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Still reflecting on the latest venture to the Italian Riviera, ProgBlog looks at the legacy of the port city of Savona: Delirium and Il Cerchio d'Oro who released the rather good Il Fuoco Sotto la Cenere in the autumn

By ProgBlog, Nov 5 2017 05:15PM

I’m off to Genova again next week, on a trip originally scheduled to see a progressive night organised by local label and record shop Black Widow at La Claque. This features Brescia’s Phoenix Again who will be highlighting their third album, Unexpected, released in May this year; local band Melting Clock who impressed me when I saw them at the Porto Antico Prog Fest in July and hope to produce their debut next year; and an acoustic set from the widely-respected Genovese group Ancient Veil who remarkably, considering their origin dates back to 1985 when Alessandro Serri and Edmondo Romano founded Eris Pluvia, playing progressive rock created from a blend of folk and Canterbury influences and released a single album Rings of Earthly Light in 1991. The band ceased to exist in 1992 but Serri and Romano, assisted by Fabio Serri, created the Ancient Veil project and put out a self-titled album, stylistically similar to Rings of Earthly Light, in 1995. The group lay dormant until early this year when they returned with a new album I Am Changing and, on May 12th 2017 performed live for the very first time – at Genova’s La Claque. I’ve now extended my annual leave and will be spending three more nights in the city; after three failed attempts to get to see PFM I’ve now got a ticket for their performance at the Teatro Carlo Felice, Genova’s 2000 seat neo-rationalist opera house on November 17th.


Architectural detail, Teatro Carlo Felice
Architectural detail, Teatro Carlo Felice

When I first started going to Italy with the intention of seeing a live band, I felt I had to buy a ticket beforehand. Navigating ticketing websites, even when there’s no version in English (unlike the sites for buying records), is generally straightforward but I’ve learned that reserving a ticket for the sort of band I like to see is neither strictly necessary nor necessarily advantageous, especially when your spoken Italian is as bad as mine and you have to rehearse what you say when you go to pick up the ticket. That’s the easy bit. It’s when staff respond, quite appropriately in their own language, that I have to resort to ‘parli inglese?’ It’s much less embarrassing when you stroll up to the ticket office and say ‘un biglietto per favore.’ Apart from a couple of nights at the recent Progressivamente 2017 festival in Rome which were crowded but entry was free, I’ve never had any worries about not getting in; on the last occasion which I reserved a ticket before travelling, the Event ’16 performance at the Teatro Altrove in Genova last October, a beautiful old theatre which could have seated somewhere between 100 and 200, the audience size was only just into double digits. However, I thought it was probably best to book for the PFM gig and I was right; there were only a few seats remaining with two weeks to go.



Not willing to miss out yet again after procrastinating in Venice in 1980, receiving a email telling me the Manticore birthday show was cancelled in 2011 and heading off to Peru during their UK tour last year, I was happy to pay €51 for a seat in the front stalls which, with the booking fee, worked out at £51 thanks to some safe hands on the economy and David Cameron’s attempt to avoid a major shift to the right as his UKIP-lite MPs threatened to split the Conservative party over Britain’s place in Europe...


The cancellation announcement  for PFM, 2011
The cancellation announcement for PFM, 2011

It’s not inappropriate to equate the Teatro Carlo Felice with the Barbican Hall or the Royal Festival Hall or the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester based on both function and their architectural interest. Though I can’t comment on the Bridgewater Hall, tickets for gigs at both the Barbican and the RFH are mostly very reasonably priced, with Camel at the Barbican in 2013 costing £25 for a balcony seat compared to the price of £37.50 for a first circle seat to see Genesis tribute band Musical Box at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire six months earlier; my Dweezil Zappa ticket for the performance at the Festival Hall last month, admittedly for a seat at the very back of the stalls, only cost £24.50.



