From Hackett To Holly: A Steve Hackett Concert Review & Personal Reflection
March 7, 2017
“Today’s the day to celebrate!” The lyric rang loud and clear in my head the moment I opened my eyes. Since November of last year, I had been anxiously waiting for March 2nd to arrive. Not only did I manage to snag a ticket to see Steve Hackett in Oakville, but I had also managed to budget a meet and greet with the man himself. (And by budget, I mean eating a steady diet of mac and cheese until the next paycheque came through). I had wanted to meet Steve at the Montreal gig I attended last April, but sadly they were all sold out of passes when I went to pursue one. Now was my chance. My time to shine! I wanted this concert experience to be different. When I had previously seen Steve, I wasn’t overly familiar with his solo work. If I was going to meet the man, I wanted to be prepared.
For the next four months, I became an extremely secluded listener. I isolated myself from everything other than Genesis and Steve Hackett. I watched countless documentaries and read numerous articles, magazines, interviews, fan websites, Steve's blog posts, and Alan Hewitt’s Sketches of Hackett book. It became my Holy Grail of Hacketty goodness. I was as far down the Hackett hole as anyone could possibly get.
When I received my concert tickets in the mail, I made a life-changing decision. For the first time in my life I was actually motivated to do something about my weight gain. I found myself consuming a completely different diet, resulting in carrots being my best friend and chia seeds the enemy. I found myself running in the gym at ungodly hours in the morning before work, and sometimes late at night after work. There were several moments where I pushed myself to go to the gym more than once in a day. I jogged to Hackett. I biked to Hackett. I sweated to Hackett. Every day the music would get a little louder, a little brighter, a little more exuberant, as the days ticked by. A series of questions began to form regarding his creativity, influences, guitar specs, and future ambitions. Eventually, a paper was formed from these questions, but of course there were always more questions the moment I had answers.
By the time March 2nd rolled around, all of my hard work and determination had paid off. I had lost 25lbs…but more importantly, I had narrowed down the amount of questions I had to 5! With my newly-polished Gibson Les Paul packed up and slung over my shoulder, I headed down to Oakville, for what was going to be one of the best nights of my quarter-century life.
The Meet & Greet
I arrived 20 minutes early after being assaulted by -20 degree winds to the face. There were already a few people waiting in the front entrance, all of them being middle-aged men. As I opened the doors conversations immediately stopped. Their stares made me wonder if I had somehow accumulated a fifth limb. Perhaps they thought I was lost. Eventually I was able to make friends, who eased my distressed nerves with the anticipation of meeting Steve. Soon we were ushered down some stairs and told proper meet & greet procedures. In total there were about 25 people, with me being the second last one in line. I wanted to have everything that I needed out (including the guitar), so I didn’t mind the wait.
As it became my time to meet Steve, I figured I was in a good situation. There were no previous signs of rushing or time restrictions. Everything seemed to be running smoothly. I thought I might be able to have a bit of extra time seeing as I was the second last person and things were slowly winding down. I came into the room with my guitar and waited at the back for the person before me to finish. The moment the photo was taken for the previous person, Steve peered around, looked me straight in the eye from across the room and exclaimed, “That looks like a heavy guitar you've got there!” He was absolutely beaming. Instead of staying behind his little table, he started making his way over towards me. I was completely thrown by the whole situation. Suddenly my nerves launched into overdrive. Steve was crossing a room to see me! I awkwardly stuttered my way through “It’s not as bad as other Gibsons!” I handed him my guitar to study. GET A GRIP! I thought to myself. After a few moments of fondling the guitar, he asked me if it was my guitar, if I played, and what year it was. I told him it was a 50s tribute model, so not very old at all. He asked me where I would like him to sign, since I play it. I thought that was very kind of him, and we agreed on the bottom section below the fixed bridge. He asked what I would like him to write, and I confirmed with him that the lyric in “Slogans” was “Beware the mighty Magnatron”. He then proceeded to tell me the story behind the quote. They combined their keyboardist’s last name (Nick Magnus) with the machine they used for the vocal effect. While writing the quote, he paused after writing “mighty” and smiled. “You know, I don’t think this has ever been written! Hmm. Mag-na-tron.” I laughed. I couldn’t believe I was the first person to come up to him with that lyric in all of its 37 years of existence. I felt extremely proud.
