Their music balancing on the narrow divide between chaos and revelation - and usually edging into the realm of the latter
- Van der Graaf Generator are now well into this latest period of activity, nearly a decade since reforming and 7 years since becoming a trio.
With this show more than half a dozen into their current bout of touring, the band are very well bedded in and warming up nicely as they move towards
the prestigious show at The Barbican in London in a few dates time.
Peter Hammill, always a most charismatic frontman, was in fine voice tonight and spent most of the show seated at his piano stage right,
only leaving his position to strap on guitar for All That Before and Bunsho. Hugh Banton, stage left at his organ set up,
is the epitome of calm amongst the whirling maelstrom of VdGG's music, looking like the church organist he is and playing like Beelzebub himself.
Unlike the last time I saw the band a couple of years ago, I couldn't see Hugh's feet tonight but I guarantee that they were going like the clappers on the bass pedals.
I hate to imagine how many pairs of comfortable loafers he must get through. Centre stage, drummer Guy Evans,
the driving force and lynchpin behind much of the dynamism of the live band, was at his subtle best;
his jazzy licks colouring the music while at turns his brute force whipped things along with panaché.
The set, as has been the case of late, is built on reformation music and specifically that of the debut trio album
Trisector which continues to grow in stature for me as a wonderful distillation of
the essence of the three-piece formation of VdGG. The set opened with a great reading of that album's Over the Hill,
with a slight and quite humorous hic-cup at the start, but this time out the centrepieces of the set were a brace of long-form tracks, reinterpreted for the current formation.
Flight, from 1980's Hammill solo album A Black Box, was next and an interesting and unexpected choice for performance but, as its title suggests,
it just flew in this version and the band made it their own.
Ironically, other than Hammill the only member of VdGG who appeared on the original was David Jackson whose departure from the band led to the current trio format.
Evans, as elsewhere during the set, remained focused on Hammill throughout the piece, staring intently at his every move and reacting accordingly.
In fact as with all bands that deploy this kind of vibrant urgency in their live performances, the interaction between the players was spellbinding;
all working to and listening for the cues of the others. The two keyboards and drums line-up works a treat with Flight and, as it ended,
the audience showed their appreciation for the first of the evening's anticipated long pieces.
A return to Trisector for another of the stand-out tracks there, Lifetime, before Hammill left his keys to add guitar to an exuberant All That Before,
reading the words from a stand, before one of the best tracks from 2011's A Grounding In Numbers,
Bunsho, the words to both these tracks showing different facets of Hammill's lyrical style and evidencing why he sits right at the top of that particular tree.
Hammill's less than perfect guitar style suits the music well and underlines a restless,
punky vibe that is inherent in much of the band's music which can be jagged and rough around the edges rather than the often pristine and staged styles of their contemporaries.
The other long-form is the classic A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers from 1971's Pawn Hearts and this is the one that most here were waiting to hear.
Again the new arrangement worked particularly well and, helped by a wonderful sound in The Robin tonight, the full dynamic range of the piece rang out loud and clear.
It certainly would have been a standing ovation for this one if everyone wasn't standing already!
It was now older classics all the way with a startlingly good Man-Erg, also from Pawn Hearts, which was beyond spoiling,
even when someone's mobile phone went off during the quiet and stately intro.
No worries as far as the band were concerned and the piece built beautifully through its phases from Evans' evocative cymbal work to the hammering discordant keys.
A wonderful piece of a peculiar sort that is unlike anything else that springs to mind.
The band took their applause and briefly left the stage returning for a thunderous reading of Scorched Earth that was a wonder to behold and a brilliant finalé.
More cheering and applause, Banton looking as relaxed and laid back as if he'd just popped down the shops for the paper rather than played nearly two hours of
extraordinarily powerful rock music. As noted previously, the songs of VdGG are played with a punk-like energy that is, as it always was,
at odds with most other bands from the classic era of progressive rock, their delivery and lyrical stance setting them apart and it is these differences
that make the band the mouth-watering possibility that they remain. No 'songs-by-numbers' here, this was an organic performance built on mutual
respect and many years of musical experience.
The packed house at a sweaty Robin tonight just lapped it all up, and the gig was akin to a celebration of the very existence of this most remarkable and unique of bands.
A wonderful couple of hours with a band who just could not have been formed in today's world but who's music has the passion and power
to enrapture and should be revered down the ages. It was a remarkable privilege to see them again.
