It’s been a balmy late spring day in London, just the odd wisp of cloud breaking otherwise clear blue skies. It’s not supposed to rain until June, and yet, couples are striding purposefully across SW7 with brollies tucked under their arms. It generates odd looks from passers-by, but those in the know, know; Roger Hodgson is in town.
Hodgson, born in Portsmouth, Hampshire but for many years a resident of northern California, plays a London date practically every spring. His usual residency is the magnificent Royal Albert Hall, though last year he broke tradition and played Stone Free Festival under an altogether less majestic dome, the O2 Arena. This year, I’m pleased to say he has returned to his spiritual home. Music as beautiful as this deserves a commensurate performance space.
Roger Hodgson, who with Rick Davies formed one half of the creative spark that drove Supertramp, helped turn a little-known progressive rock band into one of the most instantly recognisable pop/rock acts on Earth. To Hodgson though it’s the legacy of his songs that are important. He’s a singer/songwriter who happened to be in a band called Supertramp, rather than an ex-member of a super group, dining out on past glories.
It probably helps that the vast majority of the best-known songs are his, and since the policy in the band was that if you wrote the song, you sang it, the voice most instantly recognisable as being ‘Supertramp’ is his too. You don’t get to hear any Rick Davies tunes at a Roger Hodgson show. Instead, as well as some of his solo compositions, you get Take The Long Way Home, Breakfast In America, The Logical Song, School, Child Of Vision etc. Nobody is complaining.
The other thing about a Hodgson performance is that as he seems a genuinely lovely, spiritual man, you can’t help but get swept up in the lovely, spiritual vibe of it. He enters the Royal Albert Hall stage with a beaming smile and a cup of tea in his hand and tells the crowd that all he wants is that we collectively forget all the bad stuff happening in the world and spend a couple of hours getting lost in the music. He is met with multiple shouts of ‘We love you Roger!’ and you know that it’s heartfelt. He loves us, and we love him.
There are often interludes between songs, where Hodgson explains the inspiration that created them. In many cases, the songs were written whilst he was still a very young man. I wonder whether, when Hodgson wrote The Logical Song or Breakfast In America as a teenager, he had a full appreciation of the instrumentation that would accompany them years later when they became instantly recognised by millions.
The woodwind in Supertramp, as played by John Helliwell, became an intrinsic part of that instrumentation. Filling Helliwell’s not inconsiderable shoes in Hodgson’s band is multi-instrumentalist Michael Ghegan and he is nothing short of incredible. If you can blow it, it seems, Ghegan can play it. So tonight we hear multiple saxophones, clarinet, tin whistle, harmonica, melodica (thanks Google) and the thing that goes ‘whizz’ in The Logical Song (thanks anyway Google).
Ghegan also plays keyboards – triggering many of the sound samples in the more ‘proggy’ songs, and proves he has an excellent voice when called upon to sing backing vocals. As somebody who has no appreciable talent for any musical instrument, it doesn’t seem quite fair that Ghegan is so good at so many things.
It was The Logical Song that closed part one of the show and resulted in such a prolonged standing ovation that Hodgson was in grave danger of not getting his second cup of tea.
Child Of Vision opened part two. Another song from the Breakfast In America album, it closes with an outstanding piano solo played by Ray Coburn. Coburn also dazzles playing the guitar solo from Don’t Leave Me Now on one of his multiple keyboards. The phrasing, including the vibrato and pitch bending sounded exactly as if he were a six-string guitar god. Close your eyes and it could have been David Gilmour. Amazing.
In his opening monologue, Hodgson told us to expect surprises tonight. As the show drew to a close, he picked up a radio mic and started to climb the tiered seating in the stalls before heading over towards the choir seating area. “Can you tell where I’m going?” he asked, just as a light came up over the Royal Albert Hall organ.
Designed and built by Henry Willis, the organ was once the largest musical instrument in the world. It has 9,999 pipes and weighs 150 tonnes. Hodgson played and sang Say Goodbye (one of three songs tonight from his solo Open The Door album) from the organists seat. It was a magical moment in a magical show. “That’s one to tick off the bucket list” he said as he returned to the stage. Try doing that in the O2.
The ascent to the organ might have been a surprise, but the close of the show, the three-part Fool’s Overture from 1977 album Even In The Quietest Moments certainly wasn’t since Hodgson always closes with it. There were a number of occasions tonight when Roger made reference to the significance to him of playing to a ‘home’ audience and you can’t get more British than Fool’s Overture, coming as it does with samples of Churchill’s ‘Never Surrender’ speech from 1940 and William Blake’s Jerusalem. Hearing it in a place such as the Royal Albert Hall makes it all the more special.
The ‘encore’ (he never actually walked off) was a mass singalong of Give A Little Bit and It’s Raining Again, this latter song giving the opportunity for the umbrella holders to twirl their brollies above their heads. It may supposedly be unlucky to open an umbrella indoors, but nobody seemed to care – certainly not the members of the band, who all left the stage to wild applause. You make your own luck and the sun certainly seems to shine on Roger Hodgson.
Roger Hodgson, live at the Royal Albert Hall. Review and photography by Simon Reed. Simon has his own music photography site at www.musicalpictures.co.uk