Every Tom, Dick and Harriet is doing classic album tours these days. Sometimes the albums aren’t very ‘classic’. Sometimes they’re not even proper ‘albums’ in the sense of a coherent body of work. A two-bit indie band can do their one hit plus filler, call it a ’10th anniversary tour’ and shift a few more tickets. But if ever an album were made to be experienced live as a whole, it’s Genesis’ 1973 masterpiece Selling England by the Pound. It doesn’t match that other minor 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon in sales or reputation, but it works as a song suite in the same way, and is perhaps better adapted for live performance thanks to Peter Gabriel’s rock operatics and penchant for prancing around in costume.
Scoff at it if you like; the album invites it. It’s pompous, convoluted and comically preposterous (if slightly less so than other Genesis albums of the era). Yet it contains all manner of musical wizardry, rewards your constant attention and flows from song to song in a way that belies its piecemeal creation. It also taps into that wonderful seam of Lewis Carroll/Vaughan Williams fantasy Englishness that’s one of the greater legacies of the English public school system. Jeremy Clarkson is a huge fan, but don’t hold that against it. It’s an English rock epic. No wonder the man responsible for the guitar virtuosity therein, Steve Hackett, is revisiting it tonight here at the Usher Hall.
There’s only 53 minutes of it, though, so it requires a prelude to make a concert out of it, and for that Hackett has a solo album to return to…
To be frank, 1979’s Spectral Mornings is a lesser work to Selling England…. To be even more frank, when he opens the show with its opening track Every Day, it’s all a tad Spinal Tap. We’re on the cusp of the 80s here, when the other-wordliness of 70s prog had given way to something straighter and brasher. It is, dare to say it, cheesy, especially with the alternating beams of the light show. This isn’t a straight run through of the album – no outing for the oddball Ballad of the Decomposing Man, for instance – but the interspersed numbers from his latest, At The Edge Of Light, do little to dispel the notion of him being a phenomenal guitarist and very personable host delivering somewhat dated music.
It improves quickly though. The Virgin and The Gypsy is a song he feared playing live he says, but it offers gorgeous harmonies, as well as the first of Rob Townsend’s many wonderful wind excursions, and is crystal clear in delivery. In fact, all the quieter, less riff-tastic songs come across fabulously in the Usher Hall, a venue where power is often unrewarding. The sweet, pastoral Horizons (a Genesis number) blends perfectly into the similarly sweet Japanese sounds of The Red Flower of Tachai Blooms Everywhere before the first half closes big with Craig Blundell’s phenomenal windmilling drum solo at the climax of Clocks – The Angel of Mons.
The audience know note for note what’s coming next. After a short break, a reverence descends as Nad Sylvan opens the Selling England… set: ‘Can you tell me where my country lies?’ In terms of timbre, he’s scarily close to Peter Gabriel on the original, and appears to be itching to display the same theatricality. Hackett is the name on the billboard though, so he stands front and centre, with Sylvan upstage over his right shoulder, in front of Roger King’s keyboard riser. It puts the focus on the man doing the fretwork, but it is an unconventional way to experience an album which needs properly delivering by the vocalist, almost like a narrator. For the first few songs, Sylvan’s vocals feel constrained too. It’s only with side two opener The Battle of Epping Forest he really seems to stretch.
There are some truly transcendent moments on this album. For all prog’s ludicrousness, that’s something the genre could occasionally get very right, as with Hackett’s soaring and plummeting solo on Firth of Fifth or the pitter-pattering beauty of After The Ordeal. It helps that the musicians he’s surrounded himself with are impeccable. Townsend’s flute and sax work leaps out – there’s an extended jazz sax break been added to I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe), which is a touch out-of-keeping but very worth it – but really, the whole team is in full flight. It’s seamless. The sax break aside, tonight’s performance is entirely faithful to the technically complex original and is the match of the studio version for crispness and clarity. Hackett’s virtuosity and variety are apparent even to the prog-sceptic. How he doesn’t feature more regularly in world’s top guitarists lists is a mystery.
The tender opening of The Cinema Show signals an album reaching its conclusion, leading on to one more frantic burst of riffage, before leading us up the Aisle of Plenty.
After that, anything else would be an anti-climax, and so it proves. Déjà Vu was an unfinished and unreleased song from the sessions for a reason. It only adds interest for completists and hardcore fans here. And the medley that forms the encore can’t hope to compete with what’s gone before. No-one’s really quibbling though, and it receives the last of a number of standing ovations. If you’re going to do a classic album tour, make sure you’ve got a classic album to do it with. Hackett has.