Setlist The Robin 2
Over The Hill
All That Before
A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers
The Barbican Hall
Housed in the centre of London, the Barbican Centre is a very well-to-do multi-arts and conference venue which presents theatre, music and exhibitions the whole year round.
It's a classy venue; certainly too classy for a thousand or so scruffy-looking prog fans. Nevertheless, it seemed a fitting place for what was going to be,
from its very conception, a very special concert indeed. Fans had come from all parts of the country to see the two rarely-performed twenty minute suites Flight
and the inimitable A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers.
This is in fact my second Van der Graaf Generator concert; my first was in Cambridge in 2011, just after the release of
A Grounding In Numbers. Understandably, back then, the band chose to mostly play songs from this album,
much to the lament of myself and the other gig-goers that I spoke to that evening. While I accept that the band must keep themselves alive by playing new songs,
it cannot be denied that their most successful material lies back in the 70s. By not playing the old stuff, it's as if the band are denying that the interest in the
70s material is what keeps bringing hoards of fans to their concerts. Out of twelve songs, the band only played three 'old' tracks that evening,
although, granted, those three tracks took up approximately forty minutes. Tonight however, with the promise of at least two long-form oldies,
I was keen to see Hammill and Co. revisiting their more nostalgic material.
It was eerie walking into the theatre; the stage was so gigantic that it could fit a whole orchestra - it has done on many an occasion - but tonight,
there were just three seats, and in front of each a set of instruments: keyboard for Peter Hammill, drums for Guy Evans and a range of keyboards
and bass pedals and other effects pedals for Hugh Banton. At this moment I remembered from my previous experience that a Van der Graaf Generator gig
is more like a scientific experiment than a rock concert, with its audience more intrigued by the process of the music than the atmosphere the band give off.
As with my last gig, I was seated behind a group of youngish looking Van der Graaf nutters, one of whom proceeded to prove his love for the band by mouthing
the words of every song to his girlfriend. Each Van der Graaf gig should come with its own "Nutter Alert" warning.
The experiment, err, concert began with the more recent fan favourite Over the Hill from 2008's Trisector.
Twice the length of anything else the band have done since their heydays, I do wonder if this song was written just to please the fans who so dearly wanted a new epic.
If so, it certainly worked. Charmingly, the band really milked this track for all it was worth, getting the most out of the free-time sections and treating
it as an actual performance, rather than just another song to get through. For the opening and closing sections, Evans used brushes rather than sticks,
but I've never seen anyone use them so hard before!
Then it was straight into Flight. Originally recorded on Peter Hammill's 1980 album A Black Box, this has always been a track to polarise fans.
I myself disagree with my fellow reviewer Roger Trenwith - who also came to see this gig - over the quality of this piece. While he applauds its artistic merits,
especially the lyrics, I simply cannot stand the production of that track, let alone the rest of the album. For me, music is made to be heard,
and though I fully understand that Hammill didn't have the funds to produce a better-sounding album at the time, it doesn't mean I have to enjoy a very amateurish-sounding piece.
As I listened to the track in preparation for the gig however, I realised that since the production was my main reason for disliking this track,
I owed it to myself to hear it live, played by more capable musicians; Hammill on the gated drums makes me wince every time.
I was right to do so. The performance of Flight this evening was surely how it was meant to be heard.
In fact, the band started playing this track last year in their tour of the United States and Canada, so they've had plenty of time to fine tune its new facets and details,
including a dark organ groan to symbolise a flying plane. Though the lyrics and melodies are all exactly the same,
this sounds not one bit like the original version and that's entirely for the best. With Evans on drums and Banton taking over the keys,
new life is breathed into this dusty old giant and the audience were not disappointed. Should the band decide to release a live album of this tour,
I could well find myself snapping it up just to replace the studio version of this track.
The band then proceeded to play a pseudo-random selection of their material. Scanning their setlists from this tour,
it's clear that they prefer to mix things up rather than stick to just one set. A highly eclectic mix has seen such favourites as Scorched Earth, Gog,
Interference Patterns, and even Meurglys III enter the band's set on this tour. However, this time we were privy to hear three new tracks and one old one.
The 'new' triptych consisted of the leisurely, melancholic Lifetime, the old-codger-punk-prog All That Before and the highly esoteric Bunsho;
esoteric just like their record label! Of the three, All That Before stands out as my favourite, a highly comedic song about old age and memory
loss which is incredibly juxtaposed by youthful energetic music. Hearing Hammill shout "I can't remember what I'm doing" whilst playing guitar
over a swiftly changing time signatures heightens the comedic value immeasurably.