Tickets for Genesis tribute band Musical Box
Tickets for Genesis tribute band Musical Box

My first London concert was Yes at the Wembley Arena in October 1978 when the (matinee) ticket cost me £4; a year later my ticket for jazz great Dave Brubeck playing at the Royal Festival Hall was also £4. Taking inflation into account, the £4 Yes ticket should have cost £14.95 in 2004, which was the last time I saw Yes at Wembley; it set me back £35. Southbank prices stuck a bit closer to the official inflation level and my £4 Dave Brubeck ticket would have cost a little over £19 today, though Dave Brubeck played in a quartet and Dweezil Zappa’s band was not only larger but was augmented by the Norwegian Wind Ensemble.


Yes ticket prices 1978 - 2016
Yes ticket prices 1978 - 2016

The presence of accompanying musicians obviously has an impact on ticket prices and the one Barbican concert where I was genuinely surprised at the charge for Keith Emerson in July 2015: £65 for what sadly turned out to be his final live appearance performing the Three Fates Project with the BBC Concert Orchestra. Both the Barbican Centre and the Southbank Centre receive grants from Arts Council England (though the arts has been an easy target for the government during their mad austerity drive and their share of the money has been slashed) and their importance as centres of culture attracts other funding streams, so I suspect that some of this money is used to subsidise ticket prices. The Van der Graaf Generator Royal Festival Hall reformation concert ticket from 2005 actually seems rather expensive at £30 though I’d describe this as one of the best gigs, if not the best, I’ve ever attended; the next two VdGG shows I went to see after David Jackson left and they were reduced to a trio, in 2007 and 2013, both at the Barbican, each cost £25 despite the six year interregnum.


The cost of going to see VdGG, 2005 - 2013
The cost of going to see VdGG, 2005 - 2013

It’s fortunate that I’m only interested in niche music, though the Steven Wilson tour following the dates in spring 2018 might present problems with ticket availability following the general success of To the Bone. Fans of acts like Adele and Beyonce will be aware of the difficulty getting hold of tickets at the marked price, but when tickets for Kate Bush’s 22-night run at the Hammersmith Apollo sold out in 15 minutes and a standing ticket for one of Radiohead’s three Roundhouse shows was allegedly on sale for £1200 through the secondary ticketing service Viagogo, perhaps the trouble-free days of access to prog shows will soon be over, too.

The problem appears to be with under-regulation of secondary ticketing sites (thanks, free-marketeers!) and according to a recent report in The Guardian, it’s putting the UK’s £4.5bn music industry, which supports around 142,000 jobs, under threat because fans’ cash is being diverted from their favourite acts into the pockets of touts who use methods of doubtful legality to acquire large numbers of tickets which can then be sold on to Viagogo, GetMeIn! and StubHub at mark-ups which on average nets them around 25% profit. A survey of gig-attendees found that two-thirds of respondents who had paid more than face value for a ticket on a resale site said they would attend fewer concerts in future, while half would spend less on recorded music.


It’s hardly a body blow to touting but my one experience of dealing with a character buying and selling tickets in the pedestrian subway leading out to (what was then) the Hammersmith Odeon did result in a financial loss for the tout. I’d won two tickets to see Genesis in September 1982 but couldn’t persuade anyone to accompany me. I sold the spare ticket, at the back of the stalls and with a face value of £7.50 for £10 and was entirely satisfied that no one claimed the seat.


Though there seem to be fewer examples of physical touting outside concerts (and sporting occasions) there is a massive secondary ticketing industry, said to be worth around £1bn, fuelled by the internet and based on the simple fact that demand for live music and sports events outstrips supply; this is where substantial sums of money are made by armchair touts who target the most popular events. I can’t imagine ever paying twice the face value of a ticket but that’s because I tend to stick to esoteric gigs and pay €15 to see three bands somewhere out in the suburbs of Milano, or perhaps splash out on a two-day festival ticket on the Italian Riviera... €35.










By ProgBlog, Oct 16 2017 04:17PM

This blog has been delayed due to work, family and even more gigs. After returning from Rome I’ve taken in two other gigs, most recently Dweezil Zappa performing 50 years of Frank at the Royal Festival Hall last Tuesday and, within 72 hours of landing back in the UK after the excursion to the Eternal City, Tubular Bells for Two at the Union Chapel, Islington. I found the Zappa show a little disappointing because they didn’t play anything I was really familiar with (read Hot Rats) though I did recognise snatches which I couldn’t name. Most of the material seemed blues-based and a bit formulaic but I do recall parts of Inca Roads which was one of the more complex pieces showcased that evening. I certainly can’t criticise the musicianship and I shouldn’t have been surprised by anything on the set list because the tour is advertised as Dweezil ‘plays whatever the F@%k he wants!


