Van der Graaf Generator, Barbican, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

They used to call Peter Hammill "the Hendrix of the voice". There are passages of unique emotional force tonight which show you why. His band Van der Graaf Generator formed in 1967 and supported Hendrix at the Albert Hall, during an initial career characterised by stage-splintering Italian riots, mysterious near-drownings and possible possession by Ibiza witches. They were the "prog" band John Lydon loved. They split in 1978, and reformed in 2005, around which time Hammill (a prolific solo artist) almost died. Strong forces work through them still. A trio since the acrimonious departure of saxophonist David Jackson soon after they reformed, this is the first time they've filled the gap in power he left, the best I've seen them since a 2005 night in Milan when, as he sang, Hammill seemed somewhere else.

Songs riff on Hammill's abiding theme, the fatalistic course of lives we only think we control. It's in the last half hour that they find what they're after. "Over the Hill" begins with soft brushes from drummer Guy Evans, and Hugh Banton's ominous church soul organ. But the band are soon speeding almost out of control, like the fatal carousel in Strangers on a Train. "And the countdown comes in backwards," Hammill sings, of our expiring lives, as if such existences are a sort of magic trick, which a shiver of Evans's drums sounds like waking up from. All that is topped by "Childlike Faith in Childhood's End". For a few moments the others fall away as Hammill's eyes close, and his thin body hurls his huge voice out into the dark. With a rasp of rock guitar, he drives the intensely concentrating band in a bucking ride to the end. "And the peak's distance breaks my heart," he sings, his voice breaking at the difficulty of living, before that voice turns into the elements it's roaring against. Truly transcendent.

Comments