Every time I go to see a Van Der Graaf Generator show, I almost fear the worst, as sustaining that level of seemingly telepathic timing and multi-instrumental precision seems that eventually the spinning plates must fail and drop to the floor. And every time I come out of the venue proved wrong again, as this remarkable group of musicians achieve the seemingly impossible yet again.
PHOTOS: Chris Walkden
I am absolutely sure that, if you took a straw poll of the audience members this evening, I would be far from the only one who doubted that this show would ever come to pass. After all, it had been almost a decade since the band last trod the boards here in the UK, with pandemic delays mixed in with the unsettling doubts as to how long these three men can continue to sustain the power, aggression and intense physical and mental discipline necessary for a VDGG show. This is not comfortable music, and these are not young men – but happily I can absolutely confirm that while they may not be youthful any more, on this evidence they remain utterly ageless. Tonight’s performance, even by VDGG standards, ranked up there with the most intense I have ever seen the band perform, and that is a high bar indeed, and a remarkable one. Because when attending a VDGG show, all comparisons to regular prog rock shows, with a very select number of exceptions, go out of the window. It used to be said by followers of The Grateful Dead that ‘there is nothing like a Grateful Dead show’ – well, with all due respect to that venerable institution which is The Dead, there is REALLY nothing like a Van Der Graaf Generator show.
To begin with, regular expectations of a stage set or light show go out of the window, as we enter tonight to see the very sparsest of sets adorning the very large Bridgewater Hall stage. Two small sets of keyboards facing each other, two guitars standing ready and a drumkit in the middle, forming a triangle – since the reduction of the band to a trio following the departure of David Jackson, this has been the standard set-up for the band, and there is no change tonight. The lights are utilitarian at most, and the whole presentation essentially makes Tangerine Dream look like a cross between Rammstein and Kiss – but you know what? It doesn’t matter a jot, and indeed even throws the performance of this remarkable trio of musicians into greater focus. There has never been a more striking example of ‘let the music do the talking’ as this band deliver.
There had been interesting news coming through of the setlist from the previous night’s opening show in Birmingham, with such delights as Sleepwalkers, La Rossa, Still Life and even Peter Hammill’s own A Louse Is Not A Home being given an airing. It quickly becomes apparent that this will have virtually no bearing on tonight’s performance as, remarkably, every single 1970s-era track played tonight is different to that previous night’s show. With music as complex as this, that really is quite an astonishing fact, showing the band are as eager as ever to not only prevent things becoming too stale or comfortable, but also to give people going to more than one show a different experience each time. Admirable ideals to be sure, and such is the strength of the band’s catalogue that even without a host of classics (even the band’s own ‘Free Bird’, if you can imagine such a thing – the perennial triumphant set-closer Man-Erg – is missing in action tonight) there can be few complaints about the set-list we are treated to.
Any thoughts about the band easing into the show with a short and relatively simple opener are immediately dashed as they walk on and seat themselves casually at their instruments (Peter Hammill strikingly dressed all in white as he favours these days), and launch straight into a ten-minute-plus assault on the epic (In The) Black Room, from Hammill’s Chameleon In The Shadow Of The Night album. True, it’s a track which the band quite often play, but I don’t think anyone would have expected it as a set-opener, displaying a 0-60 on the intensity meter which defies description. There is only a slight respite as this is followed by two more recent, and slightly calmer, selections, Your Time Starts Now from A Grounding In Numbers and Nutter Alert from the first reunion album, Present. At this juncture Hammill signals a change by leaving his keyboard and strapping on one of his two electric guitars, and announces that they have discussed whether they can manage to play one or two things which they have scarcely attempted live before, before launching into one of those very selections – the rarely performed Masks, from 1976’s often underrated World Record album. Once again the raw, visceral power of Peter Hammill’s voice and overall performance is centre stage as we are practically pinned to the back wall of the auditorium by sheer force of emotional catharsis.
