first things first: here is the set list from thursday night’s van der graaf generator concert at the abc theatre in glasgow, scotland (june 27, 2013):
peter hammill announced early on in the show that the band would be playing seven songs during the evening – which from any other group, would have brought cries of dismay, because it might well mean a pretty short set.
but, in true van der graafian form, those “seven songs” contained two very, very long pieces, “flight”(which they began playing live for the first time ever on the last US tour), and “a plague of lighthouse keepers” (which van der graaf began playing on the current european tour – and, that being the first airings of the tune save a very few live versions performed in 1972 – so, a long, long waiting to hear that tune!)…and – between those two songs alone, you have something around forty minutes or more of music.
“over the hill” (what a bizarre and wonderful song to begin with – I could not believe my ears) – is over twelve minutes in length; and “childlike faith in childhood’s end” is certainly over ten minutes in length, so those four tracks give you an easy one hour of fantastic progressive rock music.
add in the “shorter” songs, none of which are that short – and it’s quite a decent length show, despite only eight songs being played in total !!!
the venue itself was tiny (this isn’t the big hall at the abc, it’s the ancillary hall, the smaller one – and I mean it’s pretty tiny – but, packed full of happy scots folk on this occasion), it was incredibly hot in there, but the fans were so astonishing – staying dead quiet in the silent sections of the music, then yelling their heads off and singing along when the music returned after a silence – a really respectful audience, and they really made the band feel welcome and appreciated, I don’t think I’ve ever seen peter hammill smile so much as he did during the applause for “gog” – he seemed positively chuffed, I would say…
now that I’ve described the mood and the venue, I will return to the beginning, and try to give my impressions of the show in terms of the music and the musicianship. let me first say, that I only very rarely attend live concerts any more, and usually only when I feel that I will be witness to truly great musicianship. very few players in this day and age meet my exacting standards. for example, so far, this year, I am only planning on two concerts for the whole year – this one, van der graaf generator (who are, after all, one of my favourite bands of all time) and in november, because I love them, a “modern” band – queens of the stone age (who are my current favourite “modern band”).
that is it – so far. sure, if robert fripp or king crimson or someone of that calibre was touring, and played in scotland – I would make it three concerts. but having seen many of the best bands over the years (bear in mind that I’ve been going to rock concerts since 1973, so that”s actually forty years worth of live shows, and amongst those shows, I’ve been fortunate to see some of the best musicians of the day – very fortunate indeed) I just don’t often get the urge to put up with all the negative aspects of live shows. to see a show as good as this one was – was worth the minor hardships of tiny venue, high temperature, and cramped seating arrangements – well worth it.
so – the aforementioned “over the hill” was the opening piece, and, having seen the trio twice previously, on both of those previous occasions, they had opened with the very, very tricky “interference patterns ” from trisector – so I knew that they would have to break that pattern (pun not intended, but, accepted 🙂 ), and sure enough, they did – but what a choice – with it’s odd stop / start arrangement, and it’s wonderfully dissonant piano riffs, all of which gradually resolves into one of the most glorious pieces of music ever created – the piece becomes less dissonant, more glorious, more beautiful, as it progresses to it’s regal ending. the fact that they replaced the nearly impossible to perform “interference patterns” with one of the most complex, difficult and beautiful tracks from the same amazing studio album, “trisector” (2008) – well, to me, that choice just oozes class. you mustn’t be predictable; the last two tours, you usually open with “interference patterns” – so how can you top that? by substituting an even better track from the same album (your strongest post-quartet album, surely).
a fantastic choice, and I thought it was a great way to start the show. the organ parts, the amazing distorted signature hugh banton solos in this piece are truly spine-tingling in their beauty, and the band played the piece well as they always do – a fantastic starting point for an amazing evening of live music!
