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 reviewed the new Van der Graaf Generator album, Do Not Disturb, for The Quietus. You can read the review here.
I reviewed the new Peter Hammill album, …All That Might Have Been…, for The Quietus. You can read the review here.
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.
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.”
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
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
“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.
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
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 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)