Van der Graaf Generator
The masters return for the first time since 1978
May 6th 2005, Royal Festival Hall, London, UK
By Charlie Farrell
I hadn't originally planned to attend this event, having never really been a huge fan of the band,
but a ticket became available at the last moment and spurred on by the 'buzz' about the gig I decided to
go along to the Royal Festival Hall while not being quite sure what to expect from a band who had
not played live together in 27 years. The hall is principally a Classical Music venue and it is not
often used for rock gigs - at least the sort of rock gigs that I go to, so it made a pleasant change
to be able to watch a concert from nice comfy seats and to enjoy a relatively unobstructed view of
the stage as well as a fabulously clear sound.
In this so-called ‘classic’ formation of the band there were just 4 musicians playing what might
be considered a rather strange combination of instruments. Starting from the left hand side of the
stage, there was Hugh Banton who built a fantastic atmosphere with his two keyboards and what
seemed like a battery of bass pedals. Next there was Guy Evans playing on an original '65 Gretch
kit, whose fills and clever mix of delicacy and power was a real delight to see and hear. Then
David Jackson on flute, oboe and 2 saxophones and finally, the amazing Peter Hammill(vocals, guitar
& keyboards) whose unique singing style and crazy maniacal puppet style movements held the crowd
enthralled throughout the show.
As the band made their way on-stage at around 19:45, the crowd exploded with cheers and the warm
reception lasted some time, before the crowd gradually fell still and silent. So still in fact, that
it was almost as if a classical concert was to begin and as they began to play The Undercover Man
one could sense that the entire crowd was totally enthralled. For once, one really felt the respect
that the audience had for the band onstage and though of course there was some movement from time
to time with people taking toilet breaks and getting drinks, the same feeling of focused attention
remained throughout the show. It really was that enthralling.
The band played for just over 2 hours, mixing some material from their latest album
Present in with the old classics
from the likes of Pawn Hearts and Godbluff. While I can't claim to be very familiar with
the band's catalogue there was plenty happening on stage that I could connect with. Hammill was a marvel
to watch throughout. Constantly moving when at the microphone or exercising his frustrations marching
back and forth in the large space behind the other musicians during the gaps when there was nothing for
him to sing. He was only slightly less animated when seated at his keyboard rig, stage right.
Equally entertaining were the jazzy woodwind breaks from David Jackson and his astonishing feat of
playing two saxophones simultaneously. Then there was the delightful percussion provided by Guy Evans
which also constantly kept my eyes and ears interested. Not forgetting Hugh Banton, who by virtue of
his role, had less freedom of movement, but whose keys and particularly whose bass pedal playing really
held the whole sound together. Hammill didn't speak much between songs; just early on to make it clear
that for once, the setlist was not going to deviate from that agreed in advance and then once or twice
later in the set to introduce a song here and there. Sometimes it can be difficult watching a show
by a band that one is unfamiliar with, but on this occasion the time flew by.
When the set came to a close, the entire venue rose to its feet and the audience continued to
applaud for some time until the band eventually returned to play encores of Killer and
Wondering. By applause I don’t mean the usual half-hearted applause often supplied by London
audiences but wholehearted appreciation from the front row to the very back of the venue. The band
on stage seemed genuinely touched and slightly surprised at the reaction but the genuinely deserved it.
Other's more knowledgeable about the band than myself, might have been able to point out some
faults and perhaps missed cues, but I think such mistakes can be forgiven after having not played live
together for almost 27 years. Certainly for me, there was nothing that I saw or heard which detracted
from what was certainly a highly enjoyable evening’s entertainment and one that fulfilled the dreams
of a large proportion of the audience. More UK and European gigs will follow and after this rapturous
welcome back, I'm quite keen to catch another show myself.
July 8th 2005, Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, UK
By Tom DeVal
Van der Graaf Generator's show at Shepherd's Bush, a couple of months after the triumphant Royal Festival Hall comeback, turned out to be a very different sort of gig. In the first place, it was taking place in slightly surreal circumstances, just 36 hours after the worst terrorist attack on the capital in modern times. It was something of a miracle that the London Underground was working at all, and I certainly noticed an understandably subdued atmosphere when travelling across London, not to mention significantly less people in the city than on a normal Friday evening. The attendance at the gig itself didn't appear to be affected however - although not packed, the Empire was pretty full, and once again there was a tangible sense of anticipation in the air. This concert had a much more normal 'gig' atmosphere about it than the RFH hall - due partly to the size of the venue (whilst not small, the Empire it certainly seems relatively compact compared to the RFH) and also to the fact that there was standing at the Empire - I was only a few metres from the front of the stage, whilst I was a considerable distance away at the RFH.
