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flag England - Luna Kafé - Full Moon 1 - 11/25/96

Van der Graaf Generator
Reunion Time

Peter Hammill, Guy Evans and friends,
Union Chapel, London 3 November 1996:

Initially I ought to confess that Peter Hammill is one of my favourite artist. When I first heard his band Van der Graaf Generator some time in the mid 1970s as a tender teenager, I wasn't prepared and couldn't stand it at all. My attitude gradually changed and after my first close encounter with the man at a gig in 1983, his records have probably been the most frequent guests on my record- and CD-player. Especially live he is very intense and committed and his music never becomes indifferent (although a couple of albums in the latter half of the 80s get close because of too smooth or polished production). His recorded output in Van der Graaf and as a solo artist amounts to somewhere close to 40 albums by now, and most of them are demanding. I probably only know half of his songs as good as they deserve, and I often find something new and surprising in his back-catalogue. Though I can understand that some people find him too middle-class English (he is), academic (he dropped out of university after one year), cold (if you dig into some of his lyrics, you'll find he is not, on the contrary, there is even some hard-to-find-humour in some of them), intense (he sure can be), too old and not trendy (he is 48 and plays the music he pleases).

For a full insight into Peter Hammill's musical whereabouts since the birth of Van der Graaf Generator in 1967, you can check out the VdGG family tree, a stablemate of Luna Kafe at the High North Archives. Anyway, the process of making the family tree made me even more obsessed with his music and lyrics. I went to northern Italy last summer and made two hard walks/climbes in the Dolomite mountains along with some 100-200 other mad Hammillians to about 2700 and 2000 meters above sea level respectively to witness the man perform two hour-long sets among the rocks near the top only armed with an accoustic guitar which he had carried all the way himself. Well, it was a very successful event, and when I heard about a special gig in London with PH, the old Van der Graaf drummer Guy Evans whom Hammill hadn't performed with for more than eight years and some other enigmatic friends, of course I had to do my best to be there. Also, there were rumours about the unnamed friends and one was to expect the unexpected...

Union Chapel is an old chapel, or maybe big enough for a church, which probably has been a venue for several years. I saw a film from 1983 about some special John Cage event at a church in north London only a fortnight prior to the Hammill-gig, and yes, it turned out to be the very same building. I met some of the nice people from Dolomite days outside well in advance. Jan, one of the Mad Belgians, was ready for his 50th Hammill concert. He was offered a seat at the middle of the front row as a token of his jubilee. Of course Geman Tina turned up with her Belgian boyfriend, Koen, another devotee. She must have witnessed more than 70 PH gigs by now, whereas Fred Tomsett, the editor of the PH and VdGG fanzine Pilgrims, is still in the lead with more than 110 gigs... Another Mad Belgian, Koen, was busy handing out videos from the Dolomites to several people and tickets which he had ordered well in advance. Everyone of his customers turned up, eventually.

I got a seat next to Jan's brother Dirk at the third row, and we enjoyed our pint of Guiness (first time I've tasted any alcoholic brew at a church bench!!) and waited with high hopes of what was to come. We had seen David Jackson rehearse on his saxes and flute earlier in the evening. Jaxon was also a member of the old Generator gang and is now part of Hammill's current live-outfit the PH Quartet. No one except Jan had taken any notice of a grey- almost white-haired man who had walked quietly into the chapel. It had been Hugh Banton, the keyboard player and fourth member of the classic Van der Graaf Generator lineup. He had never played in public with any of other three since he left the band and the music business almost 20 years ago. Could we hope for a VdGG reunion? Probably not. I think Hammill is proud of his songs of the past and what he achieved with them, but he is not concerned about the past as such. He is not a nostalgic man; what is gone is gone and he can only influence the present and the future. And VdGG definitely belonged to the past, we thought...

When is he going to start writing about the gig, I hear you scream. Right! Guy Evans and Peter Hammill enter the stage. I had never seen Guy or anyone else present on the stage that evening except Hammill. Guy was completely bald, but otherwise he looked very much like he used to on the pictures from old days. He had an ordinary drum kit and some electronic gadgets which seemed to control some of the improvised sections we were about to witness. PH picked up his guitar and an E-bow, which probably was a quite new toy of his. They started with some unidentified improvisational sounds, some ugly in between, quite nice and unexpected really and different from the improvised Hammill and Evans album from 1988 called Spur Of The Moment. After six or seven minutes it ended with some harsh guitar sounds that, for a few seconds and in retrospect, sounded like a rough part of VdGG's epic Lemmings from 1971. A shape of things to come?? Then Guy started the electronic playback which evolved into A Forest Of Pronouns, the live premiere of a song from PH's latest ordinary studio album X My Heart. A very crude and strange version. Now Hammill moved over to the piano for more improvisations and one of the evening's least unexpected songs followed: After The Show. By now Stuart Gordon (violin) and Manny Elias (drums and percussion), also members of the current Peter Hammill Quartet, had entered the stage. They continued with Accidents, another old item from the vaults which was dominated by PH's nasty guitar.

