Steve Hackett, the man Lovejoy stole his hair from, is also something of a guitar player. Not everyone will take to the shape-changing musical complexity he offers here at the Royal Concert Hall, but of the ex-Genesis man’s skill with his chosen weapon, no-one can be in any doubt.
Hackett serves up two sets tonight – the first, a selection from his solo career; the second, favourites from his former band. There’s barely a track in either half that doesn’t receive some sort of standing ovation (and since some are nine minutes long, this requires less getting out of your seat than you’d think). Yet not a rump is shook while he’s playing. There’s an almost classical reverence about both performers and audience, the latter transfixed by their master in action. On the fourth row, a solitary man looks intent on air drumming himself to a coronary, and towards the end, an audience member goes rogue and explodes from his seat as if in religious rapture, but otherwise still, silent awe is the order of the day.
Hackett’s music is an elaborate construction which aims at your head first, not your dancing feet. Arabic scales, metal power chords, jazz sax – there’s no shortage of musical ideas, and the musicianship of the band (which includes Kajagoogoo’s Nick Beggs on bass) is exemplary. A forty year solo career offers plenty of quality to choose from, but even the new material remains alive with proggy wonder. In The Skeleton Gallery and Behind The Smoke both swell with Led Zeppy Kashmir-ic menace. The second of these is introduced as a song about immigration, while 1999’s Rise Again was inspired by native Americans, revealing Hackett as a man of social conscience too.
Ultimately though, he’s acting as his own support act. The Genesis material in the second half takes audience appreciation to another level. Nad Sylvan joins the band on vocals, being possessed of a timbre that recalls both Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins without ever descending into impersonation. His theatrics are more musical theatre than Gabriel’s arthouse antics though, even slightly vampirical.
There’s a certain awkwardness about the division of labour. Hackett is the star, front and centre, yet hardly the frontman. Sylvan, who clearly wants the spotlight, is slightly upstage, stage right, and looks like he’s keeping his flamboyance in check. However polished the sound – and it is studio-perfect – this set-up does leave you pining for the full, unleashed 1970s Genesis experience.
Of his former bandmates, Hackett says little, aside from a cheeky dig at the unloved Spot the Pigeon EP, from which he draws Inside and Out. Elsewhere in the set there’s outings for Eleventh Earl of Mar and One For The Vine.
Firth of Fifth and The Musical Box make unlikely showstoppers, blessed (some might say blighted) with every trick in the prog playbook – multiple movements, shifting time signatures, complex instrumentation, esoteric lyrics. Rock music has rarely been as ambitious though, before or since, and the flawless, faithful recreation brings the house down. The moment in Firth… where he bends the note, holds and swoops his way into the coda is absolutely exquisite.
A few empty rows in the upper reaches of the circle testify to the limits of Hackett’s appeal, but this matters little – he is masterful at what he does.