|Van der Graaf Generator's Reunion Concert at the Royal Festival Hall
6th May 2005
Every Bloody Emperor
(In The) Black Room
Childlike Faith in Childhood's End
|Photographs and Instruments at the bottom of the page
|A double CD of the show was released in March 2007. The cover features one of Ed Clarke's photos of the audience - if you were there, you may well be on it.
|Real Time was released in Japan on July 25th 2007 in a cardboard sleeve with a bonus CD. This contained three extra tracks from other 2005 shows: Pilgrims, When She Comes and Still Life, plus a piece recorded during the soundcheck in Amsterdam.
"'Wavering between the absurd and the inspirational.' 'Delectable chaos.' 'Lightning in a bottle.' 'A dishevelled dream world where Coltrane plays with King Crimson.' Van der Graaf Generator have never been easy to pin down. Splitting up and reforming since 1968, loved by underground freaks and Johnny Rotten, the band - never conventionally prog rock - was nicely described by drummer Guy Evans as "an unstable entity". From the moment Guy Evans, Hugh Banton (organ), David Jackson (sax and flute) and the extraordinary Peter Hammill (guitar, keyboards, voice) come on to the stage through a purple haze of backlit dry ice, there is a nervous uncertainty in the air, combining with an astonishing tightness, relentless energy and crafted intensity.
No painful solos. No ambling through the back catalogue. Van der Graaf Generator clearly intend to be a band for our times. This will seem unreal to those nurtured on rap - yet Van der Graaf sure sound like a band for today. Act like one, too. Hammill, who has a voice of Himalayan range, opens with Undercover, off the Godbluff album of 1975. At first he sounds like Leonard Cohen. And then his voice rises through Lou Reed and David Bowie-like heights, and on towards terrifying peaks very much his own. He's good. Very good.
Topical, too. There's an excellent song called Every Bloody Emperor, from new album Present: it is a charge against a lying politician "spinning and spinning and spinning into his own decline". You can make out pretty much every word, by the way: Hammill, although performing like a rag doll possessed, communicates in the kind of crisp English the BBC fears. And proves it can work for rock.
There's also wonderfully weird gothic organ from Banton, who plays the bass lines with his foot pedals; intelligent, fractal sax and elegiac flute from Jackson; and spot-on drumming by Evans.
Was I surprised by Van der Graaf Generator? Very much. Tickets for this performance sold out in January. The audience came from an extraordinary 27 countries. They were clearly satisfied. The band is wired up. Electric. A million volts."
"When the four core members of this almost-forgotten prog-rock band start a gig for the first time in 29 years, a joyous roar bounces round the auditorium. That's how much Van der Graaf Generator mean to a small but fanatical section of their Seventies generation, and those, such as ex-Blur guitarist Graham Coxon, who have joined the cult since.
Centred around the "Hendrix of the voice", Peter Hammill, the band's jazz-influenced improvisations always retained an intensity and lyrical despair that set them apart from the likes of Yes. It is why they were spared in punk's dinosaur-cull, and praised by Johnny Rotten. And it is why this mostly middle-aged crowd is generating an atmosphere of adolescent expectation, as if this might just be a major event.
When Hammill last took to a London stage, in 2004, quite soon after a heart attack, he seemed fragile, his voice shakier than normal. Tonight, though, he throws his whole stick-thin frame into hurling words from his body, arms flapping at his side, like a marionette flung about by his own music.
It is no more than the band's signature "Refugees" deserves, as its lyrics of alienation sink in and Hugh Banton's soul organ takes flight. To some here, it's like The Beatles doing "She Loves You". But it's on the less familiar "Childlike Faith in Childhood's End", when Hammill essays an operatic baritone, that the band's bleak sense of lifelong struggle hits home.
For all Van der Graaf's improvisation, they remain in control of pace, carefully shifting volume and rhythm, even as they let each song's shape stretch, without ever snapping. Despite moments of tumbling dissonance, and the sense that any song could carry on indefinitely, there are no free-form freak-outs. The two songs from the new album, Present, grow into themselves in this environment.
But it's in the encore, "Killer", that Van der Graaf find their purpose. The sound gets insectoid and thick, the song becomes schizoid, forgetting itself, before familiar chords crash back in. And Hammill, conducting from the rear, lost in something larger than himself, seems rejuvenated. As do his transported fans."
|Photographs © Sue Banton 2005
|Photographs © Alison Smart 2005
|Photograph by Daniel Thurnes
|Rehearsals at Chiddingfold
(Photos © Ed Clarke)
Hugh Banton was playing a two keyboard and pedals setup that behaves exactly as though it were an organ. The keyboards are a Roland VR760 and a Roland VK7, both of which have 'virtual Hammond' generators and organ drawbar control. On stage though there was more elaborate amplification and volume than on Present, plus FX pedals. Also a real Leslie was included at the back, and Hugh's personal sub cabinet.
Peter Hammill played two guitars. The first was his black Guild, aka "Meurglys III", and the second a dark blue DeArmond M75T, manufactured under license from Guild. His keyboard was a Yamaha DX7 Mk I, with custom sounds and GEM piano module.
Guy Evans was playing his '65 Gretsch drum kit.