After a lengthy wait VdGG took the stage shortly before 9 o'clock, to warm applause - not quite as intense as the rapturous reception the band received at the RFH, but still pretty loud. Rather than just getting on with the music as they did at their previous concert, this time Hammill took the mic, and made a short announcement to the effect that he didn't feel that the events of the last 36 hours should go unmentioned. After stating that 'the only way to carry on is to carry on' to sympathetic cheers, he lead the crowd to a minute's silence, which was impeccably observed by all present - you could hear the venue's air conditioning buzzing away - a touching moment.
The contrast between the minute's silence and the music once it gets going is quite startling. Clearly intending to play a different set - or at the very least the tracks in a different order - instead of the quiet opening of The Undercover Man we get the full-on grandeur of Darkness. The sound in the Empire, in many ways, couldn't be more different than the RFH - there, you could make out all the nuances of even the most complex passages - here, its loud, and quite raw - not that the sound was bad, but its much more dense, and there were certainly times when things got quite chaotic - more like VdGG should sound, you might say. There was also an extra edge to Hammill's voice, as he roars out the lyrics at the top of his lungs.
Next up was The Undercover Man itself - in contrast to Darkness, it's a fairly relaxed piece, and the acoustics are good enough to allow the subtleties of David Jackson's flute and Hugh Banton's organ to come through in the mix. As with the RFH this is coupled with Scorched Earth - quite a contrast, and clearly a very effective one. Scorched Earth was performed tremendously, with Banton, Jackson and Hammill (the latter seated at the piano for this one) raging away on the scorching (pun intended!) instrumental sections - I almost feared Jackson was going to keel over at some point, given the huge effort he seemed to be putting in with his double saxophone playing. The song seems to reach one crescendo after another, and the band quite rightly got a deafening ovation on its completion.
There was a pause for breath for the stately ballad Every Blood Emperor before, following the now customary wait for Hammill to tune in his electric guitar, we got an endearingly chaotic version of Lemmings - the raw nature of the guitar work gave the song an edge it perhaps didn't have on the original album, and the seemingly improvised noodling in the middle of the song did nothing to detract from its power. Next up was the first change from the previous set. Noticeably absent from the RFH concert, and called for by various members throughout, La Rossa is for me one of the standouts from what I consider, along with Pawn Hearts, to be VdGG's best albums - Still Life. It was therefore very welcome to hear it live. The rendition was not perfect - it seemed the band were a little tentative and perhaps under-rehearsed on this one, and it seemed distinctly rough round the edges, with a few bum notes - but even so a slightly below-par La Rossa was far better than none at all. All is forgiven anyway when they blast into its album-mate Childlike Faith In Childhood's End - this was a highlight of the RFH gig, and is again here. Killer was once again exemplary, with Hammill pacing the stage menacingly as the instrumentalists cooked up a storm. You'd hardly call VdGG sing-along material, but by the looks (and sounds!) of it the whole audience were booming out the chorus of this one along with Hammill.
Next up was the pairing of The Sleepwalkers and new number Nutter Alert - these songs work very well as a pair, as musically they share similar traits, particularly the slightly lurching rhythms employed, and they also serve to introduce an element of control into proceedings. A perfect appetiser then for the closing number of the main set, and one of my favourite VdGG compositions, Man Erg. The way the track moves from grandiose ballad to a cacophony of sound, featuring almost unfeasibly dextrous rhythms and time-changes, is still astounding, and if anything this rendition topped that at the Royal Festival Hall, as it seemed imbued with more energy and gusto.
Unsurprisingly the main set ended with an almost never-ending round of cheers and applause, and equally unsurprisingly VdGG soon retook to the stage. The first song played was Refugees, probably the closest the band have come to a conventional ballad and, if truth be known, not one of my favourite tracks - that said, its well performed and warmly welcomed by much of the audience. Final song, however, was something of a surprise - the short but memorable instrumental Theme One. Actually this proved to be a great way of ending the show - a much better closing track than that used at the RFH (Wondering) which I thought was anticlimactic. Tonight, the only disappointment was the fact that Hammill did not have a participatory role, instead pacing around rather menacingly at the back of the stage.
Following this, the band took their bows to an expectedly enthusiastic ovation, with smiles beaming from the faces of all present. All told, another very special gig - I've seen lots of concerts in 2005 already, but both these shows will be very difficult to beat when it comes to deciding the best gig of the year. Unlike many reformed outfits Van der Graaf Generator have definitely not mellowed with age, and the music seems just as relevant now as I imagine it did when it came out. Lets hope that the band decide to stick around for a while longer yet.
Royal Festival Hall
The Undercover Man
Every Bloody Emperor
In The Black Room
Childlike Faith In Childhoods End
Shepherd's Bush Empire
Every Bloody Emperor
Childlike Faith in Childhood's End