The conventional wisdom among those who self-appoint as ‘true’ fans of Genesis seems to be that the lights went out on August 15 1975 – for this was the day that Peter Gabriel left the band. Whilst I can see plenty of reasoning for this argument, the opinion of this self-appointed ‘true’ Genesis fan is that the descent into the pit of pop pap lava, culminating with such classics as Invisible Touch and I Can’t Dance, actually began two years later when guitarist Steve Hackett followed Gabriel through the exit door.
The two albums hewn between the two departures, A Trick Of The Tail and Wind And Wuthering, both released in 1976, attracted significant critical approval and they are certainly among my favourite Genesis recordings. Songs such as Squonk, Los Endos, Unquiet Slumbers For The Sleepers… and …In That Quiet Earth leap off the vinyl. The live album from the era, Seconds Out was Hackett’s final recording with Genesis, although he actually quit the band days before its release. It’s a work of art and I will never tire of listening to it.
I’ve seen Hackett perform live once before – a brief mid-1980s encounter with the two Steve’s (Hackett and Howe) at the (then) Hammersmith Odeon with their (then) somewhat ill-fated project band GTR. Roll forward thirty odd years and tonight I’m in the fortunate position of watching Steve Hackett again, only this time he is performing with his crack band in ‘Genesis Revisited’ guise. The current tour celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the acclaimed Steve Hackett solo album Spectral Mornings, includes cuts from Steve’s 2019 release At The Edge Of Light and features a full rendition of the Genesis 1973 classic Selling England By The Pound. As someone too young to have seen Genesis perform live as anything but an embarrassing pop band, this is as exciting as it gets. As I make my way into Portsmouth Guildhall, I’m in grave danger of skidding in my own drool.
The Guildhall is a strange venue. Built in 1890, the innards were completely destroyed by incendiary bombs in 1941. Somehow, the external walls remained sufficiently sound that they were completely renovated, whilst the middle was gutted. Consequently, you walk through the doors of a Renaissance masterpiece straight into the clutches of a 1950s municipal theatre. Weird. One thing’s for sure; I’ve never had a bad gig at the Guildhall. Accordingly, expectations are high.
Given the amount of material to play, there was no support – just two sets by Steve and the band. When the musicians came out for set one, they were met with a euphoric welcome. They opened with Every Day, first track on Spectral Mornings. It’s classic prog rock; yes, there were a few token vocals but really, it’s an excuse for all five members of the band to flex their considerable musical muscles, and flex they do. The keys of Roger King reverberated, Steve’s fingers flew (he’s sixty-nine and sounds as fluent as he ever has) and the drumming of Craig Blundell was other worldly. It was apparent from very early on that this is a band of seriously fine players. It’s also apparent that they really enjoy performing the music together. There was already a very special atmosphere ringing around the venue.
Three songs from At The Edge Of Light followed. The music might be new, but there was absolutely no let-up in intensity or dynamics when compared to Hackett’s earlier material. The Rickenbacker in Under The Eye Of The Sun, delivered courtesy of Swedish bass ace Jonas Reingold was especially thunderous. Any Portsmouth plasterers touting for work might consider giving the Guildhall a call in the morning. Beasts In Our Time had some great sax breaks from Rob Townsend, reminiscent of Supertramp in their pre-pop, prog rock heyday.
Five more songs from Spectral Mornings rounded out the first set. It’s an album with more flavours than a Ben & Jerry’s convention. The Virgin And The Gypsy, draped in sweet twelve-string acoustic textures and vocal harmonies plus the magic of Townsend this time at the head of a soprano sax and a tin whistle, sounded as much like the Genesis we were getting in Part Two is it was possible to be, without it actually being the Genesis we were getting in Part Two. Conversely, Clocks – The Angel Of Mons, which closed the first half was malevolent and brooding, eventually resolving with a fantastic building drum solo from Blundell.
The first half was excellent but there was no denying the palpable sense of anticipation in the bar at half time for the Genesis Revisited part of the show. Pre the break, vocalist Nad Sylvan offered only low-key harmony contributions to the performance. Now was his time to shine. “Can you tell me where my country lies?”…, the first line of Dancing With The Moonlit Knight and first sound on Selling England By The Pound rang pure in the Guildhall. In one line, we knew we were in for a treat.