I also asked him to put “From Hackett to Holly” before the quote, and then, “Love Always, Steve Hackett” underneath. “Love Always?” Steve asked, eyebrows raised. I slinked inside myself, hoping I would appear as small as possible… “Love Always...Steve Hackett?” I asked again, in an almost inaudible whisper. I was so embarrassed for asking, but I knew I really, really wanted that on my guitar. I couldn’t help myself. Thankfully the embarrassing situation was interrupted by none other than Brian Coles, Steve’s tour manager. I had recognised him from the Behind the Scenes documentary from Hackett’s latest DVD Live in Liverpool. He’s the one responsible for booking the venues, organizing food, hotels, and other accommodations. It’s a big job! To get out of my embarrassing situation and allow Steve to finish my peculiar request without hesitation, I exclaimed, “Hello! You’re the tour manager, are you not?” He seemed quite taken aback that I knew who he was, and replied, “Um…yes”. “I just wanted to thank you for all that you do. It’s a big job” I smiled. “Um…thanks.” I was glad I had the opportunity to thank him. I really meant it too. But then things took a turn for the worst. As Steve finished off his signature on the guitar, Brian said quite sternly, “Steve we need to wrap this up right away. We’re over time.” Steve just nodded, but Brian continued to be rather persistent. I thought this was rather rude, considering I had paid extra money to be there. A quick 10 second analysis of the room would have also told him that I was the second last person anyways, and that Steve would probably be no longer than 5 more minutes. I felt like Brian could have easily waited another 20 seconds and talk to Steve between me and the next person. I was very grateful that despite Brian’s rather rude interruption, Steve still signed my book and posed for a photo with me. I was also able to give him a hard copy of my Firth of Fifth paper, along with the sheet music and my contact information.
The whole experience lasted 2 minutes.
Walking across the lobby room, my heart was pounding, and I found myself a ball of mixed emotions. Not only was I experiencing the most amazing high from just meeting Steve, I was also disappointed with the interruption, and my inability to ask more questions. I didn’t want to ask questions while he signed the guitar. I wanted to be polite and have the guitar be the focal point of concentration. I was really hoping I could ask a question or two after the guitar signing, but alas it was just not meant to be. Once upstairs I let the ink on the guitar dry before covering it in parchment paper and painters tape. There was no way I was going to let a single smudge happen to that guitar. It ended up becoming a focal point in the room, bringing many people over allowing for the opportunity to meet some amazing people. Soon the bells began to chime, signalling to all that the show was about to begin.
I found myself in excellent company. I don’t typically go to concerts by myself, but I was able to make a good friend in the process and share the experience nonetheless. The concert hall was very open with no balcony, and had a very steep decline towards the stage, similar to a movie theatre. I found the acoustics for this venue were much better than the Théâtre Maisonneuve in Montreal.
The show opened with the classic “Everyday” and was followed by “El Niño”, a new instrumental track from Steve’s The Night Siren album. Before the song even began, you could tell it was going to be a song from the new album. All of the lights changed to reflect the northern lights colours that are on the album cover. They danced across the ceiling like northern lights for the entire duration of the song. It was a lovely effect, providing a perfect atmosphere for the unveiling of the piece. A brief reminder of Wolflight followed with “Out of the Body”. Using a soprano sax solo from Rob Townsend, it morphed into “The Steppes”. It was a real treat to hear this piece, as it wasn’t included in last year’s set. For me, there’s something very transcendent about that piece, particularly live. The feeling was reminiscent of “Spectral Mornings” from last year’s tour. The thundering pulsations of the drums kept everything together as the guitar once again swirled around the auditorium. Like the smoke at the end of a lit cigarette, the guitar danced around the room, twisting and twirling about, gradually filling more of the room with its intoxicating overtones. Nick Beggs’ bass supplied an excellent foundation with his bass and bass pedals, and Rob Townsend used a flute to compliment the guitar melody.
