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VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR
Royal Festival Hall, London 6 May 2005
Having scored a ticket at the last moment, I went along to the Royal Festival Hall not quite sure what to expect from a band who had not played live together since 1978. As the venue is principally a Classical Music venue, it made a pleasant change to be able to watch a concert from nice comfy seats and to enjoy a relatively unobstructed view of the stage as well as a fabulously clear sound.
The band played for just over 2 hours, mixing some material from their new album ‘Present’ in with the old classics from the likes of 'Pawn Hearts' and 'Godbluff'. In this ‘classic’ formation of the band there were just 4 musicians playing what might be considered an odd combination of instruments. Hugh Banton (keys) who built some fantastic atmosphere with his two keyboards and what seemed like a battery of bass pedals; Guy Evans on drums or rather percussion - his fills and clever mix of delicacy and power was a real delight to see and hear; David Jackson on flute, oboe and 2 saxophones – A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!!!! - I couldn't believe it when he played the 2 saxes simultaneously - he must have some lungs; and finally the amazing Peter Hammill - whose unique singing style and crazy maniacal puppet style movements held the crowd enthralled throughout the show.
The crowd exploded with cheers when the band made their way on-stage at around 19:45 and the warm reception lasted some time, before the crowd suddenly fell silent - yes SILENT - it was almost as if a classical concert was to begin. For once, one really felt the respect that the audience had for the band onstage. And as they began to play 'The Undercover Man' one could sense that the entire crowd was totally enthralled. Of course there was some movement from time to time with people taking toilet breaks and getting drinks, but that same feeling of focused attention remained throughout the show.
While I can't claim to be very familiar with the band's catalogue there was something on stage that I could connect with. Hammill was a marvel to watch and though I'm not a huge fan of Jazz or fusion, it was the jazzy woodwind breaks from David Jackson and the delightful percussion from Guy Evans which also constantly kept my eyes and ears interested. Hammill didn't speak much between songs - just early on to make it clear that for once the setlist was not going to deviate from the one that they had agreed in advance and then once or twice later on, to introduce a song here and there. Sometimes two hours of music that one isn’t familiar with can be difficult yet on this occasion the time flew by.
When the set came to a close, the entire venue rose to its feet and the audience continued to applaud until the band returned to play 2 encores - 'Killer' and 'Wondering'. By applause I don’t mean the usual half-hearted applause usually supplied by London audiences but wholehearted appreciation from the front of the seating to the very back of the venue. The artists seemed genuinely touched and slightly surprised at the reaction.
Other's more knowledgeable about the band than myself could probably point out some faults and missed cues, but after having not played live for nearly 27 years, I think such mistakes can be forgiven and certainly for me, they never detracted from what was certainly a highly enjoyable evening’s entertainment and one that fulfilled the dreams of a large proportion of the audience. More UK and European gigs will follow and after this rapturous welcome back, I'm quite keen to catch another show myself.
The Undercover Man / Scorched Earth / Refugees / Every Bloody Emperor / Lemmings / In The Black Room / Nutter Alert / Darkness 11/11 / Masks / Childlike Faith In Childhoods End / The Sleepwalkers / Man-Erg
Encores: Killer / Wondering
Review: Charlie Farrell