A few of the things I’ve written for this blog over the years have used the excuse of a live review to tell the story of how I first became interested in the artist in question. (See, for example, the pieces on Swans, Death in June, Whitehouse, Leonard Cohen, Suzanne Vega, Einstürzende Neubauten and Pink Floyd.) The other day I realized that I’d never written any such thing about Peter Hammill, although he is by some distance the most important musical figure in my life, the one to whom I’ve listened over and over again through the past twenty years and more, the one who represents everything I find true and thrilling about music. It’s time to rectify that omission, so please forgive the self-indulgence. Those wishing to know what happened at Van der Graaf Generator’s concert in Prague last week are kindly requested to bear with me, or simply to skip to the end of this review.
True to form, though, I can’t actually remember where or from whom I first heard about Peter Hammill. It may have been a review of some reissues that appeared in Q magazine, or it may have been the fact that he played in February 1988 at the Gardner Centre, the arts centre on the campus of Sussex University where I was a student. Either way, I was attracted by the vaguely Gothic sound of his surname (Hammer horror?), though not sufficiently so as to actually buy a ticket for the concert. Strangely drawn to the event, though, I found myself loitering disconsolately in the foyer of the Gardner Centre that evening, half-hearing the music coming from the auditorium, wishing I was inside.
Suffering no such craven hesitation on the occasion of Hammill’s next visit to the Gardner Centre two years later, I duly secured tickets for me and my then girlfriend. In the meantime, I’d picked up Hammill’s then latest and, unfortunately for me, worst ever album, In a Foreign Town. Luckily, I chose to persevere beyond this train wreck of mostly dull songs and clodhopping arrangements to his next, and far more palatable effort, Out of Water.
That second show at the Gardner Centre was memorable enough, but what really sealed the deal for me was another concert the following summer. By that time, having left Brighton and lost the girl, I found myself in Bristol for work reasons, and gravitated towards a fine record shop called Revolver. Working behind the counter there was Dave Pearce, who would later make a name for himself as leader of the Bristol post-rock/shoegaze outfit Flying Saucer Attack. Also a frequent visitor to the shop at the time was Andrew King, later to carve out his own niche with striking industrial-flavoured interpretations of traditional English folk songs. Together the three of us made the short trip to Hammill’s home town of Bath, where he played a magnificent gig in a tiny upstairs venue called The Loft. Accompanied by violinist Stuart Gordon and saxophonist David Jackson, it was this immensely powerful concert that made me a Hammill fan for life.
The strange thing about this journey of discovery was that I made it in total ignorance of Hammill’s past activities with Van der Graaf Generator, my introduction to whom came much later. For this reason Hammill has for me always been a solo artist first and foremost, and the leader of VdGG second, with his solo records and performances being those that capture the essence of what makes him great for me. It’s also the case that, unlike many hardcore Hammill fans, my favourite of those albums are the angsty, riffy records he made in the late 1970s and early 1980s (roughly speaking, the run from Over through to Patience). This has remained true even since VdGG reformed in 2005, as exciting as that reunion has proven to be.
Anyway, Hammill in solo mode has been a reasonably regular visitor to Austria over the years, most recently at Porgy & Bess last October. Van der Graaf Generator, however, have never played here, making travel to other European cities a necessity for me. I was in Nuremberg in 2007 for the first ever concert by the stripped-down VdGG trio of Hammill, organist Hugh Banton and drummer Guy Evans; six years later, it was a no-brainer to make the overnight trip to Prague to see how the trio were shaping up.
In all honesty, though, I might not have bothered to make the trip if Hammill had not announced in advance that the group would be playing not only my favourite PH song of all time, the multi-part epic “Flight”, but also the legendary VdGG suite, “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers”, as well. If there was something vaguely unsatisfactory about this blatant attempt to whip up interest in the tour (it reminded me somewhat of those advertisements you see for heritage rock acts, listing all the songs you’re guaranteed to hear), it was a feeling that rapidly evaporated once the group took to the stage and it became apparent just what an epochal night this was going to be. Imagine the furore that would have been generated, though, if they had launched into “Plague” without anyone knowing it was coming.
Despite a few dubious additions to the setlist of recent songs to counterbalance the two epics, this was a superb concert that epitomized everything I have come to treasure in Hammill’s art since those early days. There’s literally nothing else in music to compare with the brutal splendour of Hammill’s voice, the bleak poetry of his lyrics and the vertiginous swoop and flare of his piano and guitar. All told, his is an utterly serious approach to music, intensified in the VdGG context by Banton’s gothic organ and Evans’ sweeping mastery of the drumkit. The sound that results is a perfect storm of contrasts, galvanized by loud riffing and furious, turbulent juxtapositions: music that reaches devastating, unsettling truth, at least from where I’m standing.
The Divadlo Archa was a perfect venue, with standing room downstairs for the diehards like me and seating upstairs for those who wished to take a more considered view. Having arrived at the venue early, and had my patience tested somewhat by the seemingly endless wait for the auditorium doors to open, I managed to get right to the front after a few songs. “Flight” was, as I’d expected, the absolute highlight, its phantasmagoric dream narrative etched in tense scenes of fear, escape and doom. “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers”, by any standards a rawer and less mature piece than “Flight”, was nevertheless gripping, with Hammill evoking his character’s pure willed solipsism through an overwhelmingly powerful vocal performance. And “Man-Erg” was a climactic end to the main set, its epically wide vision of humanity on the brink of collapse given shattering presence by the trio’s impassioned, edge-of-the-seat playing. Now aged 65 and with a heart attack ten years behind him, Peter Hammill continues to confound, amaze and delight.