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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Letter to The Wire, March 2007

Many thanks for the interesting feature on Seismic Performances (The Wire 276). The stipulation that the writers had to have actually been at the concerts they described was undoubtedly the right way to proceed, although it meant that some of the selections were rather less seismic than the title suggested.

My own choice would have to be the 2005 Royal Festival Hall reunion concert by Van Der Graaf Generator. Onstage for the first time in almost 30 years (except for a couple of ad hoc appearances), these four unassuming middle aged men tore ferociously into their repertoire, banishing accusations of nostalgia with sustained sax- and organ-fuelled intensity. Coming the day after Blair’s re-election, the line “Every bloody emperor with his sickly rictus grin talks his way out of nearly anything but the lie within” was chilling in its timeliness.

Van der Graaf Generator, Nuremberg Hirsch, 1 April 2007

Back from a trip to Nuremberg to see the debut performance by the new trio line-up (Hammill, Banton, Evans) of Van der Graaf Generator.

It was a spectacular evening. Wow, this band is loud. The venue helped, being a slightly tatty rock club in an unprepossessing part of town, in the middle of an industrial estate. This was a band that was planning to take care of business in no uncertain terms, and so they did. There was less of the quiet-loud dynamics of the 2005 reunion and more of a full-on aural assault, which was absolutely fine by me.

Clearly, they had to revisit the songs in order to fill the gaps left by the absent saxophonist. To my ears they mostly accomplished this by giving Hugh Banton a lot more to do. And he was more than up to it – his organ was utterly transcendent. The other revelation was Hammill’s guitar work. It was incredible. I wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest that he’s been practising, but there was a fluidity and an angularity to his playing that I had never heard before. I’ve never understood why he has given up the electric in favour of the acoustic in recent solo shows, but he’s more than making it up for it now. Evans, of course, was an immense presence on the drums, his playing an extraordinary mix of aggression and complexity.

This band not only rocks, it also grooves. There was an irresistible pull towards movement and swing. Devastating.