This is nothing, however, compared to what we are presented with next, in the shape of an unlikely and unexpected rendition of Hammill’s In Camera solo assault on the senses, Gog. It’s a powerful beast in its original studio incarnation, but this is something else entirely, as the lines between Peter Hammill the singer/musician and Peter Hammill the tortured, howling genius-madman are blurred almost beyond recognition. Hugh Banton and Guy Evans both up the intensity and ferocity of their own parts as well, as we get one of those particularly emotionally draining performances which only VDGG can deliver. There are points during this song – if one can give it such a prosaic description – when it teeters on the edge of chaotic collapse in a thrilling yet simultaneously terrifying manner. This is pure and total Van Der Graaf Generator, red in tooth and claw, and is not for the faint-hearted or the uninitiated, as one could imagine any newcomers to the band practically running for the exits. The die-hards, however – and there tend to be a huge majority of those, for this most polarising of bands – lap it up, and there is a huge ovation. Hammill then announces a change in pace for the final song before a thirty minute break, and he isn’t joking as they pull off a heart-rendingly delicate version of Go, from the most recent album Do Not Disturb. It’s an emotional and highly meaningful song already, and Hammill’s voice seemingly cracking on the verge of tears, together with a beautiful new guitar part, makes for a stunning close to the first half. How, one wonders, do they follow this…
Well, the answer to that question is with what is possibly the finest 20 minutes of the entire show, as they return and begin the second half firstly with a lengthy and powerful rendition of Over The Hill from the Trisector album – certainly one of the finest songs from the band’s post-millennial period. As this comes to an end, and to an audible burst of recognition from the crowd, they segue seamlessly into an absolutely coruscating version of Scorched Earth from Godbluff – to my mind probably the high point of that magnificent album. Hammill again is again consumed with raw, unfenced emotional heft, but it is at this point that we have to give full recognition to Guy Evans behind the drumkit. There can be no more underrated drummer in the world today than this scandalously unheralded man, because his performance throughout, but particularly on this track, is incredible to witness. With the complexity and widescale nature of so many of the VDGG compositions, and especially since the gap which was left by the massive sound of David Jackson’s sax work, the drums cease to be a mere time and beat keeping exercise and become almost a lead instrument in their own right, while still having the responsibility of generating so much of the power behind the band’s sound. Somehow the seemingly octopoidal Evans manages all of this at the same time, veering between delicate precision and unerring power and accuracy, almost never faltering even by a microsecond. It is hard to imagine many of the rock world’s far more feted percussionists getting near to this level on this particular material, and it is quite simply a privilege to watch him work. The piece finishes to, naturally, rapturous applause.
It’s time for a couple more pieces from the recent albums at this point, with the Do Not Disturb highlight Alfa Berlina coming across even better than its recorded counterpart, while Lifetime, from Trisector, is another welcome addition to the set. At this point, following an apology from Peter Hammill for the fact that, owing to the Covid regulations which they are mandated to follow, they cannot meet anyone to sign autographs afterward (completely understandable, but a nice touch to offer the explanation) we are told it is the final song of the set. Disappointment at the performance drawing to a close is immediately tempered as the evening’s sole selection from Still Life begins – not La Rossa or Still Life itself on this occasion, but instead the lengthy, labyrinthine album closer Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End. It is an extremely brave choice to end with as, not only is it an extremely challenging piece to perform at the best of times, but to do so without the original contributions from Jackson is a tightrope walk requiring surgical precision and concentration for the whole time. As if we could ever doubt it, however, it is performed without a single wobble on the tightrope let alone a fall, with the apocalyptically uplifting closing section raising the hackles on the back of the neck, not for the first time tonight. Hammill very cleverly reproduces many of the sax parts on guitar, with the sound skilfully engineered to approximate the missing ingredient as closely as possible. I honestly cannot overstate the feat of arrangement and musicianship from all concerned to consistently reproduce these old pieces as a trio – it really is not far off Deep Purple or Pink Floyd continuing without a keyboard player, and yet it has been a hurdle almost casually overcome for nigh on two decades now. Astonishing.
Of course, a lengthy standing ovation ensures there must be an encore, with many I am sure, like myself, assuming it would be Man-Erg. Instead, to my complete surprise, we go all the way back to 1969’s The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other for the sublime Refugees – a song I have not heard the band perform since they last toured as a four-piece. In truth, it is probably not the most successful selection of the night in a sense, as Peter Hammill’s voice has changed significantly since those very early days – while he has lost none of his intensity and power, he no longer has the same melodiously delicate quality that this gossamer-like piece was originally delivered in. This is a minor criticism, however, as the musical performance is faultless, and just hearing the song performed live again sees several people visibly moved in the crowd. There can be few such inspirationally uplifting and empowering pieces of music as this song when heard in the right frame of mind, and in that sense it is a perfect set closer.
Every time I go to see a Van Der Graaf Generator show, I almost fear the worst, as sustaining that level of seemingly telepathic timing and multi-instrumental precision seems that eventually the spinning plates must fail and drop to the floor. And every time I come out of the venue proved wrong again, as this remarkable group of musicians achieve the seemingly impossible yet again. I do not use the word ‘genius’ nor the word ‘unique’ lightly, but in this case these terms are the only truly applicable ones. Because there is, and has always been, STILL absolutely nothing like a Van Der Graaf Generator concert. And I for one treasure each and every one, and will continue to do so as long as these guys can play. For those attuned to their particular frequency, they are unequalled.