ORGAN THING: Van Der Graaf Generator being on tour, now, is a kind of miracle, not just because they started their utterly unique thing so long ago, but because they’re doing it with as much if not more vigour and honesty than ever…

Live review: Van Der Graaf Generator – London Palladium, 24th February 2022 – It has to be asked: would this show be like this if we hadn’t all come through two years of existential dread?   It’s hard to tell, with Van Der Graaf Generator. Existential dread – or perhaps existential obsession is more accurate  – is what they already do. And have been doing for a long, absurdly long time. Peter Hammill – the unique voice and steersman of the ship – has been peering intently at time, and darkness, and the transient nature of the pleasures of the world, and a few other things beside, for just over half a century, with a cohort of equally unique musicians.

That’s… extraordinary.  And they know it.  After all this time, and not a few battles, and (let’s not forget) a serious heart attack, and two years when (let’s really not forget) there were times when you wondered if going to the shop to buy a loaf of bread would finish you off… here they are.

The current iteration of Van Der Graaf Generator is the stripped-down, core trio of drummer Guy Evans and keyboardist Hugh Banton.  If we start talking about Hammill’s one-off, powerful and super-emotive voice, we can say exactly the same about the others: Evans is a remarkably fluid and emotive drummer, able to push and pull the songs into shape, and calling Banton ‘a keyboardist’ doesn’t exactly come close when the keyboards are supercharged, hand built organs and he’s holding down all the bass parts with floorshaking foot pedals.

The three are spread facing each other across the boards of the London Palladium, and aside from Hammill adding additional keyboard and guitar parts, that’s it – which should be absurd, considering that Van Der Graaf are inevitably included in the pantheon of progressive rock giants, creators of long, complex and instrumentally dense tracks full of sound and fury.  But here’s where it gets strange and interesting:  three is enough, when the songs have inbuilt power and guts, and after all these years living with them they can nail these flowing and often complex songs, full of dynamics and excursions, in a way that’s both loose and concise.

They start with the tough ‘Interference Patterns’ – chunky King-Crimsony keyboard polyrhythms (from the album ‘Trisector’ released a mere forty years into their career)  and then, with news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that very morning, must follow close on with ‘Every Bloody Emperor’ – significantly, this has already been played on the previous dates of the tour, but it’s going to be played again because it has a great deal of meaning tonight.  This is enormously cathartic already, but with Hammill roaring, Hugh Banton spiralling the organ up to plaster-shaking level, it does us all good.

After that, the valedictory ‘Over The Hill’, with it’s lyrics of ‘close the book on history and keep it safe and sound’ is somewhat premature, if not ironic, as they follow with ‘All That Before’ – this time the lyrics allude to everyday absent mindedness, another aspect of ageing and entropy in a song written around 2007 and played with the energy, aplomb and sheer volume teen math rock bands only dream of. Peter introduces the band and the next song with warmth, humour, the confident spark of a band who have settled nicely back on the road, and off they go on the great roller coaster of ‘Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End’ – and there’s the appeal of VdGG that stays with you a lifetime, this fearless tackling of the Big Questions with compassion and empathy and humanity.

After the interval, ‘Lemmings’ one of the epics from 1971 album ‘Pawn Hearts’ – and here they relax and loosen up, doing that thing Guy Evans calls ‘going a bit liquid’ – the dissonance and clashes making sense in a song about the human impulse to self-destruction (‘what course is there left/ But to die?’) , resolving as they come to the haunting, bleak-but-hopeful long tail (‘what course is there left but to live/ To save our childrens’ childrens’ little ones’). This is just staggering, perhaps the highlight of a show full of highlights – the very personal ‘Alfa Berlina’, the epic ‘Scorched Earth’ and ‘Man Erg’ causing standing ovations mid-show.

There was only one possible encore – ‘Refugees’, a song about the desperate need for home and resolution, released in 1970 and infinitely relevant, then and now.  Van Der Graaf Generator being on tour, now, is a kind of miracle, not just because they started their utterly unique thing so long ago, but because they’re doing it with as much if not more vigour and honesty than ever. Absolutely triumphant. (MO)

North was somewhere years ago and cold:
Ice locked the people’s hearts and made them old.
South was birth to pleasant lands, but dry:
I walked the waters’ depths and played my mind.
East was dawn, coming alive in the golden sun:
The winds came, gently, several heads became one
In the summertime, though August people sneered;
We were at peace, and we cheered.
We walked alone, sometimes hand in hand,
Between the thin lines marking sea and sand;
Smiling very peacefully,
We began to notice that we could be free,
And we moved together to the West.
West is where all days will someday end;
Where the colours turn from grey to gold,
And you can be with the friends.
And light flakes the golden clouds above all;
West is Mike and Susie,
West is where I love.
There we shall spend our final days of our lives;
Tell the same old stories: yeah well,
At least we tried.
Into the West, smiles on our faces, we’ll go;
Oh, yes, and our apologies to those
Who’ll never really know the way.
We’re refugees, walking away from the life
That we’ve known and loved;
Nothing to do or say, nowhere to stay;
Now we are alone.
We’re refugees, carrying all we own
In brown bags, tied up with string;
Nothing to think, it doesn’t mean a thing,
But we’ll be happy on our own.
West is Mike and Susie;
West is where I love,
West is refugees’ home.

All photos – Sean Worrall

2 thoughts on “ORGAN THING: Van Der Graaf Generator being on tour, now, is a kind of miracle, not just because they started their utterly unique thing so long ago, but because they’re doing it with as much if not more vigour and honesty than ever…

  1. Pingback: ORGAN PREVIEW: Esoteric Recordings have just announced the details of “Van Der Graaf Generator: Interference Patterns – The Recordings 2005-2016″… | THE ORGAN

  2. Pingback: ORGAN THING: Black Midi bring on the Hellfire and every song is a preposterous, vivid, magnificent, confusing, wilful expression… | THE ORGAN

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