Sun just doesn’t go with our material!”. If the rain was expected by tonight’s audience, then the announcement that bassist Nathan Navarro was missing from tonight’s line-up due to personal circumstances was not expected. Drummer Gavin Harrison dug deep all evening into the bass-drum pedal but a rockband without a bassman? The show must go on…

‘The show did indeed go on. In two sets that put the band onstage for around 160 minutes. Cudos for that gentlemen! There were some older rarely played live songs in set one. from 2005’s ‘Deadwing’ disccame ‘Mellotron Scratch’ and ‘Open Car’. There were some long tracks in there too as might be expected from progressive rockers; in particular ‘Anesthetize’ from 2010 which must have weighed in at over 15 minutes. A quarter-hour of searing Prog-Rock at its bombastic best it was too.

2001’s ‘Sound of Muzak’ was announced by Wilson as a song about the sad state of music at the time of Napster, infringing of copyright laws and musicians not getting their share of the money. Nothing has changed there then, other than Napster disappearing. Maybe Wilson’s analysis of tomorrow’s (now todays) music was a bit too bleak though?

The music of the future
Will not entertain
It’s only meant to repress
And neutralize your brain

Porcupine Tree though did entertain, and with no attempts to neutralize our brains. Behind the music was a, seemingly obligatory these days, giant video screen. A shame that with the usual 10 pm finish it didn’t really get dark enough to appreciate much of what was there. Certainly the vivid red wolf from ‘Herd Culling‘ was eye-catching though and the song itself had a strong dynamic that helped replace a slight lack of volume (yes, it has to be said that Rock music is loud music and Kunstrasen’s obligations to keep the decibels down are preventing some bands from sounding their best – and likely as not preventing some bands from playing here in Bonn at all, which is a shame).

By 10 pm the last notes of ‘Trains’ filled the air after the amplification had a sudden fall-out which seemed to sum up much of the evening for me. A lot to enjoy, but also a fair bit that niggled. Heavy (lyrically and musically) music that one wished could be louder with a backscreen that one wished would be brighter in the evening light, an audience that paid a lot of money but were not allowed to take a picture, a press that were answerable to the band/management. Steven Wilson needs to add a new verse or two to ‘The Sound of Muzak’.

Plenty of musical quality as would be expected from a band with over 30 years of material to draw on. Nearly three hours onstage. A healthy disregard for taking themselves too seriously. Happy faces at concerts end, many finally taking a sly selfie by the stage – “See mum, I was there!”. Perhaps we are heading for a new and better day when fans come to see and hear a show actually living ‘in the moment?’ Let’s not be too optimistic though; this band works best in the rain.

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