Dweezil Zappa: 50 Years of Frank at the RFH
Dweezil Zappa: 50 Years of Frank at the RFH

The last time I was in the RFH was to see Chick Corea and the Elektric Band on some date lost in the mists of time and it’s a really good venue; the Union Chapel is equally good for different reasons. It may only have a seating capacity of a fifth of that of the RFH but it boasts a beautiful architectural space with a very special atmosphere. The performance by Daniel Holdsworth and Tom Bamford is frenetic and may involve the odd missing effect as they continuously grapple with pedals, leads and an array of instruments and though there were a couple of minor glitches on the night, it was a amazing spectacle carried off quite brilliantly.


Tubular Bells for Two
Tubular Bells for Two

I’ve recently spent far more time than I’m used to in and under churches. I acted as an informal tour guide around 1066 Country on my days off last week and my duties included the ruins of Battle Abbey, founded where Harold was killed by a Norman arrow and later destroyed by Henry VIII during the Dissolution in 1538; the first morning of the Rome adventure was devoted to a three and a half hour mainly archaeological tour of three early churches: San Clemente was founded in the 4th Century but Luca, our tour guide and one of the archaeologists who had worked on the site explained how the original building was contemporary with the Colosseum nearby and had served as the Roman imperial mint, before being converted to a residence with a pagan temple in the basement and then a place of clandestine Christian worship in the first century AD; the second stop was the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, another 4th Century church built over houses where roman soldiers John and Paul were martyred during the rule of Emperor Julian and hidden beneath the stairs. Underneath the basilica which was damaged during the Visigoth sack of Rome, damaged by earthquake and sacked again by the Normans, there are a series of decorated rooms (now the Case Romane del Celio museum) which comprise one of the best preserved Roman-era housing complexes. Originally a variety of building types from different periods, including an apartment block for artisans (an insula) and the dwelling of a wealthy individual which was subsequently converted into an early Christian church, the different buildings were combined sometime during the third century AD to form one elegant pagan house where it’s possible to identify the staircase where the bodies of the two soldiers were hidden after their murder; the third stop was a church founded in the sixth century, San Nicola in Carcere, which is interesting because of its former pagan history. There is evidence of utilising the existing temples on either side of the site and other repurposed building material to form the church. These layers of history can be seen by descending a set of stairs from the main body of the church, giving access to the excavation of the temple remains.


Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo
Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo

The archaeological and architectural delights visited over six days were actually secondary to the other purpose of the visit: prog. We arrived in Rome at around lunchtime and between checking in at the NH Leonardo da Vinci and eating supper at the Caffetteria Gracchi (where the televised Champions League game between Qarabağ FK and Roma was being shown), we managed to visit the Excellent Elastic Rock record shop where I bought four classic progressivo Italiano LPs and a Steve Hackett Genesis Revisited CD. Though an important detour, I’d really gone to see the 25th Progressivamente Free Festival at the Jailbreak Club, enticed by a string of excellent progressivo Italiano bands. An evening-only affair over five nights between Wednesday 27th September and Sunday 1st October, I could hardly believe that it was a free event. As is the way with progressive rock in general, the audience, musicians and organisers were friendly and helpful.


Elastic Rock - a very good record store
Elastic Rock - a very good record store

I was experimenting with public transport times and arrived early for the first show featuring La Bocca della Verità and Ingranaggi della Valle so I had time to grab a beer, chat to Ingranaggi della Valle keyboard player Mattia Liberati (who promised something special in their set after I’d compared the band to the Mahavishnu Orchestra), buy their debut IdV CD In Hoc Signo (2013) and the LBDV CD Avenoth (2016) from the joint merchandise stand, and claim one of the tables set out in front of the stage. The other seat at my table was taken by Vincenzo Praturlon who, despite protestations that his English was poor, was quite happy to engage in conversation about prog in general and RPI in particular. A veteran of previous Progressivamente festivals held at the Planet Live Club and Veruno’s 2 Days of Prog + 1, Vincenzo would later inform me that the ‘something special’ were a couple of tributes to the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank Zappa – I’d had to leave early, after only one song from Ingranaggi della Valle, to ensure that I caught the Metro all the way back to the hotel because my journey required a change of lines at Termini and the network begins to close down at 11.30pm on Sundays through to Thursdays.

