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Peter Hammill & Stuart Gordon

Peter Hammill & Stuart Gordon

by Ian Mann

October 19, 2006


It also seems unfair to me than an artist with such a vast body of high quality work should be less celebrated than deceased artists such as Nick Drake and Kurt Cobain.

Huntingdon Hall, Worcester - 2nd October 2006.

Peter Hammill is one of the great lost treasures of British rock music. In the late 60’s/early 70’s he led Van Der Graaf Generator, one of the most uncompromising bands of the progressive rock era. There was always an extreme element to Van Der Graaf’s music, they took musical risks and played with a ferocious intensity. As Hammill himself put it “always playing too hard, too fast, too soon”. However, this meant that with the onset of punk VDGG were by and large exempt from the derision heaped upon other “dinosaur” bands of the prog epoch. Indeed figures such as John Lydon and The Fall’s Mark E. Smith cited Hammill as a major influence. As a pioneer of home recording Hammill also pre-empted the DIY ethos of punk by about three years.

In the words of drummer Guy Evans VDGG was always an “unstable entity” and they split up and reformed several times over the course of their existence going through a number of line-up changes in the process. The seemingly final dissolution came in 1978 but in 2005 Hammill unexpectedly reformed the band for a new album and tour. The line up was the classic one of Hammill (voice, guitar, keyboards) Hugh Banton (organ), Guy Evans (drums) and David Jackson (saxes & flute). The new album “Present” was a pretty decent offering .A couple of the new songs became instant classics, as good as anything they produced in their 70’s heyday, and were included in the tour sets.

Van Der Graaf’s stock had remained high in the intervening years and their very first comeback concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall was a triumphant return with fans attending from an estimated 27 countries! VDGG/Hammill fans are incredibly loyal. Fans tend to have the entire output of the man which overall must now number some fifty albums - even I’ve lost count.

The VDGG tour was a great success and also took the band back to Italy where they retain a huge following. It was probably the first time any of the musicians had made any serious money out of Van Der Graaf Generator. They were always bedevilled by financial problems in the 70’s. The VDGG story will continue next year when following the departure of David Jackson the three piece line up of Hammill, Banton and Evans will tour and record a new album.

Away from VDGG the tireless Hammill has recorded more than thirty solo albums over the years. Often working with former Van Der Graaf members his solo work has been just as uncompromising as that of the group. Besides many albums of songs he has also recorded an opera based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall Of The House Of Usher” plus several albums of avant-garde instrumental music or “sonix”. He has operated almost totally outside the rock mainstream for many years and was one of the first musicians to embrace the now more widespread “cottage industry” approach to the business with his own recording studio and record label.

The subject matter of Hammill’s songs ranges from the intensely personal to the overtly political plus more abstract ruminations on the nature of love, faith, space, time and mortality. It is an honest attempt to cover serious subjects within the loose frame of a “pop song” but without descending into an overweening pretentiousness. “Serious Fun” is what Hammill likes to call it and he pulls it off with remarkable consistency.

Tonight’s show is the second date of a short British tour which sees Hammill performing songs in a duo situation with violinist Stuart Gordon. Although never a member of VDGG Gordon is a long-term associate who first played with Hammill on his 1983 album “Patience”. The pair have shared both the stage and the recording studio many times since and as a duo have recently released a live album “Veracious” which contains versions of several of the songs featured tonight.

Worcester’s Huntingdon Hall Arts Centre is an ideal setting for Hammill’s music. It is a converted church with an excellent acoustic and also possesses a wonderful grand piano which Hammill makes good use of tonight. He sometimes uses an electric keyboard but his songs sound far better when performed on the larger instrument. The church like setting adds greatly to the atmosphere of Hammill’s songs some of which have an almost gothic air of religiosity about them, the result of a strict Jesuit education. The surroundings also contribute to the mood of hushed reverence and rapt attention from the devoted fans. Throughout an uninterrupted show lasting an hour and three quarters you could hear literally a pin drop. Hammill made a point of thanking us for our attention and concentration.

