Steve Hackett: To Genesis and beyond

Review and photos by Howard Whitman

Steve Hackett in concert 2017

Steve Hackett in concert at the Santander Performing Arts Center in Reading, Pa., on Feb. 24, 2017

At this point, the biggest challenge facing legendary guitarist Steve Hackett may be choosing which songs not to play at his concerts, rather than which ones to include in his set list.

Taking into account his long, prolific solo career, which became his full-time vocation in 1978 following his exit from progressive rock giants Genesis, Hackett has more than 20 solo albums to pick material from. And since the release of his “Genesis Revisited II” double-CD set in 2012, the songs of his former band have been a major component of his concerts.

That’s a lot of material to choose from, but, judging by his current tour, which came to the Santander Performing Arts Center in Reading, Pa., on Feb. 24, I’d say he met the challenge with great success, presenting two sets of music that spanned his career and were a sure bet to leave even casual Hackett/Genesis fans completely satisfied.

Not only that—he also managed to work in a generous helping of material from his upcoming solo release, “The Night Siren,” which is due out on March 24. And the new songs were so seamlessly integrated into the set—and so good—that, unlike at the shows of many classic artists who see fans taking “bathroom breaks” as new material is presented, all in attendance paid rapt attention to every song, whether it was brand-new or 40 years old.

The concert was divided into two halves; the first was devoted to pieces from Hackett’s solo albums, dating back to his 1975 debut “Voyage of the Acolyte,” while the second part of the show was all Genesis material, with a special focus on his final album with Genesis, “Wind and Wuthering,” which turned 40 last year.

Aided by his stellar band, consisting of Roger King (keyboards), Rob Townsend (woodwinds), Nick Beggs (bass), Gary O’Toole (drums) and, in the second set, Nad Sylvan (vocals), Hackett delivered a pristine, perfectly crafted performance of highlights from his career.

The show opened with “Every Day,” the lead track from 1979’s “Spectral Mornings.” This song perfectly established the tone of the evening with its combination of perfectly pitched harmonies by Hackett, Beggs, O’Toole and Townsend with a precise yet passionate instrumental section spotlighting Hackett’s phenomenal, flawless guitar playing.

Next came the first of three “Night Siren” songs to be played this evening—“El Niño,” a rousing instrumental combining tribal drums, King’s synth strings and a typically impeccable Hackett solo. This song, along with the other two new tracks performed, “In the Skeleton Gallery” and “Behind the Smoke,” do offer an international flavor as Hackett promised when I interviewed him in January for an upcoming issue of Goldmine magazine. “In the Skeleton Gallery” is framed by middle eastern-sounding orchestration that recalls Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” as well as the title song of his Squackett collaboration with late Yes bassist Chris Squire, “A Life Within a Day.” “Behind the Smoke” featured Hackett on lead vocals. While he handles most lead parts on his albums, this was one of the rare moments of Hackett solo singing for this concert, but I will say he’s quite good. His pitch is perfect, his tone is expressive, and his voice perfectly suits his material.

Other songs from Hackett’s solo albums greeted lovingly by the audience included “The Steppes” (from 1980’s “Defector” LP), “Rise Again” (from 1999 release “Darktown”) and the lovely “Serpentine Song” from 2013’s “To Watch the Storms”), which again showcased the band’s harmony vocals, and features a memorable lyric with lines such as “Worrying is interest paid on trouble long before it’s due.”

The first set closed with a stunning rendition of the closing section of “Shadow of the Hierophant,” a favorite from “Voyage of the Acolyte” that grew in volume and menace, accentuated by evocative backlights. For this song, Beggs put down his bass guitar and sat on the floor, hammering at bass pedals with his fists to conjure powerful low tones. It was a memorable part of the performance, which was a perfect set closer; Hackett would be hard-pressed to find a song that could top this showstopper.

After the break, Hackett and company began a five-song stretch of material from “Wind and Wuthering.” For the first song, “Eleventh Earl of Mar,” Sylvan joined the band onstage to sing the lead vocal originally performed by Phil Collins on his second album as Genesis’s singer.

Sylvan was fantastic on this and the “W&W” pieces that followed including “One for the Vine” and “Afterglow.” While he was brought into the band to evoke the vocals of original Genesis singer Peter Gabriel on the material covered in “Genesis Revisited II,” he sounded as good or better on the Collins-era songs. Sylvan also brings a welcome stage presence and lead-singer stagger to the show. His facial expressions and hand/body gestures conveyed the stories and themes of the Genesis lyrics. Sylvan is a great asset to this band.

