From Genesis to a revelation

Steve Hackett - The Moore Theatre, Seattle, December 2014

People sometimes say that all music critics have to periodically rediscover certain artists long since held to be terminally unhip, along the lines that Neil Diamond is a truly gifted singer-songwriter for the ages, or that Jeff Lynne and ELO were the Beatles of their day. In fact, in my experience, the hacks are less moved by the desire to genuinely reassess and more by the need for the new - what they say has to be different from what the consensus was before. It's simply not allowed to say that a long-time professional musician is much as we've always thought.

I mention all this by way of disclosure: I'm aware (and, in the case of certain bands, painfully aware) of the low radius of critical trendiness that routinely seeks to bury one artist, and, conversely, to resurrect another one from behind his marble tomb. In the case of Steve Hackett, the bespectacled, virtuoso guitarist in the original Genesis lineup of 40 years ago, before they succumbed to the (to my ears) relentlessly banal charms of Invisible Touch and all the rest, however, no one needs to say anything to reverse the classic 1970s image. Hackett was a quiet gem then, and he remains one now. I recently attended his pre-Christmas show at Seattle's Moore Theatre, and I can truthfully say it was among the best half-dozen or so nights I've had in close to fifty years as a stage-door johnny.

Just to get the logistics out of the way first: As I get older, I admit I find the non-musical part of these events less enthralling than I once did. While never designed for the customer's comfort, since 9/11 the whole concert-going experience has taken on many of the less attractive characteristics of our modern obsession with security. Anyone familiar with the saga of passing through a large American airport need only think of that same ordeal, substituting the ubiquitous T-shirt for the TSA's chosen uniform, and with an ambient smell of marijuana and vomit, to get a bit of the flavor.

It was a bitterly cold winter's night, as so many of them are in these parts, and even in the comparatively relaxed confines of the Moore (one of those chandeliered old haunts so prevalent around a century ago) there was an impressive amount of officialdom on hand. Apart from the dubious pleasure of being lingeringly frisked by a young man coated in designer stubble, and with several bits of metal puncturing his face, there was a wide variety of exhortations appearing in either written or spoken form once admitted to the sanctuary of the hall. Sit here. Don't stand up. Give us your cameras, recording devices, and lasers. No firearms please. Don't smoke. No outside food or beverages. Don't disrespect the staff. Be courteous. No inappropriate displays of affection. Stage-diving (admittedly, a pretty remote possibility on this occasion) forbidden. We reserve the right to film you. No swearing. Your patience is appreciated. Have a nice concert. It's surely a curious feature of rock culture in its various guises that while it relentlessly celebrates personal liberty in all its forms, so much of it is experienced in an atmosphere of stultifying petty repression.

Given all that, it was an extraordinary transition when Hackett and his five-man group walked on stage to cue in the chords of 1976's 'Dance on a Volcano' - surely one of the few opening numbers in the history of rock to combine an enjoyably loopy, Stravinsky-like time signature with the overall dynamics of a Led Zeppelin - almost as if the audience, too, had suddenly been shoved from the dark in to the light. After forty years, the song sounded just as good as ever: possibly better, in fact, shorn of some of the latter-day Genesis theatrics. Throughout the next two-and-a-half hours, Hackett and his men consistently put the premium back on music rather than showbiz glitz. That's not to say there was a single dull moment: Hackett himself was a genially self-deprecating presence between numbers, and astonishingly actually looked younger than when I last saw him on stage, at London's Empire Pool, Wembley, in 1975. Having very sensibly appeared to be in his mid-40s when he was only 23 or 24, he's simply stuck with the same look ever since (although the gloriously unfashionable glasses have seemingly been replaced by contacts). Anyway, he was an avuncular and witty master of ceremonies. Like him, too, the band was technically white-hot throughout: I should particularly mention the flaxen-haired Nad Sylvan on vocals, possessed of a ringingly clear voice and leonine, Robert Plant-like looks; and drummer Gary O'Toole, who channeled a touch of the easy swing of a Max Roach in the slower numbers and the pyrotechnics of a Keith Moon in the faster ones, along with some of the endearing personal mannerisms of Stan Laurel.

In fact the whole extended, 16-song concert was a glorious rebellion against the march of time. There were generous helpings of 1973's Selling England by the Pound and 1975's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, a wonderfully nuanced 11-minute version of the old Genesis chestnut 'The Musical Box', and a solo acoustic 'Horizons', which proved yet again that Steve Hackett is quite simply one of the most accomplished and versatile guitarists, in any genre, of our era. By the time it all ended, the entire row of middle-aged fans in front of me was up on its feet engaging in the sort of synchronized boogie and lusty, air-guitar riffing more usually associated with an 80s Van Halen concert. Hackett kept the best for last, too: the encore began with 1972's epic 'Watcher of the Skies', with its justly celebrated and, in the best sense of the word, melodramatic organ prelude. Every element in this complex piece, which could otherwise seem merely complicated, was brought into balance with the rest, so that the whole amounted to a truly sublime nugget of classic rock, while the climactic 'Los Endos' (off 1976's Trick of the Tail) again had them whooping in the aisles.

If you're lucky enough to have a Steve Hackett concert anywhere near your town, you should not only go, but tell your friends and neighbors. Shout it out from the rooftops, in fact. Hackett may somehow not have achieved the full A-list fame he richly deserves, but how many less enjoyable shows are regularly perpetrated by rock stars with half his talent who periodically deign to descend on the world's soccer stadiums. If you haven't yet done so, go and see Steve Hackett, explore his archive, buy his new album Wolflight. You won't be disappointed.

Christopher Sandford