Part One: Progressing into Yesterday, Steve Hillage and Van Der Graaf Generator
NEARFEST, the North East Art Rock Festival, took place this past weekend and as is the custom of this 11-year-old institution, it was a mix of progressive rockers old and new.
Today, Pt 1 of The Old Guard
There is a tendency for progressive rock fans to want their heroes to remain locked in the past. Most audience members at NEARfest had never seen these acts and wanted to hear live versions of the music they grew up with. Two of the old guard complied and two of them didn’t to varying degrees.
Early on in Van Der Graaf Generator‘s set Friday night set, founder, singer and composer Peter Hammill declared. “We didn’t come here just to be holograms.” Which meant that as much as fans wanted to hear “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers,” VDGG wasn’t just going to dish up hits and they played several tracks from their 2008 album, Trisector.
This is a leaner, more focused VDGG without saxophonist David Jackson. But with Hammill on keyboards and guitar, Guy Evans on drums and Hugh Banton on organ and keyboards, they created a big sound. Banton in particular was a whirlwind, sprawling out across his keyboards and beating out bass-lines on his pedals, he created an orchestra of sound centered by his churning Hammond B3 organ (or a digital variation thereof). Although he doesn’t quote anything directly, you can hear the classical roots in everything he does, especially his left-handed comping. While most of the festival’s keyboardists come from right-hand-riffing/left-hand-modulation-wheel school of soloing, Banton creates full orchestrations, connecting the intricate chord changes and rhythms of the band.
Peter Hammill thrives in this context. I was underwhelmed by his overwrought performance at Nearfest 2008. A solo piano arrangement isn’t enough to contain a voice that is by turns melodramatic and whispering, mannered and manic. But corralled in the frame of Van Der Graaf Generator, Hammill’s voice is given depth and context and it’s just not so uninhibitedly naked.
VDGG enlivened tracks from Trisector, and breathed new life into old favorites like “Man-Erg” “Lemmings” and “Sleepwalkers.” It was their first US appearance since 1976 and it was worth the wait.
The Steve Hillage Band closed out Friday night’s show. Like VDGG, they’re considered progressive rock, but they couldn’t be more different. Guitarist Steve Hillage, who has been pushing the electronica envelope with his System 7 and Mirror System projects for nearly two decades, instead went back to his classic 1970s work. Hillage had been a member of Gong and his own band took those aesthetics and extended them into a more technological brand of rock. On Friday, he revisited that work, playing in a quartet that included Chris Taylor on drums, old Gong bassist Mike Howlett and Hillage’s wife and longtime partner, Miquette Giraudy on synthesizers. They whipped out tunes from Hillage’s Fish Rising, L and Green albums, with Hillage deploying his delayed guitar solos across the slamming riffs of “Salmon Song,” and raving it up on “Octave Doctors” with a nice jam of rampant, distorted guitar. Hillage’s set was marred a bit by technical problems with his guitar, which caused him to repeat his cover of The Beatles “It’s All Too Much” in his encore. But what really hurt was Hillage’s singing. You don’t listen to Steve Hillage for the vocals, but on this night, he was grievously off-key, warbling blindly around the tonal center. When the band zoomed off into space jams with storming the heavens guitar solos, they harkened back to their glory days, but as soon as Hillage opened his mouth the music stumbled like a tripped gyroscope.
Ironically, seeing Ozric Tentacles, a band heavily influenced by Gong and Hillage, a few nights later, I realized they had found their way out of the pop conundrum by eschewing lyrics and song form. Hillage does that with System 7 and maybe he should do it with the Hillage Band. Or at least get a singer who can stay on pitch and hold up to the bands aggressive onslaught.
Next Up Two more Old Proggers: Gong says you can go home again, as long as home is Planet Gong, and Italy’s PFM redeems their middling performance from NEARfest 2005.
John Diliberto ((( echoes )))