Hammill commenced proceedings at the piano opening with “Easy To Slip Away” from his 1973 album “Chameleon In The Shadow Of The Night”. This song of lost friendship is the natural successor to the VDGG classic “Refugees” which was rapturously received on the group’s tour last year. Even in those days Hammill was a remarkably mature writer. He acknowledges his own role in allowing friendships to slip away through laziness and neglect. It is common knowledge among the Hammill faithful that the “Susie” referred to in the lyrics is actress Susan Penhaligon who shared a London flat with Hammill in the late 60’s.

The following “Just Good Friends” from “Patience” is an equally mature piece of work. Yes it’s a love song of sorts but it is from the perspective of the lover in a clandestine affair when the illicit thrill has long gone and the liaison has become habitual and sordid. “Pop songs” don’t usually have this kind of emotional depth.

Many of Hammill’s lyrics stand up as poetry in their own right but they are brought into even sharper focus by his extraordinary vocal delivery. Early press reports referred to Hammill as the “Hendrix of the voice”. There is an element of truth in this in that he sings with an incredible, almost frightening intensity but what sets him even further apart is his very English enunciation. No other rock singer sounds remotely like him. Some of his singing is almost operatic, which may explain his enduring popularity in Italy. There is an element of the actor in there too. More than any other rock singer I know Hammill seems to be “in character” when he sings due to his sense of involvement and the sheer power and intensity of his singing. This is why he prefers to perform without an interval. Having to psyche himself up to these levels twice in an evening would be too much. At times he seems wracked with pain but when he has reached the climax of a song and finally releases the pianos sustain pedal he breaks into a grin and sometimes allows himself a little yell of triumph. It’s clear that he’s really enjoying himself. “Serious Fun” indeed.

Another early highlight is “A Better Time” from the album “X My Heart” a meditation on mortality and the passing of time and the importance of living in the moment. One of Hammill’s best latter day songs, the accapella version on the album is stunning.

“Autumn” from the album “Over” is also featured. This song, written from the point of view of a parent after the children have left home this song was written when Hammill was in his late twenties. At the time it seemed a somewhat incongruous item in his repertoire but with Hammill now in his late fifties it seems remarkably prescient.

Moving to guitar Hammill treats us to an intense version of “I Will Find You” from the album “Fireships”. Superficially this is a simple song by Hammill’s standards but as the mood veers from the caring to the creepy and sinister it becomes less clear in the listener’s mind as to whether the song’s protagonist is a caring friend or an obsessive stalker.

The old favourite “The Comet, The Course, The Tail” from 1974’s “In Camera” is simply wonderful as usual. Hammill’s singing is more intense than ever on this all time classic from the back catalogue.

An achingly sad “Shingle Song”(from 1975’s “Nadir’s Big Chance”) is given a radically different arrangement from the rather slight original. The 2006 edition is a moving and affecting piece of work.

“Like Veronica” sees Hammill as the third party observer. He chronicles a savage tale of domestic violence. His imagery is disturbing and utterly convincing. The vocal delivery conjures appropriate levels of bile and passion.

However, I am less keen on “Primo On The Parapet” in which Hammill invokes the writer Primo Levi and warns us not to forget the horrors of the Holocaust. By Hammill’s standards this song is just too obvious and lingers long after it’s made it’s point. Musically it has some good riffs which must be fun to play but it’s still too bloody long! This has been in the set list for years and I suspect I’m not alone in feeling it should be retired gracefully.

Returning to the piano Hammill tackles “The Unconscious Life” from the enigmatically titled 1982 album “Enter K”. He is certainly presenting a wide range of material tonight. Again I have to say that this is not a particular favourite of mine.