PH introduced David Jackson who was left alone to demonstrate his Soundbeam system. It's a MIDI movement sound system. The beams detect movements which are transformed into sounds. Beautiful and fascinating, it sounded like Chinese bells at times. Jaxon was dancing in between his beams, turning knobs on his giant display and playing a saxophone or two now and again. Check out his recently released album Fractal Bridge which is filled with Soundbeam stuff. Next, the ones who had left the stage joined Jaxon for a brilliant version of - Ship Of Fools! This French only single B-side also found its way to Van der Graafs last stand, the not very impressive double live album Vital. Now this certainly was an evening of the unexpected (and the living dead). Stuart provided a beautiful violin intro to this little rocker.

Time for a break. Could we expect more surprises? Indeed! Everyone who had finished the first half returned along with two more from Guy's experimental and heavily percussive collective Echo City (I think, or did they enter later?). The guitarist was probably Giles Perring and the lady on percussives might have been Susie Honeyman(?). Some heavy improvisations evolved into Seven Wonders, another obscure single B-side as Ship Of Fools and another PH song which hadn't been performed live since 1983 as Accidents. Not the musical highlight of the evening but still one more big surprise. Next Guy introduced the gray-haired man who sat down by the church organ situated behind the huge pulpit at the back of the stage. Lights went down, only the back of Hugh Banton's head was visible between the pillars of the pulpit. The music was very soft, slow and calm, it was Samuel Barber's Adagio. If only that rude Englishman who sat next to us and got more and more drunk by the minute had chosen a local pub or something for his evening out... Tremendous applause as Banton fronted the audience from behind the pulpit afterwards. He sat down behind some modern organ and all the others except Jaxon rolled in. The initial unidentified rumbles were the start of - Red Shift, from PH's classic solo album The Silent Corner and The Empty Stage. Hey presto! Dominated by Hugh, the way he treated the foot pedals was incredible, and lots of guitars. Very energetic, Peter's alter ego Rikki Nadir, the grandfather of British punk, was present. It ended in a sea of noise, everyone but Banton, Evans and Hammill left and Jackson with his old engine-driver hat (the only sign of nostalgia that evening) entered the stage. Now, what had we here? They were probably well into Lemmings before anyone in the stunned audience understood what was going on. Something we thought unbelievable was happening right in front of us: the first public performance for nearly 20 years by four middle-aged gentlemen, who used call themselves Van der Graaf Generator. Lemmings, the least classic track from VdGG's most classic album Pawn Hearts, was also treated in a very punkish and energetic way. It was as if they played it for the first and last time and as if Doomsday was about to knock on the chapel gates. No opportunity to look back. Hey caramba! Peter tried to calm people down afterwards, he almost excused themselves saying this was too good an opportunity to be missed. No-one disagreed.

But we were in for more. Time for an encore before anyone had left the stage. On the contrary, enter Manny and Stuart and enter four big Echo City plastic barrels along with three Echo Citizens. One of them had not been present on stage earlier, his arms were heavily stunted, but he banged the barrel with his drum sticks as well as Guy and the others. It was the rythm pattern of PH's Traintime, an all time live favourite. It was maybe the greatest musical treat of the evening, the ultimate version of the song. A grande finale! The banging of those barrels kept going on in my head for several days after. People kept applauding, trampling and hitting the barrels for several minutes, but we had reached the end.

Maybe, in retrospect, the musical contents of the evening hadn't been the very best. It was an informal gig, they certainly hadn't rehearsed a lot, but no one cared if somebody hit a wrong note. It had been an evening of suspense, surprises, shocks and beauty. This was certainly not an average 'hey, let's try to make some well deserved cash on the renewed interest in our music by playing all the old favourites' or 'those were the days' kind of happening. Sure they played quite a lot of old songs, but not everyone's favourites, and they were not treated with nostalgic respect. Most of them were given a contemporary treatment. If you'd asked anyone of the about 400 people present before the gig what unexpected songs they'd expect, I guess none would've given more than two correct answers (After The Show and Traintime). Also, our boys and girl demonstrated the will and ability to take risks and experiment. They certainly did not look like burned out musicians about to be retired. Nearly everyone present must have been dizzy and dazed for quite some time afterwards. I certainly was.

Copyright © 1996 JP e-mail address

Editor's note: The so-called Van der Graaf Generator was invented by the American physicist Robert Jamison Van de Graaff (1901-67). There is also a lunar farside crater named Van de Graaff! How about a reunion up there, JP?

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