4 April 2011

Van der Graaf Generator at the Barbican

I first saw Van der Graaf Generator live on 15 October 1975 at Southampton University just after I started there as an undergraduate. That's over 35 years ago!

My lasting memories of the gig are of Dave Jackson playing two saxophones at the same time and standing through the concert when almost everybody sat down. Somehow the music did not stick and I did not become a fan.

I renewed my interest in VDGG when working in Prague in 1992/93. There the large flat with a good stereo system, free weekends, local bootlegs and a ludicrously generous expenses policy allowed me to experiment with lots of CDs of bands that I knew that I probably ought to like.

I took the easy way in and treated myself to the compilation albums First Generation and Second Generation. There's plenty of good stuff in there and over the next few years I picked up most of their early albums.

I gradually became enough of a fan to see them live again on 8 July 2005 (the day after 7/7). There was a new album out then to promote, Present, but there was lots of old stuff in the set list too. And they were still a four-piece at the time.

Six years later and some fortuitous circumstances brought me to the Barbican to see them again.

I learnt about the gig late and then dallied a bit before deciding that I really did want to go but when I made the jump some returned tickets meant a seat in the middle of the front-row of the circle was available. And it was quickly mine.

I like the main theatre at the Barbican as the acoustics are what you would expect from a concert hall, the seats are comfortable and the pitch means that you've always got a good view. The Victorian theatres that plague London can claim none of that.

VDGG hit the stage promptly and strongly at 8pm. Now down to a three-piece they made far more noise that they had any right too. And glorious noise it was too.

Most of the songs, understandably, came from their most recent album, A Grounding in Numbers, with a smattering from their previous one, Trisector. New songs but familiar sounds.

These driving and pulsing sounds are generated by Guy Evans at the back doing all sorts of things with drums, Hugh Banton on the right conjuring with keyboards and, on the left, Peter Hammill on electric piano, guitars and outrageous vocals. How does somebody in their sixties get to have such a powerful and distinctive voice?

The new songs, just like old ones, are complex tapestries of sounds that move unexpectedly just as you think you've got the hang of them. It's this continual change and invention that makes them interesting and compelling.

Just before the end we did get one old song that I recognised, scorched Earth from their 1975 Godbluff album. I believe they've played it at each of the three concerts that I've been to.

The only disappointing thing about a truly excellent performance was the duration, at little over an hour and a half it was all over far too quickly. But it would be churlish to moan about that and it was a happy bouncy crowd that streamed in to the vast reception areas of the Barbican.

VDGG do not play that many gigs but next time that they do I'll try a lot harder to get tickets.

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