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Van Der Graaf Generator – Bridgewater Hall, Manchester: Live Review

Van Der Graaf Generator – Bridgewater Hall, Manchester – 22nd February 2022

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Strap yourselves in for a roller coaster ride and be prepared to pay due reverence. Quality Progressive Rock never dies. And Van Der Graaf Generator were always one of the bands pushing the limits and testing the audience. They still are. Like the past few years of explosive King Crimson live performances, Peter Hammil and his partners in crime – Hugh Banton and Guy Evans – that make up the 2022 VdGG, they continue to challenge.

The VdGG flag is flying high too, with a raft of activity that will see remastered albums reappearing on vinyl, 7″singles and the repressing of the huge Charisma Years collection due to demand. There’s also the touring activity – “It’s going to be a blast,” says Peter Hammil…

And to begin, let’s have a trip down memory lane to a first personal experience of Peter Hammil which would have been in the early Eighties, supporting new upstarts Marillion and with his contributions to Peter Gabriel’s fledgling WOMAD. Of course, VdGG were one of the leading Prog lights back in the heady days of the Charisma Records package tour days with Genesis and Lindisfarne. Six bob (30p in new money) to see all three bands and there’s good money on some of the ATB Vets (or their friends) who were probably there almost fifty years ago to the day. I’ll wager there’s a handful in attendance tonight who were there too.

Hammil is also a name often thrown up as a major influencer by Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson in their The Album Years podcast. Part of their Album Years bingo with Fripp, Gabriel and Bowie (along with Steven’s “my friend Mikael from Opeth“) getting short odds.

In 2022, Van Der Graaf Generator is a different beast. Of Sorts. We’re finally here tonight after many months of waiting and hanging in there in our bubbles and tickets in hand – the band is cautiously staying in their own bubble – for these shows to come around and there’s a palpable sense of relief that we’re actually going ahead. And the first surprise for those who make a point of studying setlists, is that the Manchester show has a significantly different set to the previous night in Birmingham.

After opening with a sprawling and testing In The Black Room from his solo catalog, we’re placated with something a bit more modern we head first into the 21st century and get a chance to take in the trio, spread widely across the expansive stage and (not so) confines of the rather magnificent auditorium. Hammil decked out completely in white, the intense concentration clearly evident. Masks finally sees him on his feet with the guitar strapped on and a music stand with some aide memoir notes and the chance to appreciate that even at the age of 73 when his peers are fading, the voice is still strong, there’s an element of teetering on the edge as the dynamics shift with stuttering rhythms that the trio manage with a telepathic ease

A short first half ends with what Hammil calls two very contrasting numbers. Either end of the spectrum is mined for a wild Gog that threatens to overspill into a manic rant, but it’s all part of the spectacle. The Banton/Evans combo is particularly effective at brewing up a real storm as Hammil scream “will you not run from ME!!!” Yes, in contrast as he mentions that a couple of numbers from 2016’s Do Not Disturb are going to make an appearance, Go is positively sublime and particularly poignant. It comes over as a beautiful requiem. The audible sighs he emits are a sign of the genuine emotion that’s resonating deep within the man. It’s the highlight of the evening. “Time to leave, Close the door,” simple yet typical of the sort of prophetic lines that peppered the evening and a reminder of the sheer lyrical class Hammil has brought to the table over the decades. While some may revel in the complex meanderings, the simple, less is more, can often be the most effective,

The second half begins with the keyboard intro to Over The Hill to a hushed (after a brief reminder from some irate audience members to one of two who’d not yet settled back down) and attentive audience, taking in and scrutinising every note, playing the familiar back in their heads. Both this and Lifetime from Trisector are both gentle opportunities for some reflections and reminiscences – the lyrics of the latter particularly poignant.

All good clean fun,” he adds after Scorched Earth, breaking the silence as everyone awaits his next pronouncement in anticipation of what’s to come next. A sign of the reverence in which Hammil and the music are held – the hold your breath silence adding to the intensity of the experience. And there are constant sobering reminders of our mortality – “We’ll never know when we’re over the hill,” he sings as some of Hugh Banton’s meaty Hammond sounds spark an unavoidably sad reminder of Procol Harum and the death of Gary Brooker announced earlier in the day. Banton is multi-tasking constantly, performing a bizarre dance at times with legs and feet working the switches and pedals at his feet.

There’s nothing from Pawn Hearts for us tonight but Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End as a closing number might have compensated with an anthemic performance. Uplifting and packed with triumphant keyboard chords, it passes through several sections stitched into a mighty Prog extravaganza. Some would argue that it’s a triumph, deserving of the standing ovation that follows and not just because it’s the last number.

Have we just seen one of the last great Prog outfits from the golden age? Like those who are playing catch up with the prog heritage, we can breathe a sigh of relief that we were there and have paid our respects to a truly innovative artist. You know what? It was a blast. The London Palladium awaits.

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Van Der Graaf Generator online: Website / Facebook

Peter Hamill at Sofa Sound

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