The evening was introduced by Guido Bellachioma, the director of Prog Italia magazine, co-director at Italian hi-fi magazine Suono and art director at the Planet Live Club, who reminded us of what constituted prog and paid tribute to the artists, international and Italian who had died over the last year, before calling La Bocca della Verità to the stage. They didn’t disappoint, playing a good selection from the Avenoth suite which though at times sounded neo-prog or even modern, it had a very strong footing in the Italian symphonic prog tradition and ticked all the right boxes for me.


La Bocca della Verità
La Bocca della Verità

Thursday began with the underground tour of the churches and as we needed to get up early to get to the first site it proved sensible to have left early the night before. It wouldn’t be unfair to label Ingranaggi della Valle as a prog/jazz rock outfit and that evening’s performance continued the jazz rock theme with Accordo dei Contrari. They played a brand of tight-knit riff-based fusion interspersed with more abstract sections and, despite the abundance of electric piano and some great moog creating some memorable tones, I found some of the material quite challenging and not a particularly easy listen. I’d worked out that I could leave the club later and still use public transport to get back to Lepanto but having been on the go constantly from very early on Wednesday morning, I decided to give Slivovitz a miss and caught the same time metro train as I did on Wednesday.


The hospitality of the city went a little too far on Friday, attempting to make us feel more at home with industrial action on the Metro. This turned out to be only minor disruption because we simply meandered slowly from the hotel to Termini on foot and by the time we’d had a coffee (the Chef Express opposite platform 20 does a very good espresso) and a bite to eat, the strike had finished and we were able to visit Ostia Antica. This rather interesting diversion meant that we ate fairly late and I got to Jailbreak a couple of minutes before the first band, Flea on the Etna was due on stage. The club was busier than on the two previous nights and I couldn’t find an empty table, so I sat on one of the stools along the raised platform used by the groups to access the stage which provided a decent view of the proceedings. Flea on the Etna played a short set of good, straightforward jazz-rock with a hint of a Mediterranean influence. With original bassist Elio Volpini on guitar, two of the three tracks were from their self-titled album Etna (1975).


Flea on the Etna
Flea on the Etna

Consorzio Acqua Potabile (CAP) was next on the bill and I recognised most of the music from their set, a collection of lively, 70’s inspired prog and, like when I saw them in Genova in 2014, they were joined onstage by Alvaro Fella. When Jumbo ended the evening they were augmented by CAP members drummer Maurizio Mussolin and guitarist Massimo Gorlezza and they played a short set which included Suite per il Sig. K from DNA (1972). Fella’s voice has been reported as an ‘acquired taste’ but it remains strong and somehow very much fits the music of Jumbo and perhaps surprisingly well with CAP. I had the benefit of being able to enjoy the whole evening of music because the metro runs until 01.30 in the morning on Fridays and Saturdays.


CAP with Alvaro Fella
CAP with Alvaro Fella

The club was absolutely crowded on Saturday. I saw Vincenzo at the bar and he advised me to find somewhere to watch the performances as soon as possible before it became impossible to move, so I took up a standing position at the top of the steps leading to the stage access platform where I’d managed to get a stool on Friday. Standing next to me was the cousin of Semiramis bassist Ivo Mileto, come to lend support. She couldn’t tell me which group he played for but said she did like their music (Mileto replaced original bassist Marcello Reddavide.) Though Saturday evening began with ‘Italia 70’, a roundup some the best RPI committed to record, with guest appearances from Jenny Sorrenti and Gianni Nocenzi and including PFM’s Chocolate Kings and encore of E’ Festa, Banco’s 750,000 Anni fa l'Amore... and R.I.P. Jenny Sorrenti sang brother Alan’s Vorrei Incontrarti from Aria (1972.)