Next up, the timeless Man-Erg, played as a sort of prelude to the promised masterpiece. Almost certainly the band's most-played song,
it was wonderful to see that they hadn't grown tired of it. At this point I started to lament the departure of Jackson, who really gave the piece - and moreover,
the band - that hot sense of eroticism that made their music so out there. Without him, the band are about as erotic as a glass of cold milk,
but the music still remains as dark and enigmatic as it always was. At some points, it was clear that Banton was compensating for the lack of saxophone,
but he nonetheless managed to pull it off.
After having played the track so many times, it was interesting to see how the band treated the piece. In studio form it is an immaculate track,
perfect in its execution. However, after 42 years - yes, it has been that long! - the band have begun to perform the piece with minor imperfections that
I could tell weren't simply an accident. Banton's slip on the organ near the beginning suggested that the schizophrenic subject of the song, after two score years,
was finding it harder to keep the two sides of his personality apart. It's become an imperfect song about an imperfect person;
a facet of Van der Graaf Generator that makes me appreciate their music all the more. Once again, the band milked this track for all it was worth,
dragging out the aggressive section of the song until it had slowed right down to a crawl. When they reached the end of the track, the band didn't play the last note.
Instead, it was straight into the eerie opening of A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers, a song that literally needed no introduction. In relation to this tour,
Hammill has stated "We will not be attempting to recreate the album version but hope to come up with a new,
in-the-present approach to this important piece from our past." Any worries I had that this would be some new-fangled 'interpretation' of the track were quickly put aside.
Van der Graaf Generator proceeded to play their most mysterious piece in its entirety, with all its little quirks, in largely the same format as it was recorded.
The 'approach' Hammill talked about clearly seemed to be about finding a way to play this piece without Jackson. The band were incredibly tactful,
creating new solos where his were missing. The only part where his presence was enormously missed was from the Pictures section early
on which resembles the foghorn of a hellish lighthouse.
The continuity of the piece seemed to make more sense live than it did on the album. As a large suite composed of many little tracks,
it's the links between each of the parts that makes this piece work so well. Having not listened to the track in any great detail for a while,
it was as if the band were taking me on an old adventure, one that I had forgotten how to appreciate. Though I know each part off by heart,
the band still seemed to be able to retain that element of surprise and unpredictability that makes the piece so interesting in the first place.
The proceedings were topped off by a newly rehearsed outro, which, Roger tells me, brought a tear to his eye.
With the audience desperately expecting an encore, my mind flashed through all the songs they could play. They wouldn't play another new one would they?
That'd be rather a letdown, after a masterpiece like Plague. Man-Erg would have been my go-to encore track, but since they had already played it,
I simply had no idea what to expect. While I was considering that they might play something from Godbluff,
Hammill then mouthed the opening lines to Childlike Faith in Childhood's End, their twelve-minute classic from 1976's Still Life. I certainly wasn't expecting it,
but was very glad to hear it nonetheless. I've always found this track to be much more straightforward than other Van der Graaf pieces despite its complexity,
mainly due to Evans rather tight drumming on the album. Right from the off, I knew the one bit in the track I was especially looking forward to:
Hammill's delivery of the word "SILENCE!", which he performed after a few breathtaking seconds of appropriate silence that seemed to last forever.
A magnificent moment near the end of a magnificent evening. Hammill once again compensated for Jackson's absence with the guitar; while he ain't Jimi Hendrix,
he certainly played what was necessary to keep this rather 'hot' piece in shape. The band got carried away with themselves and made a few minor mistakes in a couple of places,
but the audience were incredibly forgiving.
This was the gig that I wanted to see two years ago, but I feel the wait has been worth it, and I know that some fans have been waiting much longer than I have.
I'm glad to see that the band aren't so full of themselves as to deny their fans what they want, and it's apparent that fans have been waiting to hear Plague
live for forty years now. Time hasn't made a dent on Van der Graaf Generator, who can still perform even their most technically challenging songs without breaking sweat.
Hammill's voice in particular was exceptional this evening. Despite their rather serious demeanour, it was clear that the band members were really enjoying themselves and,
because of this, the audience were too. With the two epics Flight and Plague played alongside a multitude of classic Graaf tunes,
this was not only an enjoyable and memorable gig, but an important one too.
Setlist Barbican Hall
Over the Hill
All That Before
A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers