I headed off to The Smoke with Roger and Phil Walker (t'other, t'other Phil) in the wife's Zafira, believing it would be considerably more economic than taking the Sexy Tractor™ which is a 1.9 injection while the Vauxhall is a simple 1.6 - makes sense to take the more economical, on paper, car. Hah! The fucking Zafira drinks petrol like I'd quaff Oakham beer if I had the money, the time and the inclination to end up with the hangover from hell. I had about a ¼ of a tank, so stuck another £10 in and it barely dented our wonky fuel gauge™. We also decided to do London the less strenuous way, which meant a 20 mile diversion down the A43 to join up with the M40, which takes you, literally, to the doorstep of the Empire.
My first 20 minutes in Londinium was spent fretting about the petrol consumption of my wife's car; deciding that a steady 70mph in the Sexy Tractor™ would have been a far more sensible idea and would have meant that for yesterday only my beautiful Sexy Tractor™ would have four stinking dogs running riot in the back. It's also a bloody comfortable car and I have a back rest in it that was missing from the Zafira. Still, my frame is decidedly good at the moment; I felt 10 years younger when we got into Shepherd's Bush. I was out of the house and there was an entire bustling world at my fingertips. Roger, however, wasn't enamoured by my desire to slowly find an alternative pub to the ones we'd found within 5 minutes of arriving. I wanted to walk - it was almost warm - and I wanted to take in West London's version of the City. Roger's amazement at my desire to walk and generally take in the ambiance was quickly being replaced by a raging hunger and a desire to punch my face in. It happens.
We found a pub that did arty farty pub grub and poor beer, the alternative was not much better, but on our walk we'd spotted an all you can eat vegetarian Chinese buffet, which I believe Roger thought ticked all the boxes I require. I was being obtuse. Not deliberately, but I struggle with the concept of these 'buffet' styled diners. I'm a fussy bugger and am very worried if there is foreign things in the food I like. In the end I could see Roger beginning to become the grumpy bastard I first met many years ago, on the Isle of Wight, when the weather was almost like Spain. So we ate Chinese(ish).
The food was good; the slow walk across Shepherd's Bush Park (more like a splodge of green in a concrete and steel metropolis), we got into the long queue waiting for the doors of the Empire to open. We had a sense of urgency about us, because while we're all seasoned gig goers, Steven Wilson is a funny bugger with his gigs - in whatever form they take. It stated on his web site that the doors opened at 7pm and not to be late and as we'd missed the entire North Atlantic Oscillation set when we went to see Porcupine Tree last year, we felt the need to get in there as early and with as little fuss as possible. Hah!
Jasper Carrot talked of always getting the lunatic on the bus; well, I'm the fucking daddy of that now. There's this guy, looking a bit pissed, wearing a chavvy tracksuit and he's walking along the road, next to the queue and he just sees Roger, Phil and I and he must have thought, There's 3 easy touches; obviously out of towners.
"Excuse me gents." The world was going to end... His opening line was really all I can remember about his initial words and I can only really remember snippets of the conversation, which probably lasted no more than 5 minutes, but felt like a week. He was looking for money - natch - but this was because he'd run out of it and wanted a pound from us so he could get another drink. I remember saying we didn't have zany money and would he please go away, but this was like a red rag to a bull and he started to get... the higher ground.
Now, I know I'm a master of relaying conversations; a god at comebacks and witty retorts, but last night, I just had that feeling that starting an argument/discussion/conversation with this slightly crazy looking man would end in tears, so I bit my lip and started to stare at the skies. On retrospect, it wasn't a fare thing to do to Phil or Roger, but I just knew that I'd get wound up by this disgraceful chancer's affable Northern snake charmer act. He asked questions about why we were all standing in a line and trying his best to 'win over' my two associates. He probably figured he'd cut me out of the picture and go straight for my friends. He asked a question and I said, "We'd just like you to go away and bother someone else." I didn't look at him, nor did I rise to his rising grievance.
"I do not like your honesty. I really don't like your honesty!" Huh? What did he expect, me to lie nicely to him? "Look at him; he really wants to hit me. You can see it, he wants to hit me."
"No. I. Don't." I said through gritted teeth; yes, I did want to hit him.
"He just wants you to go away." said Roger, bless his heart.
And, he did, but not without trying to regain the moral high ground by wishing us a pleasant evening and shaking Roger's (dodgy) hand. Thank fuck for that!
However, the fun wasn't to end just there. Phil W got involved in an altercation with a jobsworth bouncer about his back pack, which resulted in Phil having to leave it at the stage door and picking it up later. We got to our seats at a little before 7.30, expecting something. Hah!
