It was Hackett that carried Genesis’ progressive rock flame forward into his solo work and this set is a precious testimony to that.
It’s fair to say that there are plenty of old rock bands jumping on the nostalgia bandwagon and churning out tired renditions of their back catalogue. But, believe you me, Steve Hackett is not one of those! He remains a creative force, has a superb backing band, and is playing his guitar as well as ever. Hackett has also found a perfect chemistry over recent years between playing the Genesis classics and his own solo material. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of his landmark (and in my view best) solo album, Spectral Mornings, Hackett set off on a lengthy world tour during 2019 playing most of Spectral Mornings as well as Genesis’ complete Selling England By The Pound album. Velvet Thunder was present at the Liverpool gig (read that review), and the last gig of the tour at the Eventim Apollo on the 29th of November was recorded both aurally and visually, and has just been released with various permutations of double-CD, quadruple-LP, Blu-ray, DVD and digital download. As for the title, there could have been creative options (any takers for From The Firth Of Fifth To Mons?) but the record label went for the rather mundane title of Selling England By The Pound & Spectral Mornings: Live At Hammersmith.
The audio quality on the CD is superb but it is the video that makes this package particularly fascinating in my view. There’s a rather perfunctory introduction with shots of the band warming up and walking down through the rather dim backstage area and onto the stage where without further ado they launch into the Spectral Mornings album opener Every Day. I would have imagined this being a difficult song to reproduce live but the band perform it so perfectly that it is almost indistinguishable from the original album version. Seeing the skill that Hackett displays in playing the famous solo is riveting viewing. After that, Hackett tells the audience that they will be doing stuff from three albums (as if they didn’t know!), including Selling England By The Pound which elicits a cheer from the audience. This causes Hackett to then rather apologetically add ‘but that’s in the second part so you have to suffer through the new stuff now’. That comment might realistically reflect what the mostly 50-somethings in the audience came for, but the band then play three top notch tracks from Hackett’s most recent album, At The Edge Of Light. I hadn’t previously heard anything from this album but it was certainly enough to send me scurrying off to hear more.
The remainder of the first part of the set is concentrated on Spectral Mornings with the only missing tracks being The Ballad Of The Decomposing Man and Lost Time in Córdoba (plus, to be precise, the vocal section of Tigermoth). There is some good use of the lights throughout the show, so for example during Tigermoth and Clocks the spotlights flare on and off in time with the staccato rhythm of the main themes. The cameras are mostly focused on Hackett of course but Rob Townsend gets some of the spotlight too for his energetic sax and woodwind work. There were a couple of special guests for this part of the set: Steve’s brother John plays flute, as he did on the original album, and his sister-in-law and artist in her own right Amanda Lehmann adds guitar and vocals. The execution of the classic prog tracks was faultless and just as exciting as I expected but what surprised me was how the band drew out the quality of the two slower songs – The Virgin And The Gypsy with its exquisite harmonies, and The Red Flower of Tachai Blooms Everywhere with its delightfully delicate soundscape.
After a well-earned break the band return for the Genesis album – reputedly Hackett’s favourite from his period with Genesis. Nad Sylvan, dressed like some Dickensian character, opens proceedings with that magical vocal melody of Dancing With The Moonlight Night. Sylvan mimics Gabriel brilliantly – close your eyes and it is hard to hear any difference. I Know What I Like is a bit of an oddity in the Genesis catalogue but the band perform a quite thrilling version here which after a slow start takes an unexpected turn with a jazzy section with wonderful improvised sax from Townsend before then accelerating into a faster section with some impressive licks from Hackett. This deviation from the original version neatly avoids this being a note for note reproduction of the original album. Another effective variation was in Firth Of Fifth where the flute theme was played in a lower register on clarinet.
The issue with playing any album in its entirety is that you do actually have to play all of it even if there are dips in quality or tracks less suitable for a live environment. Let’s be honest: The Battle of Epping Forest isn’t going to be in anyone’s top ten list of Genesis songs. After the Ordeal and Cinema Show are fine songs but they won’t get people dancing in the aisles either. So, while the execution was immaculate, I sensed the energy leaking out of the show during these twenty or so minutes that corresponded to the second side of the vinyl album.
As a first encore, Hackett plays Déjà Vu, a sketch of Gabriel’s that wasn’t used on the original album but was later completed by Hackett. It’s an excellent song and could have graced the original album (I’m biting my tongue not to suggest instead of Epping Forest!). Then the band return for a second encore where they finally rack up the energy level with a compelling performance of Dance On A Volcano, even if Sylvan seems to struggle a bit to imitate Collins’ timing on the vocals. It would have been brilliant if the band had segued directly into Los Endos (à la Seconds Out) but oddly the band disappear offstage again before coming back for a short jam and then launching into Los Endos. By this time, the audience which had been a little laid back during much of the gig, was finally on its feet giving the band the ovation they fully deserved.
What struck me about this two and a quarter hour set was that it demonstrated the continuum of outstanding prog music produced by Hackett over nearly fifty years. While the rest of Genesis, as a band or as individuals, veered towards different and mostly more commercial territory, it was Hackett that carried Genesis’ progressive rock flame forward into his solo work and this set is a precious testimony to that.