Peter Hammill, London Café Oto, 2-4 March 2017

Peter Hammill seems to be slipping gracefully into semi-retirement. Although there is apparently a new solo album on the way, when the most recent Van der Graaf Generator album, Do Not Disturb, came out last year, there was talk of it possibly being their last album. What’s more, Hammill’s formerly prodigious concert schedule is certainly less full than it used to be. It’s been five long years since I last saw him play a solo concert, which (happily for me) was at my favourite venue in the world, Porgy & Bess in Vienna. So it was a no-brainer to make the trip over to London for this mind-blowing three-night residency at what must surely be the smallest venue he’s played in Europe for years.

I say Europe because, at least twice in recent times, Hammill has played residencies in Japanese venues at least as small as Café Oto, if not smaller. Those who had been feeling left out by Peter’s evident liking for the Far East would therefore have been heartened by his decision to adopt a similar model for this sudden burst of live activity, albeit that it didn’t include the limited edition CDs that were on sale at both Japanese residencies. There were murmurs of discontent from people who were unable to get tickets, and even from people who felt that Hammill should not have been playing such a small venue in the first place. Both objections can, of course, readily be dismissed. Just because Peter can comfortably fill mid-size venues such as the Queen Elizabeth Hall doesn’t mean that he should always have to play in such places, while those who follow him on Twitter and/or subscribe to the PH email discussion group would have encountered few difficulties in securing tickets.

Anyway, this residency was everything I’d dreamed of and more, a blazing affirmation of what makes Hammill the greatest and most important songwriter in the world. Having made the (not terribly difficult, it must be said) decision to arrive at Oto a few hours early each day, it was simply astonishing to witness Hammill giving vivid life to his art at such close quarters, literally just a few feet from where I was sitting. With his seventieth birthday on the horizon next year (and how about a celebration concert in November 2018, Peter?), Hammill is in fine shape both vocally and instrumentally. The voice is as strong and expressive as ever, while the hands carve out dense tone clusters on piano and guitar, lending infinite weight and gravity to the impassioned, allusive texts. Even after almost thirty years of listening to this man, I’m never less than transfixed by the might of his songcraft – by the way the lyrics explode everyday utterances and speech acts into blinding flashes of insight, while the melodies pulsate and recede with a malevolent hammering power.

For all Hammill’s evident onstage geniality, this was serious business. The performances seemed to take on some of the key elements of ritual. Hammill has occasionally spoken about the Japanese concept of ma, which refers to “the simultaneous awareness of form and non-form deriving from an intensification of vision”. In the context of live performance, ma exists in the fleeting moment between the last note of the song (when the song becomes not a song) and the reaction of the audience. It’s more than apparent how Hammill senses the presence of ma in the room, as his countenance shifts at the song’s end from rapt concentration to something like solace or relief.

But what did he play, I hear you ask. Well, the concerts followed the usual Hammill pattern of a piano set, followed by an acoustic guitar set, then finally a second piano set. Fifty-two different songs were performed over the three nights – one more than at the 2002 Lyric Hammersmith run, fact fans – a staggering achievement by any standards, and one which testifies to the sheer driven compulsion and unbridled creativity of the man. The first part of the first night dealt a one-two body blow from which I never fully recovered, as Hammill opened the residency with “The Siren Song” and followed it shortly after with “Losing Faith In Words”, two of his greatest ever songs. This set the tone for an evening that included an incandescent “Ship of Fools” and an anguished “A Better Time” that ruthlessly exposed the devastating ambiguity at the heart of the song – that the words “I’ll never find a better time to be alive than now” mean that, while things couldn’t be better, they also couldn’t get any worse…

Highlights of the second evening, for me at least, included a dramatic “Labour of Love” that saw Hammill absolutely pulverize the piano keys, a transcendent “Your Tall Ship” and an unbearably tragic reading of “(This Side of) The Looking Glass”. Van der Graaf Generator songs were in short supply over the course of the residency, but having rounded off the second night with “Still Life”, Peter kicked off the final night with “My Room” from the same album. The thread made explicit the connections between Hammill’s revered work with VdGG and the less fêted but, for my money, equally star-crossed solo pieces such as “The Lie”, “Shingle Song” and “Too Many of my Yesterdays” that were aired on the final night.

If there’s one thing I’ve gathered from attending dozens of Peter Hammill concerts over the years, it’s that he’s never been one for looking back. Refusing any hint of resting on former glories, the home stretch of the last night leant heavily on recent work, as the brilliant “Undone” bled into “That Wasn’t What I Said” and “The Descent”, the latter being one of six new songs played over the course of the residency. With a furious “Traintime” followed by a heartbreakingly beautiful a capella “Again”, he was gone. And so what have we learned? That Hammill’s lifelong preoccupations – reason, memory, the unravelling of time and the choices we make – are deep, troubling ones. That there is something primal and atavistic about the way he confronts them in song. And that fifty years after he began, his music remains as visionary and essential as ever.

Peter Hammill live in London, March 2017

Van der Graaf Generator, Prague Divadlo Archa, 16 June 2013

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.

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Peter Hammill, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 25 October 2012

In my review of Peter Hammill’s last Austrian concert in 2010 I speculated that Hammill’s work “seems to be heading ever closer towards notions of ending and mortality” and that his airing of many seldom performed older songs was linked to the notion of “looking back over his life’s work”. I was accused in some quarters of an inappropriate morbidity, but Hammill’s October 2012 journal entry confirms that I was spot on: “a serious point about doing so many songs is that as and when I’m done with playing then all these songs will be stilled… the time of these songs’ lives is finite and we’re now evidently quite a long way down it.”