Sylvan is unmistakably ‘Gabriel’ whilst maintaining his own character and without ever resorting to a tribute pastiche. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, but Sylvan does it expertly. To be fair, he’s been performing in Hackett’s band for years, so he’s long since dispensed with the balancing pole. This was the first time I’ve actually seen him perform live, though I’ve caught plenty on video. Play an original Genesis recording having watched Sylvan’s interpretation of it and whilst Gabriel is in full flow, you can’t help thinking ‘Oh, Nad might have done this there’. It’s a guilty pleasure. Sylvan was in his absolute element during The Battle Of Epping Forest, an everyday tale about extreme gangland turf wars in the East End, though the brilliantly idiosyncratic character stylings employed by Gabriel on the record gave him plenty to play with.
This being a Genesis record though, there were lots of prolonged instrumental spells where the other musicians excelled. Dancing With The Moonlit Knight raced, I Know What I Like included some brilliant funky sax and bass interludes that were really unexpected, and Firth Of Fifth was a huge highlight. The piano intro played by Roger King was fantastic, whilst Rob Townsend played soprano sax where Gabriel had played flute, which gave it an interesting twist. The beautiful guitar solo though was much more as per the recording. Hackett’s mastery of control of distortion and sustain is a feature of his playing and he demonstrated it to brilliant effect here.
The highlight of the entire performance for me (and I suspect many) though was The Cinema Show. The ending is absolutely classic Genesis and I’ve dreamed of seeing it played live ever since I first heard it and especially so after I saw this – the song performed on the A Trick Of The Tail tour in 1976. The duo drumming performance on this clip by Bill Bruford and Phil Colliins is something else, as is the Tony Banks keyboard solo. Ironically, Hackett doesn’t feature at all as he didn’t really contribute much to this part of the song. Steve stayed out front tonight, though was quite happy to take a back seat whilst Craig Blundell and Roger King filled the shoes of Bruford/Collins and Banks.
It wasn’t quite the same with a single drummer but about as good as you’re ever going to hear. Cinema Show segues into the final track on the album, Aisle Of Plenty. You could sense the crowd wanting to (rightly) recognise the brilliance of the instrumental performance of Cinema Show, whilst (rightly) allowing the music to flow without interruption. That tension was resolved a few minutes later when the album rendition was complete and the audience offered the band a long and richly deserved standing ovation.
I’d kind of assumed that this would be the end of the show, but once the collective had returned to their seats, the band played Déjà Vu, a Peter Gabriel song that didn’t make it onto Selling England By The Pound. As Steve put it: “This is it’s Cinderella Moment”. The show actually closed with Dance On A Volcano, opening track of A Trick Of The Tail, and a barnstorming piece of music that perfectly exemplifies why this period on the Genesis timeline is so very good.
By now, the band had given us close to two and a half hours of music, but they came out for a great encore featuring Steve Hackett tunes Myopia and Slogans and closing track from A Trick Of The Tail, the appropriately named Los Endos – another simply wonderful dollop of my childhood that I absolutely loved. The band took a very well-deserved bow out front and the house lights came up.
Genesis at the peak of their powers through the 1970s were undeniably a very class act, the achievements of which have sadly been diluted through the two decades which followed. If you were lucky enough to have seen the band at the time, I envy you. For the rest of us, there are plenty of (no doubt excellent) tribute bands who can put you back in that place provided you’ve had a few beers to dull the edges. I’ve never seen one – I can’t quite bring myself to do it. Steve Hackett in Genesis Revisited guise isn’t a tribute band – partly for the obvious reason that Hackett was in the original band, partly because he has the right to re-interpret the material where he sees fit, and partly because the musicians are so outstandingly good there are simply no edges to dull. For this self-appointed ‘true’ Genesis fan, expectations were high. Expectations were resoundingly met. If you’ve any interest in this music, you owe it to yourself to get to see Steve Hackett live. There is simply no alternative.
Steve Hackett Genesis Revisited Tour live at Portsmouth Guildhall. Review and photography by Simon Reed. Simon has his own music photography site at: www.musicalpictures.co.uk