“I believe that, with regard to both the tragic aspect of suffering and instances of extreme ecstasy and affirmation of life, art needs to have a sense of sacred solemnity.” (Hermann Nitsch)
This was a stunning opening to the 2010 concert-going season. Since, for whatever reason, Peter Hammill didn’t make it to Vienna on his European tour, it was a no-brainer to make the short journey over to Linz for my first visit there. The venue, the Posthof, was a very pleasant place indeed, not least because of its wacky location in what appeared to be an industrial estate on the bank of the Danube, miles from the centre of town. Good vibes, nice food, laid-back management (I was able to reserve a seat in the front row by the simple expedient of walking into the hall before the doors opened, while others were able to wander in and listen to the soundcheck), perfect acoustics and a lovely Bosendorfer grand piano for Peter to play. If only all venues could be like this.
As for the show, it was as intense and emotionally draining a concert as I’ve ever seen Hammill perform. In part this was no doubt due to the fact that his solo muse (less so with Van der Graaf Generator, perhaps) seems to be heading ever closer towards notions of ending and mortality. These matters have never been far away in his work, of course, but in the last few years they have moved much closer to the centre, prompted perhaps by his heart attack in 2003. That experience inspired Singularity, a collection of songs that signalled its overarching theme from the gaunt, death’s-head cover portrait inwards. Meanwhile, in a recent statement Hammill wrote of “the certain knowledge that at some point I’m not going to be able to carry on enjoying it, whether because the audience or my own strength has dwindled to unsustainable quantity.” It’s surely no coincidence, then, that he has taken to touring solo in recent months, as if to say “this is what I do, this is how I am to be remembered.” Nor, it seems to me, is it without significance that in these concerts he has chosen to revive many rarely performed older songs, as though looking back over his life’s work.
In Linz one of those rarely heard songs was the wry and moving “The Mousetrap”. It’s a meditation on mortality told from an actor’s point of view, although the parallels with the life of a working musician are unmistakable. And where Hammill in the studio version speaks of “the third act of this twenty-ninth year of the show” (being 29 years old when he wrote the song), the line gets altered in live performance, so that we heard “the third act of this sixty-first year of the show”.
The concert followed the normal Hammill format of two piano sets, with a guitar set in between. The guitar set was acoustic; he seems to be saving the electric guitar for VdGG these days. His piano and guitar work is, as ever, formidable: dense clusters of notes that hang defiantly in the air, shapeshifting in tune with the rugged landscapes of his texts and occasionally resolving into momentary but achingly beautiful threads of melody. The voice, meanwhile, is deepening and saddening with age. Where once Hammill would bring “Stranger Still” to an end with the ferociously intoned refrain “a stranger, a worldly man”, he now sings the line softly, resignedly, with a grave awareness that he has entered, as he recently wrote, “this last stretch of a working life.” Watching him perform, you see this incredible, burning intentness at work, a deep and frightening concentration that is sometimes leavened with a fleeting, infinitely self-aware smile.
Inevitably, it was the rarely performed songs that cut the deepest for me. It’s been many years since I heard “Your Tall Ship” live; on stage, the song is transformed from a thing of blissful serenity into a churning maelstrom of longing, Hammill pounding the keys with savage intensity. “The Lie” was tormented and reproachful, “The Birds” steeped in confusion and bewilderment. And the single encore was a moment of transcendent beauty. When Hammill announced that the last song he would perform was a “moderately dangerous” one for him, I assumed we were going to get a high-wire tour de force like “Losing Faith in Words”; instead, he reached inside and pulled out the tender and delicate “Sleep Now”, a song to, for and about his daughters which has taken on an ever greater emotional charge for me since my own son was born. A couple of years ago Hammill broke into tears while performing this song at a concert in Israel, and I wonder if this is what he had in mind when he described the choice as moderately dangerous. In any event, it was a deeply affecting end to an evening that, in its dwelling on tragedy, ecstasy and affirmation, amply fulfilled Nitsch’s requirement for the sacred solemnity of art.
Beautiful write-up, Richard, though depressing to read Peter’s quote about the approaching termination of his career. Where did that quote originate?
Hi Dan, thanks for the nice comment. Both of the quotes I used are taken from the Sofasound newsletter which just went up a few weeks ago. Best, Richard
Excellent write up with some food for thought about PH’s mortality and realistic expectations of his working life which few other singers seem to express. Yes, Sleep Now affected me when I was worrying about the effect of suddenly moving house was having on my small daughter -now she’s about to give birth herself and I’ll be revisiting Wilhelmina. Oddly, the album Skin had just come out when my son was born with a rare skin condition – I’ll always associate the two although I’m sure that wasn’t what PH had in mind!
Hi Richard, if you write reviews like this then the Wire should be publishing a lot more than just your letters! This is great stuff – although it also made me sad as you gather the unavoidable evidence that we are in the last stages (I can’t bring myself to write just ‘stage’) of this great artists’ careeer!
Thanks very much Alan and Seán. I’m sure PH has a good few years in him yet!
Yes, I’d love to write for The Wire and I’ve sent them samples of my writing several times but sadly they haven’t been interested. Maybe one day!
Thanks for bringing this to my attention.
Quite a thought-provoking review – prompted me to have another look at pH’s latest newsletter on Sofasound.
Could it really be that he is approaching the end of live performances?
The recent setlists make interesting reading, notably the early material.
Great stuff – look forward to reading more of your thoughts.
A really well written piece! I am very much looking forward to seeing him again solo and it’s really great to have an informed point of view of the tour so far. I know this has nothing to do with PH but I have wondered what you have made of Gira’s decision to “reform” Swans? I was a bit taken aback myself and have mixed emotions about the whole idea, even though I would concede it’s his decision to make as the group (obviously) existed as an entity prior to J’s involvement…. Anyway am concentrating now on PH and it has been great to see he’s varied the set list so much! To be honest, I find “The Wire” frequently guilty of serious lapses of judgement and the fact that they’ve ignored/rejected submissions you have made whilst publishing some of the illiterate/pretentious drivel that appears within their pages just confirms the fact!
Hi Andrew, thanks for the kind words. I was pretty surprised about the Swans “resurrection” myself but it would be silly to pretend I’m anything other than thrilled about it, even without J in the line-up. MG has said they will be going for the kind of vibe they created on Swans Are Dead. I’ve been listening to that since the announcement and it really is breathtaking stuff… so any chance to get close to those kinds of heights again is surely to be welcomed. Best, Richard
came to read this review just now.I was there too (in Linz)and it was one of my most intense PH concerts ever! Also went into the venue during soundcheck and took me a seat in first row left.
Thx for this great review which reminds me on that very day.
I had the big honor to have a drink with PH after the show and to do some pics.Never forget.
Have you been to Peter’s gig in Vienna in October 2012 (Porgy&Bess) ? I missed it.It was the first PH show since 1994 I missed………… But I didn’t know this tour……… Too long I neglected watching the sofasound page.
Thanks very much for the nice comment, it is much appreciated. Yes I was there last month at Porgy & Bess, another great show. But I haven’t written a review yet, not sure if I ever will, just not enough time these days. All the best, Richard