Barry Cleveland: Van der Graaf Generator at the 2012 Montreal Jazz Festival

| July 17, 2012

Van der Graaf Generator returned to the Montreal Jazz Festival on July 3, 2012, performing at the 1,458-seat Théâtre Maisonneuve to a packed house. In the interest of efficiency, here’s a preexisting introduction to VdGG from my April 2006 GP Artist feature on the band’s guitarist, keyboardist, vocalist, and lyricist Peter Hammill:

VAN DER GRAFF GENERATOR routinely challenged listeners and confounded critics with their uncompromising musical aesthetic. Formed in 1967, and fronted by iconoclastic vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist Peter Hammill, the band evolved out of the musically fluid British underground scene, in which rock freely mingled with folk, jazz, classical, electronic, and other styles. Van Der Graaf became one of the most innovative and original-sounding bands of the era, playing intelligent, edgy music complemented by Hammill’s literate lyrics and soaring multi-octave vocals. They released nine albums before disbanding in 1978.

Van Der Graaf is typically lumped in with so-called progressive rock bands, though their sax and organ-driven sound was considerably more chaotic and rough-hewn than that of most of their contemporaries.

“There was something genuinely scary about both us and King Crimson,” relates Hammill. “Not in a horror way, and what we did wasn’t necessarily shocking, but both groups were trying to do powerful music. We wanted to play ‘Foxey Lady,’ because that’s what fired us up, but we were, in reality, white, middle class, English boys. So it was a question of finding something that had that power, but that was more in tune with the people we actually were.”

In addition to his involvement with Van Der Graaf, Hammill has released 34 solo albums since 1970, as well as appearing on recordings by Robert Fripp, Peter Gabriel, the Stranglers, David Cross, PFM, and others. John Lydon and various rock historians have credited his 1975 release, Nadir's Big Chance—on which he performs mostly three-chord rockers under the guise of his alter ego Ricky Nadir—as the prototypical punk album.

The classic lineup of Van Der Graaf Generator—David Jackson (saxes/flutes), Hugh Banton (keyboards), Guy Evans (drums), and Hammill—reformed last year, performing several sold-out shows and releasing the two-disc Present [EMI], which features six new songs and ten entirely improvised instrumentals. Hammill also released a live recording of his solo material titled Veracious [Fie] earlier this year, and is currently completing his next studio album. (Read the interview here.)

Update: Since the time of the article, David Jackson ceased playing with the group and VdGG continued on as a trio, releasing Trisector in 2008 and the extraordinary A Grounding in Numbers in 2011. Just this month VdGG released ALT, a fascinating collection of 14 instrumental improvisations recorded over several years. Hammill has released three solo albums in the same span of time, Singularity (2006), Thin Air (2009), and the brand new Consequences (2012).

In Montreal, Van der Graaf Generator emerged blazing with “Scorched Earth,” a technically challenging piece from 1975’s Godbluff, and one of my favorite VdGG songs. I never imagined I’d see this song performed live and they played it with the requisite incandescence—even sans Jackson’s searing sax lines.

Next was "Your Time Starts Now," from A Grounding in Numbers, a poignantly beautiful declaration of persistent, if contingent, aspiration—a theme that, if I'm not mistaken, recurred throughout the evening.

This was followed by "Flight," an epic piece that comprises the entire second side of Hammill's 1980 solo album, A Black Box.

The guitar-driven "Bunsho," also from A Grounding in Numbers, a piece exploring the ironies of artistic expression, tacked in a somewhat rockier direction.

"Lifetime," from Trisector, with its meditations on impermanence and the wisdom engendered through experience, altered the pace.

"Meurglys III (The Songwriter's Guild)" is a song from 1976's World Record, centered on Hammill's black Guild of the same name. He played the guitar with relish and even abandon throughout the performance.

Returning to the piano and organ configuration, VdGG played a rousing version of "Over the Hill" from Trisector, gradually building to the energetic climax and then resolving to zero, in keeping with the lyrics.

But the true climax of the evening, at least for me, came with the final song, "Childlike Faith in Childhood's End." The song, which closes 1976's Still Life, is one of Hammill and VdGG's greatest achievements. Cosmological in scope, and anthemic in presentation, it reveals a gnostic/apocalyptic vision of humanity that is at once terrestrial and transcendent, with nearly unparalleled passion. Hearing the 64 year-old Hammill intone the song's sublime verses with a focused intensity rare among men a third his age was an experience now indelibly etched into the core of my being:

"And though dark is the highway
and the peak's distance breaks my heart,
for I never shall see it, still I play my part,
believing that what waits for us is the
cosmos compared to the dust of the past...
in the death of mere humans life shall start!"

After receiving a wildly enthusiastic standing ovation, the band left the stage, only to return a few minutes later to perform a blistering version of the classic "Lemmings," from 1970's immortal Pawn Hearts. This multifaceted piece was impressively ambitious for a trio, and Hugh Banton played most of the verses with his organ and bass pedals so that Hammill could concentrate on the tricky vocals—but they pulled it off with aplomb.
I left the theater walking on air, and I've yet to fully touch down.
Here's are some quick video snapshots of the first two pieces, provided by the festival:

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