At this point Steve took a moment to say hello to the audience. He wasn’t nearly as vocal as he was in Montreal, but I think a part of that was being able to practice his French and have fun with the audience. He commented on the love people had for his “Classic Hackett” repertoire (The Steppes), and that we would have to bear with him for two more new songs before returning to more familiar territory. I thought it was interesting that Hackett felt the need to justify playing new material to the audience instead of just regurgitating the past.
“In the Skeleton Gallery” followed, with the lights once again representing the northern lights. Since this piece had already been released as a single, I was able to appreciate it more live. “Behind the Smoke” followed “In the Skeleton Gallery”, and was also an interesting piece. The solo portion of the show ended with the second half of “Shadow of the Hierophant”. Much to my surprise, this performance was far superior to the version I saw in Montreal. The sound absolutely blew me away. The bass pedals seems to have been cranked to 11. You could feel them rattle your entire ribcage and send your heart into a rabid frenzy! With every penetrating note, my entire body tingled from the very tips of my fingers, down my spine, and into my toes. All of this was heightened further with Nick Beggs’ performance. He sat cross-legged in front of the pedals and would mash them with his fists. His playing became a visual performance full of gestures and emphasis. His entire body echoed the power behind the pedals. He would raise his fist slowly into the air and hold it there before letting it plummet to the very depths of the pedal range. Beggs would grit his teeth while his body would continuously contort under the metaphorical heaviness of the bass he was producing. There was an increased awareness of the tensions and releases throughout the piece that I had never experienced before thanks to Beggs’ visuals. I knew the piece continuously grew in tension until the very end, but this version was something else… I certainly didn’t have the same experience with this song last year. The only thing that wasn’t as good as last year’s version was Gary O’Toole’s drumming. Don’t get me wrong, he still did an excellent job behind the kit. He was an absolute beast last year in Montreal, and I still remember being blown away by his performance as if it was yesterday. I had never heard anything like what he did at the end of "Shadow of the Hierophant" with the mixture of time signatures, the changing of beat emphases, and his improvisations. He still improvised, but it didn’t seem as tight nor varied as before. Nonetheless, when you've previously experienced perfection, the next best thing is excellence! “Shadow of the Hierophant” was definitely the highlight to the solo section.
Instead of having an intermission, the band leapt right into “Eleventh Earl of Mar”. I was a little apprehensive of Nad Sylvan’s singing this year, as some of the concert footage that has been floating around has been deemed rather questionable. However, Nad’s performance here was quite effective! “One for the Vine” was cut from this set, and instead, “Blood on the Rooftops” followed. It was rather a magical moment seeing this song performed live. Hackett’s acoustic playing at the beginning was incredible to watch, as it included a section played with just one hand. Gary O’Toole did an absolutely FANTASTIC job on the vocals. He really made the song his own, giving Phil Collins (in my humble opinion) a run for his money. I would love to hear more vocal work from Gary, particularly with post-Gabriel material. Although, I imagine it's extremely difficult to play such intricate drumming and sing simultaneously.
There was a moment after “Blood on the Rooftops” that was really touching. Steve took a moment to honour the recent loss of bassist John Wetton from King Crimson and Asia. Steve mentioned playing with him, and dedicated the next two pieces “…In That Quiet Earth” and “Afterglow” in his honour, as Wetton would often sing “Afterglow” with Steve. It really made for a heartwarming rendition, and even received a few sniffles from the surrounding audience.
To lighten the mood, “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” followed, with exceptional musicianship from everyone involved. There were however, a couple of instances where chords seemed a little off, once in the keyboards and another in the bass, but other than that it was still a thrill to experience, as it wasn’t included in last year’s tour.
“Firth of Fifth” was an example of a song that was played impeccably well, yet didn’t muster the same feelings in me as Montreal’s gig. Perhaps it came down to the old notion of you never forget your first time… Another consideration could be my recent fascination with the Selling England by the Pound outtakes with the stimulating usage of an F natural instead of an F# in the last E minor arpeggiation… Regardless, it was my own personal issues that affected my enjoyment of the piece.
