Steve Hackett channels all that’s engaging about prog and doesn’t forget harmonies — live review
April 18, 2016
Last Thursday, in South Florida, former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett brought his tour “Acolyte to Wolflight With Genesis Revisited” to the Parker Playhouse. The show was in support of his 2015 album Wolflight, backed by a good taste of early Genesis music. Though, his latest album has some very good songs, it’s hard to compare any of it to the quality of the early Genesis music he helped create in the early ’70s. The night included a pair of particularly heart-stopping recreations of some of Genesis’ most epic songs. More on that later, as the merits of the new material is worth exploring.
The evening opened with a good hour of Hackett’s solo work, which was heavy on the new stuff, but also went back to the English guitarist’s first album, 1975’s Voyage of the Acolyte. At the start of the night, Hackett reminded everyone about the recent passing of Chris Squire, the bassist of Yes, who made a guest appearance on the new album. Hackett dedicated the evening in his memory.
The band featured Roger King on keyboards, Gary O’Toole on drums and percussion, Rob Townsend on saxophone, flutes and keyboards, Roine Stolt on guitars and bass and vocalist Nad Sylvan, who joined the band several songs in to sing lead parts on the earlier material. With Hackett center stage, the band showed off an incredibly rich sound, potent and sometimes almost industrial in their bombast but also lush and bright in the layered moments that never slacked or faltered in musicianship. This was prog-rock to its core.
Hackett sang newer songs like “Love Song to a Vampire” and “Wolflight” himself. His voice is serviceable but non-distinct. However, when O’Toole, Townsend and Stolt joined him to sing harmonies, the vocals rose to another level. They sounded as tonally lush as Crosby, Stills and Nash, so much so that this listener flashed back to “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”
This harmonizing sounded stellar across the board, from the choruses of older songs like “Everyday” to newer ones like “The Wheel’s Turning.” There’s a dreamy, soaring quality to the choruses that never feels too saccharine, speaking to the power of Hackett’s songwriting, which has always had a sensitively ethereal quality in the shadow of the aggressive guitar bits he’s better known for. Indeed, Hackett’s prog is of that symphonic, fantasy-inspired stuff, but he can elevate the simple, earthy stuff to grand heights, as well. The new song “Loving Sea” saw Hackett brandishing an acoustic 12-string. It’s a beautiful song which he dedicated to his wife. Featuring a cooing wall of vocals that ride a crescendo of a chorus, contrasted by some bright, twinkling guitar picking, it stands as one of the prettiest songs I have heard this year.
For the earlier solo material with lyrics, Hackett brought out Sylvan, whose voice sounds like a strange mix of Genesis’ most famous singers: Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel. The first song he sang, however, was once sung by Richie Havens: “Icarus Ascending.” Sylvan, gave the song an operatic quality in contrast to Havens’ gritty voice. Then Hackett made a reference to Collins’ having made his new home in South Florida. He said something like, “I hear Phil now dwells these parts.” It would have been nice to have had a surprise vocal appearance for “Star of Sirius,” which was next, and maybe Hackett deep inside might have hoped to have had that happen. Still, it was a pretty version with Sylvan taking the reserved vocals with do justice.
Hackett ended his solo set with an ultra long version of “Shadow of the Hierophant.” With it’s symmetrical guitar climbing finale, the song is a lumbering piece. Though its place on the set list was designed to cap off the first part of the evening on a climactic note, it entranced too much for any sense of elation at the end. It was more of a relief.
Though Hackett called Genesis his “support act,” it was clear most were here for that music. It kicked off with “Get ’em Out By Friday,” a weird little song about the value of real estate in a future world of over-population. The mini-rock opera that concludes on the subject of genetic modification as a solution also allowed for O’Toole and Hackett to jump in for some vocal parts. The song I was most excited to hear came next: the rarely performed “Can-Utility and the Coastliners,” which asks for some swiftly delivered vocals by Sylvan, who delivered well for this quite formal interpretation of the song. Hackett noted its rarity as a live Genesis in his introduction to it. You can watch the entire performance here:
For all the interest this review seems to take in how the vocals worked, one cannot diminish Hackett’s guitar playing. It’s an absolute treat to watch him play these original Genesis guitar parts that he composed for the band. After having seen Genesis live without Hackett as well as the Genesis tribute band The Musical Box (as stunning as they are live), nothing compares to watching the original co-composer take on these parts and even expand on them a bit. His extended “After the Ordeal” a bit with a couple of extra guitar solos he traded with Stolt. You can watch much of it here:
With this instrumental bit, Hackett heralded the night’s most genuinely epic moment, “The Cinema Show.” Before continuing with the song, he admitted he added it to the repertoire after having to endure three years of requests for him to play it. The song is genuinely designed to highlight the keyboardist, so it’s no wonder it was never a staple for Hackett’s solo shows. O’Toole and Townsend traded off on the climactic noodling keyboard finale. What was particularly exciting about this version is that I finally heard a soprano sax take on the higher-pitched part of the ending, something I had always imagined for that solo. With the song’s conclusion, the audience stood up and roared for so long and so loud, it was hard to tell what song was next. By the time the opening chorus began it was clear:
Another epic Genesis cover that night was “The Musical Box.” The finale once again brought the audience to its feet. Though it was a highlight of Gabriel’s showmanship back in the day, Sylvan was reserved, but for his on-point vocal delivery and even tambourine work. The evening ended with one encore, which ended with one Hackett track (“Clocks – The Angel of Mons” that featured an extended drum solo by O’Toole) and one Genesis cut (“Firth of Fifth” that highlighted King’s prowess on keys). Hackett is generous in highlighting the skills of all his cohorts on stage. It takes some talented musicians to interpret this music live, and these guys are all veteran pros who gave deep respect to the music, be it new or old.
It’s a shame the theater wasn’t full, but really the audience is very small for this music. It’s mostly older Genesis fans who probably all have had a chance to attend those original shows. That doesn’t mean there’s no value for Hackett’s work, including the new material. This was an immaculately rendered show, in spite of some mis-programmed bits. I’m glad to have seen it and have been turned on to some new music by an old master.
Hackett has one more show scheduled before the end of the tour. He plays the Carolina Theatre, in Durham, North Carolina, on April 19 (here’s a link to the complete tour with a link to tickets). He next has performances booked in Japan and Europe, from May to July. Though the U.S. leg of the tour has all but ended, there is some Steve Hackett news of note to share. On the horizon, are reissues of a vinyl box set, which covers Hackett’s tenure on the Charisma label, from 1975-1983, due to see release at the end of May. Also coming that month are deluxe editions of Spectral Mornings, Defector and Please Don’t Touch.
All photos and videos by Hans Morgenstern (except “The Lamb”). I was invited to review the concert by Steve Hackett’s management.