next, comes the enigmatic and wonderful “mr. sands”, from the very surprising follow-up to “trisector”, “a grounding in numbers” (2011)– so – two songs from the current van der graaf catalogue, one from each of the first two “trio” albums – to me, a statement, a reminder, that we are here now, and this is the music we are writing and playing – it’s not all about our seventies output. and what better two songs? “mr. sands” means a lot more to me now that I understand what it is about, it’s one of those songs that it really, really does help to understand what it means, lyrically, for you to truly enjoy it. a rocking little number, and the band knocked through it with the confidence and the knowledge of a band playing a current catalogue item – no problem – we know this one 🙂
then, without any ado whatsoever, the third song of the night, the band launches confidently into “flight” – which they had not played previously outside of the last US tour, so we are seeing and hearing this performed live for the first time ever here in europe – “flight” being a peter hammill solo song (from his tenth solo album, “a black box” from 1980) rather than a van der graaf song – so it’s unique in that this is van der graaf generator, 2013 trio version, playing a peter hammill song – and not just any peter hammill song; one of the most convoluted, challenging, and simply remarkable pieces of progressive music ever composed by anyone. I love this song; I was fortunate enough to have seen peter hammill, solo at the piano, play this piece back in 1981, at the roxy theatre in los angeles, california – and here I was, suddenly, thirty three years later, seeing peter hammill playing “flight” again – but this time, with the best backing band in the world; and, with good technology and reliable instruments – and while both the 1981 and the 2013 performances were amazing…the 2013 really was something to behold.
not perfect – at one point, just one time, someone missed a cue, and they shifted uncomfortably from one impossible section to another impossible section with a bit of a “bump”, but, always professional, carried on as if nothing had happened. that you could play this 20 minute sequence of music “perfectly” is in doubt anyway – I spent ages just learning the first three minutes of it (the section known as “flying blind”), which I can just about play after 30 years plus of trying – and I never could learn any of the rest of the 20 minute piece!! it is difficult. I watched with my mouth hanging open, while peter hammill‘s hands played the impossible riff that is “nothing is nothing” while his voice sang in a completely different time signature, and it makes you realise what an amazing performer he really is – he can completely disconnect his voice and his hands – the hands are on automatic, and the vocal is what he concentrates on. and – somehow – both come out sounding amazing – “I say – NOTHING IS NOTHING!” and another crazed section of impossible prog is launched (the piece is broken into several sections, each which bear a sub-title on the album) – but they are collectively, “flight” – and I am so, so happy, that I can add seeing “van der graaf trio” flight in 2013 to seeing peter hammill “solo” flight in 1981….brilliant! I am very, very lucky.
peter and hugh handle all of the melodic and harmonic information: on a song like “flight”, the piano is the basis (hammill) the voice is the message and the lyrics delivered (hammill) and then there is the bass player (hugh’s feet) and the organ player/synthesist (hugh’s hands). and guy…is the glue, the percussive glue, that drags and fits and forces and slams and makes it all stick together as music. you’d see guy staring up at hammill, waiting for the visual cue, and then going into an impossible, high-speed drum fill that can’t possibly fit in the two seconds available before he has to do yet another impossible drum fill…but somehow, he makes it happen – and it’s really something else watching the three of them, all working to that singular purpose, to deliver “flight” to an unbelieving audience. the applause was thunderous, and the performance was absolutely unforgettable. sigh.
“bunsho” is song four, and for me, slightly spoiled by a not quite-in-tune electric guitar (of course, the 100 degree heat in the room wasn’t helping any guitar’s tuning, in all fairness to hammill) but they soldiered on, I like this song, but it’s not something that really rocks my world personally – and it had the difficult task of following “flight” – an unenviable role, we might say! but still, another great “new” song, and I love seeing hammill play guitar – surely, he’s one of those guitarists that is constantly being underrated, because, we are always talking about his piano playing, his voice, his songs, his lyrics…but not his guitar playing. I shall rectify that shortly. “bunsho” passes unobtrusively, making it three out of four for “new songs” – three new, one old (and that one, not even a van der graaf song!).