We figured, as the house lights went down, that Wilson was going to start at 8pm, but by 8.05 it was obvious he wasn't. We'd joked about not being allowed to take cameras, phones, 8 tracks and various other electronic gadgets in, or Wilson's personal SS would shoot us in our seats, but by 8.10, I was seriously considering standing up and shouting at the stage and asking Wilson, 'if he was taking the piss?'. So instead I spent 15 minutes dozing with my head on my hand. We'd exhausted all the surreal conversations we could manage and I was now getting pissed off.
Wilson eventually took to the stage at 8.30, behind a fucking great big net curtain. The band played the first four numbers hiding behind a veil with projections played on it. I wanted to see if Nick Beggs (Wilson's bassist) still looked like the twot from Kajagoogoo. I had made my mind up that I wasn't going to enjoy this gig and the opening number did nothing to change my mind, but by the time the curtain came down, I was actually really getting into it. The new album works better live than on disc and I was impressed by the quality of musicianship on display, from everyone bar Wilson; who really did what he said at the beginning of the gig, was going to relax and let the band take the strain.
At just over 100 minutes, it was a good solid gig. I don't really like the epic Raider 2 from the new album; it's a bit too disjointed and intricate, especially for a closing number, but that really was my only quibble with the last two thirds of the show. it confirmed my belief that Wilson writes great songs, has an unusually diverse fan base and should probably get more recognition than he does, because he chooses to work in strange fields. Part of me wanted him to do something a little off the wall; maybe do a couple of his Cover versions, or maybe an acoustic piece on his own, but for a rock gig it did what it said on the tin and the empire has a quaint charm about it that juxtaposed the fact that there was going to be some hard rock played.
The thing about Wilson's new solo album is that, I believe, much of it sounds like old Porcupine Tree, tracks like Deform to Form a Star and Postcard could have appeared on Lightbulb Sun and while my cohorts enjoyed the homages to early prog giants King Crimson, I found I enjoyed him the best when he and the band sounded like Porcupine Tree.
However, while a good gig, I feel I can only really give it 7 out of 10.
The journey home was relatively uneventful. We got cheap petrol near Uxbridge and Phil and Roger were accosted by a woman begging for petrol, claiming she'd come out without her purse. Just a fiver's worth, that's all she wanted. Roger walked off mumbling something about it always happening to us and apparently she looked at him horrified. My bet was she was just a good actor, and why did she have a car full of kids?*
I opted for the M25/M1 combo on the way home, figuring that by midnight the traffic would be clear. I was right and we made good time until we hit the M1, which is no longer a motorway in places, more like a big fuck off building site. It was an horrendous journey home; slow, slower and always being aware there were hazards. It took us about 20 minutes less than it would have taken had I followed the same route back as we'd taken down, but by the time I got home I was stressed out and tense. Driving through Kingsthorpe didn't help; I feel for the locals at the way their part of town has just been turned into a nightmare and all because Asda wanted a right turn into their supermarket.
Another observation from the evening was only seeing 2 people all evening looking like they involved in some form of Halloween bollocks; other than that it could have been any night in any town.
* I have a quick theory based on nothing but my innate ability to be right about stuff like this. The two 'beggars' we met last night, were unlike any beggars I have ever come across. Neither looked like homeless or poverty stricken people and both tried reason, guilt and pervasively friendly approaches. I don't think this was a coincidence. I'm not suggesting the two people were linked in any way, apart from their methods. We're a country that for some the slide in real poverty is happening in front of them, but for others, chancers, this is a time when they can target the middle class with stories that would surely pull on the heart strings, or make you feel like giving them money just so they go away. The irony is if I met a genuinely needy person, I still wouldn't give them money; advice most definitely, but never money. You should never ever give them money, because the likelihood is that only 10% of the people you give money to will want it for what they're asking for. It will be collected and go on drink and drugs. If they are genuine, then advice such as where the nearest night shelter is will be appreciated, if not really needed.
I think we're going to see a lot more of this in the coming months; people praying off the concept of others weaknesses.
Quick note about that arsehole banker who appeared on TV last week claiming he goes to bed every night praying for recession because he'll only end up richer. The guy who claims that Goldman Sachs runs the world - which might be the case, but I don't think we really want to have our suspicions about the world being run by corporations rather than politicians confirmed, just yet. This man, Alessio Rastani, is everything that is bad about the planet we live on and everything we have grown accustomed to.
We need a better world.