Another valuable member (hell, they’re all valuable) was drummer Gary O’Toole, who, in addition to doing a great job of putting his jazzy spin to the drum parts of the solo and Genesis songs, sang lead on “Blood on the Rooftops,” a song he’s done for many years in Hackett’s band.

Following “Afterglow,” which Hackett dedicated to John Wetton (the late Asia singer/bassist had toured with Hackett and often sang this song with him), the group presented an amazing rendition of “Dance on a Volcano” from the 1976 Genesis release, “A Trick of the Tail.” The next song in the set, “Inside and Out,” was a deeper track written for “Wind and Wuthering” that was first released on the 1977 “Spot the Pigeon” EP, but was warmly welcomed by the audience.

Hackett and band next dipped into the Peter Gabriel era with stellar performances of “Firth of Fifth” from “Selling England by the Pound” (1973) and the lengthy classic “The Musical Box” from Hackett’s first album with Genesis, “Nursery Cryme” (1971). Both songs typified the dynamics of early Genesis, veering effortlessly from quiet, delicate acoustic passages to dark, powerful, proggy instrumental workouts. With that, the set ended, and again, a perfect set-ender was chosen.

After a deserved call for an encore, the band re-emerged with an instrumental medley that began with a bit of “Myopia” from Hackett’s 1984 “Til We Have Faces” LP before transitioning into the “Trick of the Tail” closer, “Los Endos.”

It was a perfect end to a stunning show. Everything about the concert was perfection. Hackett’s guitar playing was consistently immaculate and impassioned. Playing without a pick, he conjured his classic, one-of-a-kind guitar tone, often just by manipulating the tremolo bar on his gold-top Gibson Les Paul. He didn’t shred, he didn’t show off; he didn’t need to. Steve Hackett is a singular guitar player. Like David Gilmour or his former GTR bandmate Steve Howe, Hackett could pick up any guitar and play it and the sounds it would make could come from no one else.

This show is not just a showcase for Hackett’s guitar playing. The band is spectacular. Each member is a virtuoso in his own right. King replicated the complicated parts and tones of Tony Banks’s playing on the original Genesis recordings with precision and skill, and his contributions were a vital part of Hackett’s solo songs, as they are on his recent string of superb releases. Townsend is a valuable part of the band, not only performing superb solos on sax, clarinet and flute, but also adding backing vocals, keyboards and percussion as needed. It was very interesting to hear Townsend play some parts on woodwinds that were previously handled by guitar or keyboards on the original recordings. This gave the music a King Crimson vibe, as horns and reeds were frequently a part of that iconic band’s music. Beggs, besides pounding the aforementioned pedals, is a dynamic and precise bass guitar player, and he also contributed excellent rhythm guitar on the Genesis songs. Besides that, he’s fun to watch.

Virtually every facet of this concert achieved excellence. The sound was perfect—never too loud, and with a mix that evenly balanced (for the most part) each shimmering instrument and strong voice. I say for the most part because as the other instruments gained prominence in the mix as the concert went on, O’Toole’s drums got a little buried. That’s a shame, because he’s a great drummer and Genesis music calls for HUGE drum sounds. But it wasn’t a major detractor from the overall excellence consistently on display here.

As to the set list, I recently read a blog post that asked the question, “Is it time for Steve Hackett to retire the Genesis songs?” The writer, who apparently has seen many Hackett solo shows over the years, clearly would rather hear more selections from the artist’s vast solo catalogue than the familiar Genesis songs. Fair enough, but for me, and my fellow attendees at this show, the set list was a perfect representation of Hackett’s entire career.

It also occurs to me that Hackett is really the only former Genesis member performing the band’s music live these days. Phil Collins is planning comeback shows that will feature his solo material. With the exception of a bit of “Dancing with the Moonlight Knight” at his recent shows with Sting, Peter Gabriel hasn’t gotten near his Genesis material in decades. Mike Rutherford plays Mike + the Mechanics material with his new version of that band, and Tony Banks is focusing on symphonic compositions. There are plenty of Genesis tribute bands out there, but this is an opportunity to see one of the men who created these songs playing them. That’s a rare and valuable thing, and it should be cherished. So, for this first-time Hackett concertgoer, the blend of solo and Genesis was just fine.

I’d gladly see Hackett and band again. If you’re a fan of his work in and out of Genesis, I’d heartily recommend you catch this tour when it comes to your area. You will not be disappointed.

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