The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Tuesday 22 February 2022
Prog rock band still generating sparks in Manchester over 50 years on
In one of those lovely disambiguations on Wikipedia, Van der Graaf Generator the rock band are not to be confused with the electrostatic machine the Van der Graaff Generator. Both are capable of creating electric sparks.
Founded 55 years ago in Manchester, the rock band fronted by singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Peter Hammill returned to Manchester – where they were formed in 1967 – with a mixture of more recent songs and some classics. The band were on hiatus for many years and at different times while Hammill pursued his solo career. Hammill’s back catalogue is massive – he has recorded around 50 studio albums as a solo artist and with the band. In the world of prog rock, perhaps only Steven Wilson has been as prolific, has maintained such a high standard of songwriting, and has remained as true to his own unique vision.
The latest line-up of the band features Hammill himself on guitar, keyboards and vocals and two members of the band who first joined in 1968, Guy Evans on drums and Hugh Banton on keyboards. Material was drawn mostly from the 60s and 70s and from this century, both from Hammill’s solo albums and the band’s records. When the band returned for an encore an audience member shouted ‘1976’ and Hammill smiled ‘earlier, actually’, going on to sing a sweet-voiced version of the anthemic Refugees from the 1970 album The Least we can do is Wave to Each Other.
Hammill came on stage wearing a loose-fitting white suit, looking like an avuncular housemaster from a minor public school who had just come off the cricket pitch. The capacious stage of the Bridgewater Hall, which can accommodate a full symphony orchestra, looked a little bare with only three performers and their equipment, and there was no light-show or video screens. All the drama was concentrated in the musical performances and the formidable but strangely moving songwriting.
Hammill’s voice is still a remarkable instrument, coloured by his phenomenal ability to act out a song. Sometimes it was conversational, sounding like the singer of a French chanson, at other times half-spoken like the sprechstimme used in German classical music in the early part of the twentieth century. At times it was pensive as in Do Not Disturb, at other times terrifying as in the cry that opened Nutter Alert; it was clear that Hammill has no intention of going gentle into that good night. Sometimes it was an instrumental texture, as in parts of Childhood Faith in Childhood’s End, going from a whisper to a roar in very short space of time.
Strong support to Hammill’s vocal was provided by drummer Guy Evans whose work was subtle, fierce, jazzy, military, busy, simple as required. Hugh Banton’s organ playing was bluesy, dreamy, contemplative, jazzy, funky, hymn-like. There was a remarkable range of tone, texture and dynamics from just three players. If there was the odd slip, absence from touring due to Covid was a good reason. Hammill announced Masks by saying that they had decided to play the song during the Covid lockdowns but were not sure if they could pull it off; spoiler alert – they could. The song took flight with a full prog instrumental passage and a wailing guitar. Poignantly, Hammill announced at the end of the concert that the band would not be able to meet the fans and do signings afterwards as they had to remain in a Covid bubble with crew. But despite the enforced lack of contact with the audience, the band had communicated through the music which was challenging, disturbing, cinematic, horrifying, intimate, dramatic, reflective, endlessly twisting and restless, always fascinating. And ultimately uplifting.