the fifth piece of the evening, “lifetime”, is a track from the first “reunion” album, 2005’s “present” and it’s a real favourite of mine, a great organ sound and riff, and hammill playing some wonderful guitar – and the last time I saw them play this, it was a bit of a row, hammill could not seem to come to grips with the guitar solo (which occurs twice in the song) and I was a bit disappointed with it at the time (felt bad for him, it was just not his night!) – but this time, it was right, it was as it should be, and in fact, in my opinion, the solos he played here, are better than what was on the original record.
he’s at home with the song now, he sings it’s beautiful verses with a lovely, quiet passion, and then settles down to play those beautifully chorused, clean lead solos as perfectly as humanly possible – and he nailed them; both of them – much to my everlasting satisfaction. those earlier awkward performances are redeemed, and he has the guitar parts perfected – great – guy just supports this one, so gently, while hugh plays really, really beautiful hammond-like and other gorgeous organ sounds and bass – really well done.
and with the conclusion of song five, we now leave the present, and the recent, and move back to the classic van der graaf 1970s repertoire that we all love so much – we go to that place, and we stay there until the concert is finished. probably a calculated move when creating the set list – blow them away with amazing renditions of songs from across our back catalogue – and that’s what they proceeded to do…
song six, “childlike faith in childhood’s end” – an absolute classic from “still life”, which is perhaps my favourite mid-70s van der graaf generator album (from 1976) I think this has the most uplifting, challenging and beautiful lyrics ever written, it asks all the questions, it poses those questions to us, the audience, and then it fills us with joy with it’s thoughts of infinity and how, with the death of mere human….life shall start. when this song started, I was transfixed, yes, I’d seen them play it before, in fact, three times before, and now, I was going to see it a fourth time – but this time – again – the lead guitars were far exceeding any earlier version I’d seen or heard.
hammill sings this with great, great passion, and on more than one occasion, I could feel myself welling up, at certain lines, certain lyrics – it’s just one of those songs that has always affected me emotionally, and this time, for some reason, I found it more hard-hitting than usual – I don’t know why. but one thing raised this performance up in my esteem and in my mind – peter’s lead guitar playing. when it comes time for him to play his beautiful, melodic solos on this track – I always cringe a bit, because as often as not, he struggles a bit, and I want those lead solos to sound perfect. he usually does pretty well, but there’s always a bit I wish could have been…somehow…”better”.
this time, they did not disappoint – in fact, they excelled, they were BETTER than they would normally be – he was so, so “on” – and he played the solos with renewed strength, vigour and excitement – and that absolutely blew me away. really good, really excellent guitar playing – and all in between singing that impossibly difficult vocal – no problem. this is one piece too, where you really hear and see the power of guy and hugh working as a team – basically, they take the place of a four man band, but there are just two of them – while peter is either silent, is singing, or is singing and playing lead guitar. they carry the song – peter is the soloist, and the vocalist, and the lead guitarist, too – what a great arrangement of a fantastic song. peter’s two supporting musicians pack a sonic wallop that sounds more like four or five sidemen – not two.
from strength to strength we go – no sooner had the band ended the remarkable, powerful, positive universal hymn that is “childlike faith”…than they launched immediately into the never-before heard on a UK stage “a plague of lighthouse keepers” – so – from a 12 minute masterpiece straight into a 22 minute masterpiece. newly arranged for the trio, newly adjusted for the realities of being played by the trio in 2013 as opposed to being played by the quartet (once or twice, only) in long-ago 1971 – and the new arrangement is absolutely amazing – I was transfixed. those lyrics, so dark, so astonishing, just giving me the chills, setting the stage for this long, sad tale of loneliness and grief –
“still waiting for my saviour, storms tear me limb from limb;
my fingers feel like seaweed…I’m so far out I’m too far in.” **
** [that last line famously plagiarised by fish, when working on an early marillion masterpiece – borrowing from the best, I suppose].
the beautiful vibrato on the electric piano was reproduced flawlessly, but sounding a million times better than the original (advances in technology, I love you) and hugh providing some wild sound effects when required – the band played steadily, like a ticking time bomb waiting to go off – moving through the familiar sections, “the presence of the night” with it’s almost ambient, eerie feeling…all building and building to those vocal storms that we all knew were coming (and a word about that in a moment):
“where is the God that guides my hand?