At this point, Steve informed the audience that they only had time for one more song. Several people around me chuckled and suggested “Supper’s Ready” as a joke. The moment Nad sang those two magical words “Walking across…” the crowd went absolutely ballistic, including myself. I had been monitoring Steve’s previous setlists like a hawk and found that they had only played “Supper’s Ready” a few times. This truly was an extremely lucky opportunity, and hands down the highlight of the evening. People were screaming “HEY BABE!” at the top of their lungs, just like the “Touch Me!” section in Montreal during “The Musical Box”. The atmosphere was extremely electric with Nad often being drowned out by the audience giving it their all. I hung on to every note, every pause, every word. I was acutely aware of everything: the lighting changes, the smell of beverages, the harmonies, the people around me. My senses were in complete overdrive trying to soak up this extremely precious moment. The soundscape of the piece was bigger than I had ever experienced, filling the auditorium even in its quietest moments. By the time we got to the last section (VII: “As Sure as Eggs is Eggs”) my voice was completely shot. I gave my absolute everything on the last line, and tried to make the word “Jerusalem” last as long as possible. The absolute highlight of the song was an extended 3 minute guitar solo from Steve at the very end. There was so much passion packed into those three minutes. Steve’s entire body glowed while his face displayed several unique guitar faces. The band had to keep repeating the end section as Steve showed no signs of stopping. Several glances between Beggs and Roger King, the keyboardist, confirmed that Steve was indeed, on a roll. Even the lights began to fade and Steve was STILL going! It was the perfect end to the set. As the band left the stage there was an overwhelming feeling of content. The buzz of the crowd was as sweet as honey as people cried tears of joy and stood contemplating life after “Supper’s Ready”.
As the band reappeared on stage for the encore, several people yelled, “Play what you want!”. Nothing screams a happy crowd more than a totally complacent one. I couldn’t believe it! Not one person yelled out a song suggestion. The night closed with one of my personal favourites, “The Musical Box”. It started with the tinkling of a musical box, but for a brief moment there was a lawn mower sound as well, making me think at first they were going to do “I Know What I Like”. Right after the sound, the familiar jangle at the beginning of “The Musical Box” rang loud and clear, and we were well on our way to an amazing musical ride. It was my gateway song into the wonderful world of Genesis. It was a real treat to hear it last year in Montreal, but I found the soundscape was rather sparse and the music felt overexposed. This time around was completely different. The entire amphitheatre was filled with the swirling of rich colours, textures, and sound. I think Beggs’ bass pedals had a lot to do with the vastness of sound in this version. Another excellent addition was Townsend’s flute playing. I remember there being a lot of soprano sax in the Montreal gig, which I wasn’t too fond of. I found Nad’s vocals weren’t as powerful this time around, and they seemed slightly rushed. The “NOW”’s weren’t as emphasized near the end, and it seemed like Nad was just going through the motions with not as much weight given to the gestures. Regardless, every little nook of the song was explored in fine detail, making it a real pleasure aurally.
Something that really stood out at this concert was the lack of distraction by Nad. In Montreal, he wore a white blouse, and was constantly going on and off stage against the dark curtain backdrop. Aside from a section in “Supper’s Ready” where he donned a red cape, he was dressed completely in black, so his constant movement on and off stage wasn’t as distracting. There was also no puzzling hat attire, which was nice.
Overall this was another excellent concert experience. I would have liked to hear more solo material from Hackett, but at the same time, the concert was already two hours long, and substituting songs for “Supper’s Ready” is always worth it. Hackett’s new solo album The Night Siren comes out March 24th, and I can hardly wait to give it a spin. Until then, I shall be reminiscing about the time I got to spend with the man himself, Steve Hackett. It may have been only two minutes, but two minutes in heaven is better than one, especially when it involves a Gibson and the spelling debut of Magnatron…
Out of the Body
In the Skeleton Gallery
Behind the Smoke
Shadow of the Hierophant (closing portion)
Eleventh Earl of Mar
Blood on the Rooftops
...In That Quiet Earth
Dancing With the Moonlit Knight
Firth of Fifth
The Musical Box