Live review for Classic Rock presents…Prog. I’ve been a fan of Hammill since I was about 14; I had a really ancient scratched copy of The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other, swapped – as I recall – for a copy of Funky Junction Pay Tribute To Deep Purple and The Eternal Fire Of Jimi Hendrix. Well worth it.
You could hear a pin drop but nobody had the poor manners to actually drop any. Peter Hammill was paused to strike the piano and maybe sing some more. But in the few nano seconds after the reverberation of the last note faded, and the next begun, it was like being in the eye of a storm. Tense rather than calm.
The Mercy is the best song from his most recent solo album Thin Air and indeed one of his best songs ever: in many ways it is almost a typical Peter Hammill song. A beautiful, rippling melody, a complex structure that eschews the standard verse/chorus pattern and words shot through with anguish, loss, his voice always calm but on the edge of rage or a roar of pure pain.
It’s one of the night’s memorable moments. Hairs on the back of the neck stuff.
Hammill’s solo career has always run in parallel to his work with Van Der Graaf Generator, allowing him a more confessional and – sometimes – quieter platform for his writing. Tonight is proof that along with a rare coterie of songwriters – Neil Young, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen are the only others that really spring to mind – his work in middle age is every bit as vital and engrossing as his work in youth. Arguable, more so.
In fact songs like (On Tuesday She Used To Do) Yoga, originally written and recorded in 1975 on the harrowing diary of the death of a relationship Over, take on an added edge of bitterness and wry self-deprecating humour coming from a bloke in his 60s.
Hammill is not some dysfunctional genius, some pained too-sensitive-for-the-world middle aged adolescent. Offstage, he’s probably as capable of banal moments in front of the telly as any of us. But over the past 40 years, as an artist, he has mined his own failings and shortcomings without quarter, exposing something raw and even embarrassing, something truly honest.
Sometimes in the course of this long and troubled performance, you actually wince at what he reveals. It’s like watching somebody confess at a show trial. Dressed all in white, alone onstage, he looks vulnerable.
Sometimes, though, it’s just a concert. You need a few of Hammill’s brilliant ‘greatest hits’ like Shingle from Nadir’s Big Chance – truly one of the great classic albums of the 70s that nobody knows about – and Habit Of The Broken Heart from Van Der Graaf’s The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome to balance out more recent material. But it’s songs like Friday Afternoon from 2006’s Singularity and Undone from Thin Air that actually prove the most intense and emotional points in the show.
Finishing with A Better Time from 1996’s excellent career high point album X My Heart, we leave feeling emotionally wrung out but in no doubt that we have been witness to one of the great English singer songwriters of the age with no signs that time has wearied him.