how can the hands of others reach me?3
when will I find what I grope for?
who is going to teach me? I am me / me are we / we can’t see any way out of here.
crashing sea, a trophied history: chance has lost my guinevere…”
I think everyone was a bit…worried about what hammill would do when it came time to re-create the highest pitched, most insane “screaming” vocals that are part and parcel of “lighthouse keepers” – but I wasn’t worried; he did exactly what I would expect – he adapted the melodies to the current range of his voice. he still did some of the build ups, but, pitched a bit lower – he hit what notes he could – but it didn’t matter, it’ just sounded perfect – they did an absolutely fantastic job. his vocals were absolutely wonderful, very tasteful, very, very well executed – I really respect hammill’s ability to sing these songs now, when his voice does not have the range it once did – yet, you would hardly know that from listening. he just makes the vocals work, and works around the tricky parts professionally, tastefully, and beautifully.
for me, it wasn’t so much the “insane” parts or the wild, screaming vocals, but instead, the peaceful resolution at the end – after all of the tumult, including one section where I couldn’t tell if it was a really, really loud and long bass note, or maybe even, feedback – a sound so loud it rattled your very bones – and the swirling instrumental sections that we all know and love from the original album, not just faithfully reproduced, but, improved with this new arrangement – but all the wonderful, crazy sections are all really just leading to… “land’s end (sineline) / we go now” – I realise, this is what I have been waiting to hear …
“cceans drifting sideways, I am pulled into the spell,
I feel you around me, I know you well.
stars slice horizons where the lines stand much too stark;
I feel I am drowning – hands stretch in the dark.
camps of panoply and majesty, what is freedom of choice?
where do I stand in the pageantry, whose is my voice?
it doesn’t feel so very bad now, I think the end is the start, begin to feel very glad now:
all things are a part
all things are apart
all things are a part”.
this was the section that I realised I was waiting for, how the song resolves itself in an incredibly melodic and beautiful and harmonious section comprised of glorious organs and pianos, crashing cymbals, and the oddly phrased coda of “all things are a part / all things are apart / all things are a part”, beautiful vocals, made even more beautiful in the now calmer, more mature 2013 voice of peter hammill…a lovely outro to one of the most tumultuous, strange yet wonderfully reborn pieces of music ever created, and I am so pleased to have been able to hear and see the band play this song – really pleased. a once in a lifetime experience that I will not soon forget.
so with the words “oceans drifting sideways” I was suddenly there, at that moment, “land”s end” – I’d finally reached that amazing place of peace and beauty after the terrific maelstrom of the first 18 minutes of “plague” – I had reached the place of peace – “land’s end” – and it was just the most wonderful resolution, a great journey through a long and difficult terrain – but ending up in such a good, good place. sigh.
I am so glad that they undertook the decision to do this, I think that the success and the positive reactions to “flight” from the last tour, lead them to this idea, of adding an even more unlikely candidate into the set list – so for that, I am so, so, grateful, and I feel even more fortunate, because of this, I am doubly lucky, as we got to hear and see both songs in one amazing concert!!! two impossible things before breakfast, as it were…
before we could catch our breaths…while the loud, loud, wild applause for “a plague of lighthouse keepers” was still resounding, not yet finished – the encore began. a moment of sheer shock, as I realised – “this is gog” – “oh my dear god, it’s gog…”
the most chilling hammill lyric yet, with it’s nihilistic denial of all labels, some who would have him as satan, some as god – and when he delivers the edict “I AM NONE” it’s just the most chilling moment in any song, anywhere – the creepy church organs-meet-freestyle-jazz cymbals, with potent, throbbing organ bass threatening – and then suddenly it’s hammill’s voice “some swear they see me weeping in the poppy-fields of france….” – god, there’s just nothing like it, a fantastic lyric, a great piece of free-form prog…an astonishing choice of encore, too – a second peter hammill song (this time, from 1974’s “in camera” – an absolute classic, but, a solo album, not a van der graaf album) – although in this particular case, it does so happen that van der graaf performed on the original – which is probably what made it possible for them to resurrect it for one of the earlier trio tours.
