Blackfield/Anathema @ Irving Plaza

NEW YORK, NY—After nearly missing this show because I thought it was Saturday and not Friday, I showed up early to NYC‘s Irving Plaza to be sure to catch Anathema‘s set. I know they’ve traveled a great distance from their doomly beginnings as one of the “Peaceville three”—the other two being My Dying Bride and Paradise Lost—but hell, I’ve wanted to see them for at least 14 years now, so yeah, you’re goddamned right I’m getting there before doors.

It was just the two bands on the bill, Anathema and Blackfield, which is the kind of high-minded pop project of Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson and Israeli singer-songwriter Aviv Geffen, and that suited me just fine. As a veteran of Porcupine Tree’s many prog indulgences (some might call them “albums”) and someone who saw Blackfield on their first American run—when most of the band couldn’t get their visas in time to tour and it was just Wilson and Geffen accompanied by Dream Theater‘s Jordan Rudess on keys—it was interesting to see him tackle what’s ostensibly a simpler band with simpler material in a live, full-band setting.

Coincidentally, it was Anathema this time who couldn’t get the whole band into the country—doubtless they were detained at the border and profiled for all their melancholy—so it was just vocalist/guitarist Vincent Cavanagh and guitarist/vocalist Daniel Cavanagh playing acoustically (Rudess was at the show, but didn’t join in). For what Anathema lacked in lineup, however, they more than made up for with excitement and gladness to be where they were. Granted, Daniel had some technical problems before the set got going, but I don’t think they’d have been able to start the set anyway for the cheering and back-and-forthing with the crowd. One guy bragged loudly that he’d seen them the last time they were in the U.S., for the 2000 Milwaukee Metalfest, impressing Vincent a bit but probably not as much as himself.

Their set was short, woefully short (which is appropriate in a way, given the mood of the bulk of their material), but they made the most of it nonetheless. They started with some newer songs from the most recent release, We’re Here Because We’re Here, opening with “Thin Air,” the first song off the album, and including “Angels Walk Among Us” as well with “Deep” from 1999′s Judgement between. These were well received, but the big guns came out later into their time, when they hit up 1998′s Alternative 4—as far back as they could feasibly go—for “Lost Control” and “Fragile Dreams,” both of which were subject to epic sing-alongs.

With the crowd sufficiently melted already, “One Last Goodbye” and set finale “Flying”—from Judgement and 2003′s A Natural Disaster, respectively—more or less laid waste to everything around. Amazing to think of a performance with two dudes and acoustic guitars doing that, but it happened nonetheless. Vincent promised they’d be back with the full band (hopefully that happens before another 11 years are gone), and the vibe was thrilling all around. Irving Plaza was pretty packed, and everyone just seemed so happy to be seeing Anathema, and Anathema, likewise, seemed so happy to be there. It was a great time.

The room thinned out somewhat for Blackfield, who took the stage in speedy fashion and opened with “Here Comes the Blood” from their latest album, Welcome To My DNA, which was even more of a sufficient attention-grabber than Geffen‘s jacket, which had rope lights intertwined with the fabric. Fancy costuming aside, Blackfield is essentially a pop act, so that’s what they were. Champion songwriters both, Wilson and Geffen ran through a long setlist of highlights from their three albums, working in tandem on stage as well as they do on the records.

It wasn’t empty by the time they were through, but the night had clearly taken a toll on the audience, and as much of Blackfield’s material is moody and on the quieter end—despite being unrepentantly pretty—it was a subdued feel, though closing with “Cloudy Now” from the first album did provide a genuine apex, that song’s ending being a high point of the band’s catalog. The crowd was an interesting mix of proggers, metallers, patient girlfriends and sundry other nerds, but those who stayed left happy.

Hard for Blackfield to compete with the event that seeing Anathema was, though. Just by showing up, them Cavanaghs killed, and it would have been hard for any act to follow that. I left Irving Plaza vindicated in my fanboy stubbornness, still wanting very much to see the whole of Anathema at work, and wanting also to revisit Welcome To My DNA to see if I could get a better sense of Blackfield‘s development from album to album. Wilson‘s always been more of a studio presence—his reliance on layering being pivotal in much of his work—but he gave a decent representation live, and that was more than enough for the mass of fans in attendance to see him.