Jenny Sorrenti with Italia '70
Jenny Sorrenti with Italia '70

Before Saturday night was rounded off with Semiramis, Guido Bellachioma chatted with Gianni Nocenzi about BMS and their debut album which was just being re-released on 180g vinyl as part of a DeAgostini publishing deal along with 59 other important Prog Rock Italiano albums in monthly installments. Then Semiramis performed a poignant rendition of their Frazz album dedicated to the memory of keyboard player Maurizio Zarrillo who died on the 7th July this year. Each track was presaged with a short narration, accompanied by a projection of the song title, the music itself was extended and I thought that the whole live presentation felt more coherent than simply listening to the album. By coincidence I’d received a message from Massimo Gasperini from Black Widow Records that afternoon, and he informed me his BWR partner Pino Pintabona would be attending to sell the Semiramis Frazz Live DVD recorded at La Claque in Genova in April this year. I said ‘ciao’ to Pino and bought the DVD.


Semiramis
Semiramis

Jailbreak was also pretty full when I got there on the Sunday and I just had time to get a beer and buy the 2015 La Coscienza di Zeno album La Notte Anche di Giorno on limited edition vinyl plus the Biglietto per l’Inferno LP Vivi. Lotta. Pensa (2015) from the merchandise desk before taking up a standing position by the steps leading from the table area to the bar. Biglietto per l’Inferno began the evening and I have to admit being quite taken aback - I had expected heavy prog but didn’t imagine an octet playing prog-folk. It was strange but when I’d adjusted to the shock it was still good. Two original members remain, Giuseppe Cossa on keyboards and accordion and drummer Mauro Gnecchi, and they have reworked old material, including 1974’s L’Amico Suicida to fit in with the concept of their latest release.


Biglietto per l'Inferno
Biglietto per l'Inferno

Sadly, it being Sunday, the metro service reverted back to ending early and I missed the chance to see La Coscienza di Zeno, though I have seen them before. I have to say that putting on five nights of high quality music, gratis, covering a range of prog and mixing established names with more recent acts, was an amazing feat. Congratulations and thanks have to go to Guido Bellachioma, to all the artists and to the Jailbreak Club for hosting the event at short notice and it was a nice touch to dedicate the event to members of the prog world who are no longer with us. I’d personally like to thank everyone who made my stay an unforgettable experience, agreeing to chat to me in English and sharing wonderful progressivo Italiano. Hope to see you next year!













By ProgBlog, Aug 21 2016 08:07PM

When I arrived at The Lexington for the David Cross Band gig the week before last, I stopped at the merchandise stand and along with the excellent English Sun (2009) by David Cross and Andrew Keeling, I also procured Re-Collage, a live album by Tony Pagliuca and David Jackson with the Massimo Donà Quintet, progressivo Italiano being my thing and Le Orme’s Collage (1971) being regarded as the first true progressive rock album to be released in Italy. I put the two CDs in my jacket pocket and went off to the bar before the second performance of the evening, Davids Cross and Jackson with a challenging but fun set, It wasn’t until I got home to view my two purchases that I realised the CD was missing from the Re-Collage sleeve. My email to David C was passed on to David J who apologised, gave a plausible explanation and put a disc in the post for me.



The baroque-prog of the original album has been replaced by a much more jazz-inflected feel, imbued by Pagliuca’s fellow Venetian Donà, a jazz trumpeter (and philosopher) and the other members of the quintet. The sound on this recording is incredibly clear, taken from gigs in the north east of Italy in March 2004 and, without knowing how much rehearsing took place, remarkably tight. Apart from the Collage material, the ensemble tackles Theme One and We Go Now from the VdGG back catalogue and Frank Zappa’s G-Spot Tornado. The result is an enjoyable, different take on some classic Italian prog. It is also further demonstration of the prestige in which Van der Graaf Generator were held in Italy; Peter Hammill provided English lyrics for a Charisma (UK) release of Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona and Jackson would go on to play with Osanna, one of the other greats of progressivo Italiano who incorporated Theme One into their live set.