More to my liking is “A Way Out” from 1990’s “Out Of Water”. This song is not only cleverly constructed but also manages to be both enigmatic and moving at the same time. It is a particularly good example of Hammill’s love of language and wordplay, and this, together with the combination of a strong melody and a passionate delivery gives the song a considerable emotional impact. For me this was one of the evening’s highlights.

The perennial set closer “Traintime” from the “Patience” album combines a pulsating, Morse code like rhythm, a soaring melody and enigmatic lyrics with yet another bravura vocal performance. Gordon matches Hammill’s intensity and coaxes some extreme sounds from his violin.

The encore “Siren Song” is the only song tonight to have originally been recorded under the Van Der Graaf banner. It is not one of their best known tunes but remains popular with the Hammill/Gordon duo as it was specifically written for violin during Graham Smith’s brief tenure with Van Der Graaf. Tonight’s rendition is a particularly fine version of the song.

It has been an extraordinary evening of music and praise is due in equal parts to both musicians. By his own admission Hammill is not the most technically adept player of either the piano or the guitar, his voice and songs are his main instrument. However, his playing is adequate for him to accompany himself quite satisfactorily and he has played many successful solo shows over the years. Even so having a master technician like Gordon on board takes the music to a whole new level. Gordon shadows Hammill’s every move with grace, acumen and total conviction. The chemistry and interplay between the two is uncanny. This is probably the best show I’ve ever seen them play as a duo. Gordon’s stylistic range covers classical, folk, rock and all points in between. There are pizzicato passages and the judicious use of electronic effects through the use of foot pedals but it is all done with immaculate taste and supports the songs brilliantly. There are prolonged instrumental sections in which Gordon shines but even in the more extreme moments he never allows himself to upstage Hammill.

The audience, comprised mainly of Hammill devotees loved it. The gig was a sell out without even being advertised locally. The faithful had heard all about on the net and were out in force, travelling from all over the country. Many fans had been to the first night of the tour at Salford the night before but opinion was that Worcester was a significant improvement. Apparently clumsy piano playing had been a factor at Salford - “like a monkey with a typewriter” was one of the less flattering comments - Hammill fans are not afraid to criticise their hero. However, Hammill was clearly hitting his stride tonight. Surprisingly there were no broken guitar strings this evening - often a feature at Hammill shows. Hammill plays guitar with a primeval violence but somehow the instrument managed to remain intact.

I still find it strange that Hammill is still largely a prophet without honour in his own country. Apart from a brief flurry of media coverage about the VDGG reunion last year Hammill is largely ignored by both press and radio. For me there are many parallels between Hammill the more feted Richard Thompson. Both are masterful songwriters with long careers, and although both are highly prolific the standard of quality control remains astonishingly high. They are also unmistakably English. Thompson is a far better instrumentalist but I suspect that part of the reason he is better known than Hammill is that the media can safely put him in the pigeonhole marked “folk”. They really don’t know how to categorise Hammill so they just don’t bother.

It also seems unfair to me than an artist with such a vast body of high quality work should be less celebrated than deceased artists such as Nick Drake and Kurt Cobain. I like both Drake and Cobain and yes of course “Nevermind” changed the whole musical landscape but I still find the media obsession with them vaguely distasteful. I wonder how Hammill would now be perceived if he had died young. Some of his angst ridden 70’s output suggested a mind very close to the edge of real madness.

In the 80’s I found the same qualities in the work of Bob Mould. Both Mould and Hammill found catharsis through the power and intensity of their music. They played as if their lives depended on it-and maybe they did. Today both have exorcised most of their inner demons and live relatively well-adjusted and normal lives. To me that makes them greater artists than Drake or Cobain whose music wasn’t strong enough to save them. Also don’t forget that Mould’s band Husker Du did much to lay down the blueprint that Nirvana subsequently followed. In Mould’s own words ” a combination of melody, noise and intelligence.”

That sums up Peter Hammill’s music pretty well too.

A contentious view to end on - but listening to Peter Hammill certainly makes you think.

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