Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Peter Hammill Rocks the House

And in the midst of the busy summer concert season, yet another venue hosted a great show by an amazing performer and longtime singer/songwriter, Peter Hammill. At the last minute, about 2 1/2 weeks before the show, I finally noticed that he was coming, and emailed him on the slim chance he might have time to talk with us. I could hardly contain my glee, when Mr. Hammill emailed back to me, and agreed to an interview with the 1600 team in the familiar red room at Jammin' Java last Sunday!

And you can see that interview in 2 installments over 2 ALL NEW weeks of 1600 in July! It will also be available right here after it airs on Channel 10, so keep your eyes peeled for a very intimate and thoughtful conversation with one of the most prolific musicians of the progressive rock scene for the last 40 years!

Peter Hammill is a rarity in the world of music: an auteur, who has experimented with opera (The Fall of the House of Usher) and prose; a writer, illustrator, and musical visionary, to whom bands as diverse as the Sex Pistols to Nine Inch Nails acknowledge their debt. An incomparable singer-songwriter and storyteller whose style is distinctive, unique, thoughtful, inspired, uninhibited, and imaginative. His band Van der Graaf Generator, critical favorites at the dawn of progressive rock era in 1968, have reunited in recent years for several successful and highly- acclaimed recordings (the most recent of which, the outstanding "Trisector," features three of the four founding members- Hammill, drummer Guy Evans, bassist and keyboardist Hugh Banton, but without saxophone and flautist David Jackson). He has been a frequent contributor on projects with other noteworthy artists including Peter Gabriel, Robert Fripp, David Thomas, and Stuart Gordon, among others. A multifaceted musician that plays guitar and piano with equal skill, on "Singularity," his most recent (2006) solo album, Hammill plays all of the instruments, in addition to writing, producing, and providing the vocals on each of its tracks.

But its the lyrics, and the voice that brings them to life, which are the key elements that set him apart from his contemporaries. With unrestrained, electrifying emotion, and an unflinching glimpse into his bared soul, Hammill's work is often challenging stuff, not for casual listening over dinner, but demanding the listener's active attention. The audience that evening came from far and wide- Seattle, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Philadelphia, New York- eager to attend Hammill's first American date in nine years, in the cozy, intimate atmosphere offered by Jammin' Java. And all of us sat riveted, as this modest, genial artist graced us his insights, and spun some true to life stories in the classic Hammill manner.

An offhand comment I made during the interview about "not doing a lot of (mundane) songs about cars and girls" earned an animated gleam from Peter's eye, and his response that "I've actually done quite a few songs about cars and girls." Not knowing what would follow, I was mildly embarrassed and then heartily amused when he announced to the audience that he reorganized his set to devote at least half of it to songs about cars, girls, and songs about cars and girls. But his warm smile throughout the show assured me that his good-natured nudges and winks were all well-intended.

So, I'll take credit for "helping" Pete select a great set! He led off the festivities with The Siren Song, reaching waaaay back, from Van der Graaf Generator's 1977 release "The Quiet Zone, the Pleasure Dome." Too Many of My Yesterdays, from "As Close As This," and Time Heals followed, the latter an solo early track of melancholy and regret about love never quite realized. But the anguish never gives way to self pity, only self realization, and allowed us all to share the sentiment of the moment. (I find many of his most introspective and personal songs, like this one, certainly apply to my own experiences. In that way, Hammill's work is refreshingly cathartic as he succinctly captures sometimes vague and unresolved feelings with a few well-chosen words.)

Hammill also offered Friday Afternoon, a song about tragically losing a friend to a drunk driver; His Best Girl, from 1991's "Fireships," a song about the uncertainty of love; Comfortable, examining faith and hypocrisy; and Shingle Song from 1975's "Nadir's Big Chance" (the Ricky Nadir persona Hammill put on a la his contemporaries David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" or Peter Gabriel's Rael in "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway").

As the evening went on, we were treated to many more great, raw, emotional performances of songs from throughout his career. Driven, from his all acoustic 2002 release "Clutch" (yet another car reference) was next. It was followed in short order by Sitting Targets, from the album of the same name, another all-time favorite. And it still sounded as good as it did when I first heard it, nearly thirty years ago. (Note: since Caroline Records wasn't one of the distributors I could get when I was working at Kemp Mill Records, I special ordered it from Tower....before I even owned a CD player!) Happy Hour was also outstanding, an ironic story about acting out under the excuse of intoxication, not a mindless drinking song. But what else would you expect from him? And Meanwhile My Mother, from his latest solo release "Singularity," evinced the introspective nature of an artist who has the rare honesty and confidence to look at himself and the world around him without ever sugar-coating what's there.

Chatting and playing to the crowd, who had responded they preferred him to finish the show on guitar, he gave us Faculty X, from another of his earlier solo releases, 1979's "pH7." He also played A Way Out, and doubled up on two more great selections from "Sitting Targets," closing with Stranger Still, and an encore of one of his finest ballads, Ophelia. (For those seeking to replace their well-worn vinyl copies, most of these albums are newly remastered and available directly from the artist at www.sofasound.com.)

Finally, some regrets: I wish we'd been able to stick around and thank Peter again for delivering such an inspired performance after the show. No doubt, those who stayed were treated to a rare opportunity to speak to an intense, personable, and thoughtful gentleman who has been at the center of some of the finest progressive rock music being made over the last 40 years. And I am equally sorry that it took so long to get this review to the blog. I plead overcommitment and exhaustion! And my sincere apologies for the delay!!

However, some good news- 9 more North American dates have been announced on this tour! So, beginning on September 30th in San Francisco, with other dates in several US cities and Canada already booked and more to come, you still have a second chance to catch Pete's one man show as he comes back for a second round! I'll see ya at the Club Cafe in Pittsburgh on October 11th (for more dates and cities, go to www.sofasound.com and click the "touring" tab). And the interview will be on the air soon!

So ciao for now, see ya in the funny papers, or on the road, again.........

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