Van der Graaf Generator:
Peter Hammill (vocals, guitars, piano)
Hugh Banton (keyboards)
Guy Evans (drums, percussion)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 16 April, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Unlike Crimson, however, Van der Graaf Generator has not largely repudiated its back-catalogue in the process of reinventing itself for today. Anyone new to the band would have heard a fair conspectus of its late-1960s’ and 1970s’ heyday, plus a representative sample from 2005’s superb (because fresh and exploratory) album “Present”, at this Barbican instalment of its current European tour. What has had to be rethought is the ‘division of labour’ between the musicians – with saxophonist Dave Jackson having departed to pursue his own projects, thus leaving the trio of Hugh Banton, Guy Evans and, of course, Peter Hammill to its collective devices. What has resulted is not so much a reduction of the music’s complexity as a refocusing of its content so as to pitch an impact more keenly and with greater dynamic force. The cliché ‘less is more’ has often been applied in rock music (think of Rush in its heyday or Muze on its present form), but has seldom, if ever, been more apposite than here.
Taking the stage with typical self-effacement, VdGG proceeded through the 105-minute set that started as it meant to go on. ‘Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End’ is a good entrée in that it offers the feel of an epic with a relatively clear-cut narrative structure – for all that the barbed lyrics and Hammill’s sardonic delivery are well removed from anything else written during much the same period. ‘Lemmings’ then upped the musical ‘ante’ in music that is more angular and edgy – an apostrophising of recklessness that time (and experience!) has only made the more acute. Then came a new number, ‘Lifetime’, whose brevity and songfulness illustrates a more intimate side to the band’s musicianship, before an unnerving ‘double-whammy’ of ‘(In the) Black Room’ and ‘Every Bloody Emperor’ brought the first part to an impressive close. Unlike so many of its contemporaries, VdGG has never played down the vocal in favour of the instrumental component and, with Evans’s visceral drumming, Banton’s virtuoso yet never showy keyboard playing, and Hammill’s lunging guitar runs and acerbic vocals all in full flight, this was music-making of the most urgent and communicative kind.
A lighter (using the term advisedly) interlude followed with another new track, ‘All That Before’, and a wittier take on Hammill’s deprecations, though the stark imagery of ‘Gog’ marked a return to core VdGG with a vengeance. The culmination of the evening came in the guise of a threesome which has been honed intensively on the present tour: thus the purposeful yet at times playful experimentation of ‘Meurglys III’, followed by the dark majesty of ‘The Sleepwalkers’ (try to imagine William Golding’s prose translated directly into music), and concluded by the driving abandon of ‘Man-Erg’. By the time this was through, the atmosphere in the Barbican was fairly seething, and yet the trio had stamina in reserve for an encore. “It has to be this”, Hammill was heard to remark beforehand, and ‘Still Life’ is indeed the ‘eye of the storm’ in VdGG’s repertoire that made for an ideal conclusion.
In short, a persuasive continuation of the spirit that has made the band’s return such a welcome and necessary occurrence. Sound quality maintained a generally persuasive balance between clarity and impact – with light projections and ‘dry ice’ emissions added little without being distracting. Punters came and went freely during the performance – not necessarily to be discouraged, but given a VdGG gig is on a Bruckner or Mahler scale of concentration, a comparable level of ‘deep listening’ is surely not unreasonable.
No matter – this was a memorable evening from a band at the height of its renewed powers. Alongside such very different outfits as Grinderman, it reinforces that musicians can grow old gracefully while ‘kicking ass’ to a degree that younger pretenders might find hard to contemplate.