I obviously make an effort to see the bands I follow in a live setting and am willing to go to some lengths to do so. The David Cross Band gig was close to my workplace though a combination of a (justified) strike by rail workers and unannounced engineering work (I have not heard any justification for this, which I suspect may have been a political move by track operator Railtrack to erode sympathy for the rail transport unions) meant that getting home was slightly more problematic than expected. Sometimes getting across London takes more time than (for instance) getting down to a gig in Brighton.

One issue that raises itself at concerts is the use of cameras or camera phones. I’m as guilty as anyone for transgression but I remain conflicted, willing to adhere to any request from the performers not to take pictures, restricting myself to photography of an empty set before the performance and the bow at the end of the show. We should all be there for the music and the experience and should not be concentrating on a small screen held between our faces and the group performing onstage but the importance of social media for promoting a musician’s activity, coupled with an insatiable human desire to share our experience, shifts any ambivalence towards amateur concert photography in the direction of being a necessary evil. Other than at the request of the group (think King Crimson: Keep your phones in your pocket. Have fun. Enjoy the moment. “Please come and *be* with the band and not with your smart phone and other weapons of mass distraction”) I do take photographs, though not incessantly. I’m not sure why my camera was taken away from me at a Yes gig a long, long time ago when equipment for bootlegging would surely have been a more important target. The smart phone is theoretically an easy medium to use for recording a show, along with the uncontrollable volume of crowd sounds but I’d really rather wait for the band, who frequently make their own, high quality, balanced recordings, to officially release the performance. Some venues have a ban on both audio and photographic recording equipment and this is fairly strictly though not necessarily efficiently policed by staff (the Royal Albert Hall, the Barbican, the Fairfield Halls, for instance.) David Cross joked about audience photos before his concert (he welcomed them, in contrast with his erstwhile band mate) and Jon Anderson has also asked people taking photos to share them on social media; for smaller or independent acts it’s free publicity. It’s only polite to listen to the requests of those you’re going to see and hear but with progressive rock, you’re more likely to be required to concentrate on who is doing what. Why would you want to disturb those around you with the glow from your LED screen as you try to focus on the band instead of just watching and listening? Unfortunately, sometimes my memory needs a jog but I do feel pangs of guilt.

I’ve been at a number of concerts from which there’s been an associated official release and, whether I’m one of 1500 or one of 10000 people in the crowd, I feel a stronger bond between myself and the music. What makes a great live album? Of my favourites, there may be only one occasion I’ve attended the show where the release gets in my personal top 10 but this highlights the importance of the relationship between the performers and the audience. I think that recording quality is essential to get across the musical content though the material selected for the release has to be sufficiently representative of the band up to that time; on a few occasions I’ve bought a live album as an introduction to the recorded work of a group and this has encouraged me to become better acquainted with someone’s back catalogue.

I’ve always loved Yessongs (1973) but I’ve never been happy with the sound quality, so when the tapes that made up the source material for that release were discovered and cleaned up for the fourteen discs that make up Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two (2015) I was blown away. The format of using the exact same set list over the seven pairs of discs may be only slightly stricter than the content of the Crimson box sets but it allows you to trace the sonic evolution of the nine tracks featured from each date; the between-song introductions, the recovery of Anderson’s voice following a bout of influenza, the subtle variations in each piece. All this is possible because of the incredible undertaking by Syd Schwarz, Brian Kehew and a team of engineers to rebalance instruments and voices that were lost in an arena mix. Though the content of Progeny is more limited than Yessongs, Progeny has become my favourite live album because without overdubs, it represents that moment in time when Yes were way ahead of the curve, presented in a sonically true manner.



Roger Dean's paintings for Yessongs
Roger Dean's paintings for Yessongs

Beating the bootleggers, maintaining an income stream and remaining relevant in a cut-throat industry was achieved by Robert Fripp by releasing archive material through official DGM releases and also, for material of less good audio quality, the King Crimson Collectors’ Club. Fripp and David Singleton even applied a form of bootleg amnesty to fill gaps where their tapes were lacking. As impressed as I am with the Road to Red and Starless box sets and the other DGM releases from the different eras of King Crimson, my favourite Crimson live album is USA (1975). I bought this as a student in 1979 and it became something of a treasured possession even after the appearance of the more complete 30th Anniversary Edition on CD. I used to blast this out of my room at university, posing with my bass; it shows how powerful Crimson were as a live act and the track Asbury Park remains a high water mark in terms of improvisation although the full-length version wasn’t available until 2005 as a download from DGM.

