It is my pleasure to present the very first guest review to be featured on my blog – a wonderful account of Van der Graaf Generator’s Rome show written by my dear friend Victor Andrei Părău, a professional musician whom ProgArchives regulars will remember by his screen name of Ricochet. Enjoy!
“Such a great concert.” That was all I managed to write down, three days after returning home. Surely, a Van der Graaf Generator concert has to be more inspiring than that.
Well, my first impulse was to catch a flight to the nearest stop of their spring tour, since they did quite an arch throughout Europe after playing several times in England. It is perhaps strange for some, this express desire to finally see one of your favorite bands on stage, to make on your own all the right moves in order to accomplish that, to travel and make a special case out of it, or even to think of it as something to be done “at least once in your lifetime”. Yet, to be honest, most of the concerts I’ve attended were this emotional. While I do already have a strong backup of jazz or experimental concerts, should Jethro Tull’s progressiveness be up for debate (I think that’s the trend lately) and also not count a few less evoking names, then what Van der Graaf offered was quite the first fully ranked progressive rock concert for me, in all its details – from the atmosphere down to the trio’s own manifest.
Time affecting bands was never a hot topic for me, although many groups have embarrased themselves – some still do. Make no mistake, time is ticking loud enough for VdGG themselves. Peter Hammill looks the most dried up; even Guy Evans’ look isn’t as badass as it was a couple of years ago. In contrast, Hugh Banton’s appearance is elegant and humble, something further proved by how he looked so zen at the keyboards, playing his part, more so brilliantly. But their reunion is truly one of the most successful. The first great sign of this concert was to witness these seniors’ instrumental skills, as good as ever, most of the times veraciously energetic, even with a tinge of crassness, with all their trademark accents and maddening difficult rhythms, something they’ve never let go of.
Of course, I did miss the best rides of their comeback, those up until 2007, highlighted by the live gem Real Time, if not by the work on Present as well, which I always considered to be a great album, with its clever duality. I’ve seen enough fans being a little more sceptical when it comes to the new trio form and their recent acts. While preparing for the trip, I caught news of this tour’s first shows being heavily focused on the new material, while later mixing it with the heavily desired classics. Actually, if you check the Live List on their homepage, this is all pretty relative. Nevertheless, let’s just say the Rome concert was one of the odd-numbered ones or something, indeed promoting the new stuff, with the old tracks being the high points. Hammill even joked about it a bit when announcing they will move on to something “vecchio … ma non troppo vecchio”.
Oh right, Rome! Well, Prague would have initially been my pick, had it not taken me a total of two days just to travel by train back and forth. There was no window for me to go to the smaller town of Cesena, so it had to be the Eternal City, adding touristic pressure to the entire trip. By the end of a five-day experience, it was hard to consider that I went there just to see the guys. The Auditorium Parco della Musica was a destination in itself, with exhibits taking place in the Luciano Berio Largo, with chatty and modish people at the coffeehouse making me look like a peasant, with Mahler’s Ninth playing at the same time in another concert hall. I was definitely split in many sides that evening: one completely burned out after seeing Ancient Rome the whole day, one being, of course, the eager music fan and a third moderating, as in trying to keep the first alive and the second from pretentiously picking the pulse, thus simply enjoy the whole thing. As I waited for the M bus to arrive and take me to the Auditorium, along with a rather impatient British old lady and a German couple of the same age, I feared I might actually be among the youngest spectators. Fortunately, the public proved to be mixed: genuine rock enthusiasts and Graaf fanboys, people who had forgotten to change their clothes since the ‘70s, young bloods equally interested.
The screechy “nearer and nearer” (constantly misheard by me as mirror, mirror) chorus, or even the keyboard polyphonic frolics from Interference Patterns could have proved annoying, but I felt it was a good opener. The chorus blasts were heavier than usual and the keyboard animation was also of great effect. As mentioned before, picking up the strange rhythms and intricate melodic patterns, all in heterogeneous time signatures, can be the first thing that connects you with the profoundly personal, however awkward, Van der Graaf spirit – something even Trisector, as shabby of an album as it is often credited, does manage. This, on the other hand, is the departure I regret on A Grounding in Numbers, an album I met with too great expectations, the positive reactions doing no good either. Actually, even without thinking about the past when listening to it (which is indeed a rather bad viewpoint), I find very little substance in their new songs – or the slideshow itself. The trio picked the decent stuff from that album, avoiding, for instance, nutty songs on mathematics and such. First was Mr. Sands – a sort of odd character every band gives life to at some point (see R.E.M.’s Mr. Richards) – and the more halcyon Your Time Starts Now, with a first fully sonorous organ line from Banton. Hammill moved to electric guitar, acting clumsy between each piece to mask the seconds delayed by his preparations. The heavy instrumental verve returned with All That Before, portions of an already towering intensity.
There was no greater enthusiasm than when the classics were played (a small sad side to it being that it felt like they were the only thing the public was truly waiting for). Hammill did prepare us for them, yet, as the ovations interrupted the first line of Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End, it was clear the game would carry on. There was indeed more to it. When Hammill made his dramatic pause at “frightening in the silence”, someone from the audience jumped in, screaming the “sileeeeeeeeence” in perfect imitation. Hammill replied faithfully. It was a bloody genius moment. Needless to say, at the end of the final triumphing choral of the piece, the audience jumped to its feet. It felt less great to follow up with irritating keyboard dialogues from All Over the Place, something matched on the new album only by the awful irregularities on Splink. I really enjoyed Over the Hill next. It’s the most powerful separator between Trisector and A Grounding in Numbers, also linking closest to the old Van der Graaf, with its catchphrases, cold/pulsating transitions, lyrically & musically encompassing.
Finalmente there was Man-Erg, apparently a given in these concerts, proving even more what this band is all about. The sentimental, lyrical opening was never too comforting, while the thundering section was downright macabre and convulsive. At one point, Evans kicked the hell out of his small gong so much that he send it flying. People were shouting requests by the time of the encore, be it Sleepwalkers, Wondering or Necromancer (what!). However, it was Scorched Earth – probably my favorite VdGG of all time (but I could be biased to say that right now). I can’t think of a better encore that I’ve heard. Yes, it did lack Jaxxon’s crazy improvisations, but everything else was in place. It pierced through me entirely and it was mind-blowing. The lights were turned back on right after the trio left the stage, and the fans gave up too quickly.
So, going back to my first line, it was a great concert. Hammill’s vocals were slightly off, but I dare mention it again that all three of them were absolutely impressive at their instruments. Becoming their fan(boy) was a rough deal, so I’m pretty content with going all the way through this – except, perhaps, a couple more bits and pieces on their creation that aren’t quite put together, even now. Occasionally, it’s great to also hear others puzzle over what Van der Graaf were able to create, extending to how refined music sounded back in those days.
…okay, maybe it was my dad being so nostalgic. But my feelings persist.