and I was careful to watch what hammill played on the electric guitar during this tune, it’s not evident on the studio recording, but there is an absolutely stonking guitar and organ precision riff, that hammill and banton play at speed, in perfect time, repeatedly during one of the verses of this song, so, they are playing this convoluted, impossible descending guitar and organ riff while hammill is singing the song – and it’s another one of those sleight-of-hand things, if you blink, you might miss it, but it’s that disconnected my hands are doing one thing in one time signature while at the same time, my voice is singing in a different time signature…and together, that makes “gog” what “gog” is – a fantastic piece of progressive music, especially in these live “trio” versions – they play it really, really well – better than the record.
I was lucky enough to see them play it once, but to see it again, now, in 2013, following immediately on the heels of none other than “a plague of lighthouse keepers” – and, as the bloody encore – gog – take no prisoners; no happy, positive tune of hope, no “refugees” or other audience placation – instead, the dark side, the darkest of the dark lyrics, and, the fantastic denial of the labels that were applied to hammill all encapsulated in this song’s lyric; the audience’s reaction was to scream even louder than they did after “lighthouse keepers” – if such a thing is even possible – a fantastic reception – but it did, in the end, have to end – so, as they left us with last night, I leave you know with the full lyric of the remarkable “gog”:
some call me SATAN others have me GOD some name me NEMO…
I am unborn.
some speak of me in anagrams, some grieve upon my wrath… the ones who give me service
I grant my scorn.
my words are ‘Too late’, ‘Never’, ‘Impossible’, and ‘Gone’;
my home is in the sunset and the dawn.
my name is locked in silence, sometimes it’s whispered out of spite.
all gates are locked, all doors are barred and bolted, there is no place for flight.
Will you not come to me and love me for one more night?
some see me shining, others have me dull; gun-metal and cut diamond –
I am ALL.
some swear they see me weeping in the poppy-fields of France…
in the tumbling of the dice see them fall!
Some laugh and see me laughing down the corridors of power: some see my sign on Caesar and his pall.
My face is robed in darkness, sometimes you glimpse me in the shade,
All friends have gone, all calls are weak and wasted, there is no more to say.
will you not crawl to me and love me for one more day?
Some wish me empty, others will me full, some crave of me infinity –
I am NONE.
Some look for me in symbols, some trace my line in stars, some count my ways in numbers:
I am No One.
Some chronicle my movements, my colours and my clothes, some trace the work in progress –
it is done.
My soul is cast in crystal yet unrevealed beneath the knife.
All wells are dry, all bread is masked in fungus and now disease is rife.
Will you not run from this and love me for one more life?
now that’s how the encore of a progressive rock concert should go!! – with drama, with darkness, with a tinge of hopelessness mixed with a tinge of hope…
what a way to follow “lighthouse keepers” too – totally a grand slam – the impossible 22 minute saga of a “lonely man” followed by the ultimate denial of any labels at all being applied to that same man a few years later…I AM NO ONE !
for those of us who were lucky enough to see a show from this current european tour, those of us who won the “double van der graaf generator lottery” and got to see and hear the band play “flight” and “a plague of lighthouse keepers” in the same show…it was an unforgettable experience, and I am so, so glad that the band decided to return to scotland again this year, and that we were lucky enough to get to see them play again – highly recommended if you want the real deal, a real progressive rock band playing at the height of their skill, their musicianship is untarnished by the years that have passed – and we are left with…the music.
and, it stands the test of time as no other classic seventies prog band’s catalogue does – van der graaf generator, could easily be voted “least negatively changed” over time, or better still, “most amazing after all these years” – because they truly are, and no other reunion or reformed prog band that started in the late sixties as van der graaf did, can boast a current musical quality like the one we witnessed at the abc theatre on june 27, 2013 – no other prog band can touch them, now. seriously.
a remarkable experience. you should see them if you have the chance.