Actually, it’s pointless attempting to list my favourite live recordings in any sort of merit-based order. Between Nothingness and Eternity (1973) represents the first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra at its most muscular and telepathic best and when I bought it in 1975 I had no idea that the tracks were from a shelved studio album; Playing the Fool (1977) is a kind of ‘best of Gentle Giant’ that I first owned on pre-recorded cassette; Camel’s A Live Record (1978) has the sumptuous RAH Snow Goose performance plus a collection of some of their most memorable back catalogue up to that time, and the 2002 remastered and expanded CD was an even better potted history of the band; Genesis Live (1973) was my introduction to the band and I still think it’s the best collection of their early material in a live setting even though it’s only a single LP, because of the presence of Peter Gabriel.

I could go on but I’ll just mention one last release recorded with me in the audience (and possibly featuring, albeit too small to make out, on the sleeve.) Real Time by the reformed Van der Graaf Generator, recorded at the Royal Festival Hall on 6th May 2005 and released in 2007, is documentary evidence of that auspicious occasion. In the sleeve notes Hammill reflects on pondering how it was going to pan out... I can tell him: it was incredible. The band were on top form and the choice of material that made up the set was just right, the audience, gathered together from all over the world, were warm and responsive, and the sound was clean and forceful. Great gig, great live recording of the gig.

Photographs taken at a performance and recordings of live shows allow you, in your own time, to revisit some great moments, frozen (these days, digitally) in time. As real-time memory fades, these aides-memoire can transport us to a time when prog ruled the earth.






By ProgBlog, May 31 2015 09:06AM

This month marks the the 10th anniversary of the live reunion of Van der Graaf Generator (Friday 6th May 2005.) I’d heard about the event a couple of weeks beforehand but when I checked for availability, the Royal Festival Hall had sold out. Fortunately, one of my work colleagues was something of an expert at getting seats for prestigious concerts with high public demand and advised me that the press were often allocated a job lot of tickets that they didn’t always use and that I should check for returns about 24 hours before the show. I ‘phoned the box office two days beforehand and to my surprise and delight, managed to secure my attendance.

I think it’s fair to say that Van der Graaf Generator are an acquired taste. From being intrigued by the track White Hammer from The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other that I first heard on the Charisma Keyboards sampler LP in 1974 which I found to be an intense, almost frightening piece of music about the Spanish Inquisition, of all things, I’ve been a big fan. As much as I liked The Fountain of Salmacis, the Genesis offering on that album, it was the sheer force of VdGG that impressed me, blowing the twee Genesis track into the dust. Older brother Tony recently thought that he should see what the fuss was about and I directed him to Pawn Hearts as a good representation of the Mark I incarnation and Godbluff from the 1975 formation. He wasn’t over impressed and I think that VdGG inspires adoration and dislike in equal measure. That John Lydon should go on records as being a fan is quite amazing.

Apart from some powerful music, one of the things that I like about VdGG is Peter Hammill’s use of words. There can’t be any other lyricist who utilises the lexicon in the same way, something I put down to his education; from Jesuit public school to studying Liberal Studies in Science at Manchester University. There’s an immense range of material covered that reflected my interest in science and science fiction plus some deeper, philosophical thinking.

Commercially, VdGG were something of a second-division band. They may have been nurtured by Charisma Records owner Tony Stratton-Smith but they didn’t really get too much coverage in the music press at the time. However, I do remember being impressed by the photography on adverts for World Record in Melody Maker when the album was released in 1976 and it was only much, much later that I discovered that they had been successful in Italy.

