Peter Hammill is very definitely not a ‘Canterbury Scene’ artist, so you might wonder what a review about him is doing here. Well, please indulge me: he was one of my musical great loves around the time I started a Canterbury scene fanzine – and the Hammill/VdGG fanzine ‘Pilgrims’ was a major influence on me doing so. If you scratch hard enough you might find some links via Guy Evans’ involvement in Mother Gong, Jakko’s appearance on a Long Hello album, Hammill producing a Random Hold album (featuring Bill MacCormick). But that’s not really the point – for me, a Hammill appearance cannot pass by without some sort of comment…
It’s been a long time since I saw a Peter Hammill solo gig. A couple of triumphant Van der Graaf Generator concerts a decade or so ago, around the time that band still had their classic 4 piece line-up, was as close as it got, contrasting with a time in the Nineties when Peter Hammill tours seemed to come around every couple of years. The ageing process, serious illness and I suspect a related slowing in the creative juices, means that Peter Hammill performances are relatively few and far between these days. I almost didn’t go to the gig at the Stoller Hall, a new custom-built concert venue at the Chetham school of music, near Victoria Station in the heart of Manchester, mainly for fear of being disappointed. Hammill gigs are notoriously error-strewn, a bit of a rollercoaster and it’s always slightly amused me that many of his concerts take place at places of musical excellence (such as the Royal Northern College of Music or the Royal Festival Hall). This artist, for all of his many virtues, might struggle to get a gig with too many bands on the basis of his instrumental prowess alone, such is his often approximate mastery of piano and guitar.
Hammill’s physical appearance was something of a shock – a testament to passing years, mainly – dressed in flowing shirt and trousers, both Egyptian cotton white, he cut a ghostly, pallid figure on stage, contrasting with the jet black of grand piano and guitar, with his almost skeletal frame barely impacting on the expanse of the stage and the vastness of the auditorium above. But the voice remained remarkably strong, perhaps not quite with the range of yore, but not lacking in volume or its fabled intensity.
He rattled through a setlist of 17 songs, almost without pausing for breath – there’s less of the slightly kooky banter these days between tracks, even whilst stopping to tune his guitar, and the audience respectively kept its counsel – solo gigs in the past were always punctuated by smartass interjections from the crowd, the fanbase being, like the artist himself, a fairly eclectic, intense lot.
I’d been emailed on the day by an old schoolfriend who attended the Glasgow gig a few days previously – he mentioned 6 highlight tunes (and one which was not). Incredibly, not a single one of these was performed in Manchester, testament to a vast repertoire to draw on, and an ability to recreate them. And there is some ‘re-creation’ going on here – whilst the lyrics remain secure, aided by assorted sheets of paper alongside piano and guitar, Hammill takes liberties with his piano accompaniments, often trying out a fill here or there, deciding whether it works, and then reining things back in if they start to stray off course. On the guitar, it almost appears at times as if he’s revisited old tunes, can’t quite work out the chords he used, and then uses an approximation. At times this is jarring, elsewhere it adds to a sense of innovation. For all that, he felt more fluent on the piano than I remember, and a saving grace was the wonderful sound quality throughout.
Starting with the VdGG classic ‘My Room’, ideal for solo performance, any doubts that Hammill still ‘has it’ were quickly dispelled. The trademark raising of the shoulders as he reaches for the high notes, the alternately sweet and growled delivery, the falling away of the voice at the end of each line – these are all things to cherish. The choice of songs for me was quite inspired – a brilliant ‘Primo On the Parapet’ (a highlight from later albums); two tracks from ‘Over’, for me the apogee of his solo output, with “(On Tuesdays She Used To Do) Yoga” an evocative highlight; two fantastic renditions from the adventurous early 70s albums “Slender Threads” and “Mousetrap”; plus stuff from ‘my’ era as a listener, “Too Many of My Yesterdays” and “A Way Out”, always a mixed blessing with its stark main musical theme sometimes undermined by lyrical cliché. Whilst listening to one of the 2 K Group era tracks, ‘Happy Hour’, again subverted by those slightly out of kilter chords, I was reminded of quite how off the wall even his solo material is – complex, ever-changing themes showing the genius of the man. This was one of many tunes which lyrically referred to performances, either theatrical, circus or musical – the common theme of the night for me.
There were also three tracks (I think) from the latest album ‘From the Trees’, which sounded strong, pared down in terms of vocal range to suit the limits of Hammill’s voice and well worth further exploration. At times whilst straining at the upper end of the musical scale I wanted him to succumb to delivering notes through his wonderful, tender falsetto voice or alternatively really let rip with a scream, but he saved the latter for the final notes of Train Time to bring the concert to a chilling end, standing ovation and all.