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Concerts of 2012

Here’s some kind of list of the most memorable concerts I attended this year. (By the way, you won’t find a list of albums of the year here. I hardly ever listen to recorded music any more; increasingly, music to me means live music.)

It’s been an excellent year for my kind of music in Vienna, and shows by The Walkabouts, Tindersticks, Shearwater, The Cherry Thing and Bruce Springsteen might all have made the top ten on a different day. I was also gutted to miss, for one reason or another (work, illness, domestic commitments) many shows which I was looking forward to, including those by Brötzmann/Lonberg-Holm/Nilssen-Love, Death in June, Broken Heart Collector, Bulbul/Tumido, The Thing, Kern & Quehenberger, Sonore, Nadja, Josephine Foster, Double Tandem, Kurzmann/Zerang/Gustafsson, Glen Hansard and A Silver Mt Zion, not to mention the entire Konfrontationen festival.

A few of the concerts listed here have links to the reviews I wrote at the time, but most of them do not. This is partly because I haven’t had time to write those reviews, but mostly because it’s getting harder and harder to keep this blog going, to the point where I’m considering giving it up altogether. Very few people read these pages, and of those who do, only a few bother to leave comments. Those people, and they know who they are, have my eternal gratitude; but it’s rather disheartening not to be making more of an impression on the wider world.

In chronological order, then:

1. Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach, Barbican Centre, London
2. Codeine, Szene Wien, Vienna
3. Peter Brötzmann’s Full Blast, Chelsea, Vienna
4. Anthony Braxton, Jazzatelier, Ulrichsberg
5. Peter Hammill, Porgy & Bess, Vienna
6. The Thing, Blue Tomato, Vienna
7. Marilyn Crispell/Eddie Prévost/Harrison Smith, Blue Tomato, Vienna
8. Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Martinschlössl, Vienna
9. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Arena, Vienna
10. Swans, Arena, Vienna

Concerts of 2010

Here’s some kind of list of the concerts I enjoyed most in 2010, with links to the reviews I wrote at the time. In no particular order…

1. Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Martinschlössl, Vienna
2. The Swell Season, Museumsquartier, Vienna
3. Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love/Lasse Marhaug, Blue Tomato, Vienna
4. Swans, Arena, Vienna
5. Naked Lunch, Arena, Vienna
6. Suzanne Vega, Konzerthaus, Vienna
7. Peter Hammill, Posthof, Linz
8. Heaven And, Konfrontationen Festival, Nickelsdorf
9. Oliver Welter, Radiokulturhaus, Vienna
10. The Thing XL, Konfrontationen Festival, Nickelsdorf

Peter Hammill, Linz Posthof, 20 January 2010

“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.

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Records of 2009

Here’s some kind of list of the 2009 releases that made the most impression on me last year.

1. Peter Hammill, Thin Air
2. Naked Lunch, Universalove
3. The Thing, Bag It
4. Fire,¹ You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago
5. Ken Vandermark & Paal Nilssen-Love, Chicago Volume/Milwaukee Volume²
6. Full Blast,³ Black Hole
7. Steven Wilson, Insurgentes
8. Æthenor, Faking Gold and Murder
9. Christina Carter, Seals
10. Alela Diane, To Be Still

Notes

1. Fire is Mats Gustafsson, Johan Berthling and Andreas Werliin.
2. Released as two single CDs, but it’s hard not to think of them as a double.
3. Full Blast is Peter Brötzmann, Marino Pliakas and Michael Wertmüller.

Peter Hammill: Clutch

Peter Hammill continues to hold a unique and ridiculously unheralded place within contemporary music. No-one negotiated the treacherous terrain of progressive rock more adroitly than Hammill did with Van der Graaf Generator, and no-one, with the honourable exception of Robert Fripp, has acquitted himself with more dignity following its inevitable demise. Clutch is firm evidence that Hammill’s creative fire continues to burn as strongly as ever, 35 years after he began making music.

Clutch is as defiant and questing as any of Hammill’s forty-odd previous albums. As usual, these spirited qualities are often submerged beneath a surface of reflectiveness and melancholy. But it is never long before they break through, propelled by the ferocious roar of Hammill’s voice and the unbridled energy of the instrumentation. The songs are performed exclusively on acoustic guitar, with minimal contributions from Hammill’s long-time collaborators David Jackson (saxophone, flute) and Stuart Gordon (violin). This is the first time in his career that the guitar has been so foregrounded, but as Hammill remarks in his sleeve note this “has not turned out as any kind of folk or roots collection.” Hammill describes his guitar playing as ‘functional’, but there is far more than mere utility in the spectral half-melodies that haunt the opening ‘We Are Written’, or the chordal slash and burn of ‘Bareknuckle Trade’.

Lyrically Hammill is, as ever, preoccupied with weighty matters. There are courageous, issue-led songs about religious hatred, anorexia and paedophilia; emotional reflections on life as a father and musician; and philosophical broodings on the nature of free will and predestination. Whatever the subject, the sentiments are expressed powerfully and eloquently, and delivered with peerless authority and gravitas.

Hammill doesn’t merely sing these songs, he inhabits them with serpentine grace and fervent energy. The densely packed, argumentative lyrics tumble forth and constantly threaten to break the limits of the song. He will alight on a word or phrase and invest it with a charged, visionary significance. The guitar gathers restlessly around the voice, now darting in sparkling trails of note clusters, now exploding in bursts of angry riffing. Even at its most becalmed, this is urgent and passionate music.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 11, 2003)