It wasn’t until 1981 that I bought my first VdGG album, Still Life, from the Streatham branch of WH Smith. I had a choice between that and Godbluff but chose Still Life because I could see the lyrics on the back of the sleeve which looked interesting. I then randomly completed my collection, on vinyl and on cassette, whenever the opportunity presented itself. I included the out-take LP Time Vaults in my collection but I didn’t buy any of the compilation albums until I started to switch from vinyl to CD. I also embarked upon the acquisition of Peter Hammill solo albums, beginning with The Future Now and pH7 (both in a sale from Streatham WH Smith.) I went to see a solo performance by Hammill at the Bloomsbury Theatre in Camden on July 26th 1984 and was so impressed that I went to his show the next night, armed with a camera. I went to the first show not really knowing what to expect; it turned out to be almost entirely solo material but he did include Last Frame from the Van der Graaf album The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome. I seem to recall that, despite playing consecutive nights at the same venue, he still subtly adjusted the set list.

Though I remained reluctant to spend a lot of money on music, I bought the King Crimson 4CD box set The Great Deceiver in when it was released in 1992, thinking that it might represent a decent investment (it worked out at about £14.50 per CD.) When I came across 4CD The Box (2000) on a trip home to Barrow, with its remastered tracks and bonus material from BBC sessions and some unreleased live recordings, it seemed to me that VdGG were having something of a renaissance and I bought it without over-thinking. On reflection, this heralded the remastered 2005 releases and in the mean time, the band had remained friends and even played together at birthday parties. Shortly before the reunion gig they released their first CD of new studio material, Present (April 2005) since the Van der Graaf line-up released The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome in 1977. There used to be a record shop on the north east side of London Bridge, close to Guy’s Hospital, where I went to buy my copy so I’d know any new material that they were due to play.

The reunion gig was the best gig I’ve ever attended. The Royal Festival Hall is comfortable and has amazing acoustics and my seat was in row H of the front stalls, a little way to the left of centre. The choice of material couldn’t really be bettered; I imagine that the assembled audience (from 27 different countries), including me, were really there to hear some old classics but the two new songs that were performed, Every Bloody Emperor and Nutter Alert, were seamlessly integrated into a set comprising the best of VdGG, captured for posterity on the brilliant subsequent release Real Time (2007). The power of the quartet was almost overwhelming; the Hugh Banton bass pedals with their low-frequency punch, the manic horns (and double horns) from David Jackson, Guy Evans’ fluid drums and the urgent vocals from Hammill, delivered with unbrlievable feeling. I loved it all, even though I felt pinned to my chair by a brutal, sonic blitzkrieg. Part of the reason for this reunion was that the band members tended to see each other mainly at the funerals of friends and former roadies and, as Hammill had himself suffered a heart attack in 2003, if they were ever going to play together again, Hammill suggested that it seemed like a good time to start. Under these circumstances, his performance was truly outstanding but the whole band was on incredible form. I didn’t think I’d ever hear VdGG music played live by the original ensemble and I think that’s why it was such a special occasion. Later in 2005 Jim Christopulos and Phil Smart released their excellent Van der Graaf Generator The Book, an in-depth biography of the band that concludes with the 2005 reunion. I had pre-ordered my copy (which cost around £20) but it is no longer available. Second-hand copies on Amazon sell for around £150.

I subsequently went to see the band, sans David Jackson at the Barbican during the Trisector tour in 2007 and again at the Barbican in June 2013; losing the horn player made the performances more unbalanced, raw and awkward and when in full flow the band seemed to be teetering on the ragged edge, dangerous and brilliant. On the latter occasion I thought the 64 year old Hammill looked slightly frail, but he proved he could still belt out songs and Hugh Banton somehow managed to mitigate the loss of saxophone and flute.

I was sorely tempted to attend an intimate evening with VdGG at Metropolis Studios in December 2010, part of a series of gigs by so-called ‘rock legends’. In the end I didn’t feel I could justify the cost and have had to make do with a DVD filmed at the event. I still have some reservations about the post-2005 material even though Hammill’s writing is as clever as ever; I remain stuck in the past and a fan of long-form VdGG flights of fancy.


Postscript:

I saw David Jackson perform with David Cross at The Bedford Arms last week and, in such an intimate venue it became clear how innovative he is. I wasn’t disappointed to see him bedecked his leather cap as he not only played saxes, flute and whistles, he also used the saxophone keys as a form of percussion instrument.



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