Steve Sarsby on Van Der Graaf Generator at the Robin 2.
It’s strange how fashions come and go and yet at the end of it all, we still like the same things. Take Prog Rock; once touted as the pinnacle of groups who were truly talented, then denounced as over-produced, self-indulgent superficial fare. Some prog groups took more flak than others, usually unfairly in my view. Through it all though, there’s always been Van Der Graaf Generator. If not actually together as a touring unit, at least there in spirit, but with the prospect of reunion and more great albums and concerts.
VDGG’s albums, to me anyway, are far more than just collections of songs. Soaring musical flights of fanciful ideas graced by supreme musicianship, lyrics that touch on the deepest depths of the human psyche, cerebral and yet accessible; dare I say, relevant.
Thus VDGG, now a trio (Peter Hammill-vocals, keyboards and guitar, Hugh Banton-keyboards and Guy Evan-percussion) and their fans descended on Bilston to pack out the Robin 2; I’ve never been to a more well-attended evening at this venue. They played a well-conceived set combining the early and the modern most successfully.
Starting the proceedings with Over the Hill the group were into their stride instantly. A great choice to open with; Hammill’s vocals, sometimes melodic, sometimes impassioned, were perfectly matched by the intricate interplay between Hugh Banton’s impressive keyboard playing and Guy Evan’s drums with tremendous timing.
Next up was Flight; one of the two longest pieces of the night. Originally a Hammill solo track it falls superbly into place. Brilliant lyrically (but aren’t they all), ebbing and flowing-it’s classic VDGG, with quiet pieces and pounding, aggressive riffs, melodic and discorant, somehow harmoniously. Yet the subtle parts aren’t always melodic just as the powerful parts aren’t always discordant.
Lifetime has a harder sound by the band’s standards, but still containing the essence of all that is great about this group. Visually the group is interesting; Hammil’s amazing singing is obvious, but the studied keyboard virtuosity of Hugh Banton is spellbinding and Guy Evans’ drumming is quite amazing-the timings are always impeccable.
The third song from the Trisector album, All That Before contains humourous lyrics about getting older. Misplacing glasses, car-keys, forgetting things and as for mobile phones………….. Bunsho marks a different path. Taken from A Grounding in Numbers, it is shorter and even harder than before, with Hammill demonstrating his prowess on the guitar and the group putting some real punch into this song about writing. The next two tracks were taken from the band’s archive, specifically the Pawn Hearts album. Within seconds of the opening keyboard the group were applauded wildly, for we were being transported to prog heaven in the shape of A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers.
Stunningly clever, moving and imaginative lyrics, with onomatopoeic nautical sounds and with the music rising and falling this was absolute musical brilliance at its best. It’s hard for me to keep objective as this is, in my opinion, one of the greatest tracks of all time. Yet as if to prove it was no mere history lesson this version was modernised but lost absolutely nothing in translocation to the present. At the end of this stunning performance I have to admit that I was moved to the point of tears; a quick glance around the audience showed that I wasn’t alone. Not resting on their laurels, the group launched into Man-Erg, another soaring track with that incredible keyboard riff in the middle and end sections then topped off with a powerful ending that all three of the musicians timed to perfection. After receiving their deserved rapturous applause the group returned for an encore; Scorched Earth from Godbluff, with another rousing finale that was absolutely nailed.
At the finish the group were obviously pleased with their reception but I felt that they were also most satisfied with having played to the very best of their abilities. We couldn’t have wished for a better performance – it was well up to expectations. The atmosphere amongst the crowd was that of having been a small part of history, to see Van Der Graaf Generator at this stage of their career and still very much in their pomp is very much a privilege.
This is a must-see group; do and try to catch them on tour. If not, they’re a must-listen so I urge you to listen to some of their albums if you aren’t familiar with them. They’re all a bit different to each other. My personal favourite is Pawn Hearts (just) but many of their fans would disagree and recommend another album just as good.
I’ll leave it to my friend Andy to sum up. En route to the gig he said “I’m not keen on Prog Rock”. As the final notes of Scorched Earth faded away I asked his opinion -“They’re amazingly brilliant” was his reply. Another convert – I hope he remembers to return all the Van Der Graaf Generator CDs he’s borrowed from me.