Steve Hackett, Palace of Fine Arts 11/14/2023. Written by Jamison Smeltz. Photos by Cheryl Alterman.
Steve Hackett (lead guitarist of Genesis 1971-77), brought his band to San Francisco on Tuesday for a night of intense and intricate progressive rock, in an intimate setting. The Palace of Fine Arts holds 960 and was sold out, blissful boomers beaming as they greeted each other with hugs in a friendly lobby pre-show. The band is at the end of their current tour, six weeks across the US, ending in Los Angeles on the 18th.
The current Hackett touring band has been together since 2017, with the addition of drummer Craig Blundell (*Frost, Steven Wilson) who replaced long-timer Gary O’Toole. (Craig subbed a few Euro gigs out recently to Nick DiVirgilio, giving Nick the honor of having played with both Steve Hackett live, and with Genesis on their ‘Calling All Stations’ album. (Note that Chester Thompson has done just the opposite: live Genesis and studio Hackett!)
As the band has had this same lineup for over six years, they have become scary tight, with tempos locked and all members driving the train. Tuesday’s show was dominated by Craig and bassist Jonas Reingold (The Flower Kings, Karmakanic, The Tangent), both aided by a perfect mix that brought them to the fore, but clear and deliberate, very little reverb to muddy the sound. It was revelatory.
Roger King on keyboards has been SH’s right-hand man since 1995, when he engineered Hackett’s 12th solo album, ‘Genesis Revisited’, which was when SH first revisited the material he had left 20 years earlier for a solo career. That album featured material radically reworked from the songs’ original identities, and included the participation of luminaries such as John Wetton, Paul Carrack, Tony Levin, Alphonso Johnson, Bill Bruford, and Chester Thompson.
When Hackett decided to put a touring band together in 2012, he nabbed Roger, woodwind wonder Rob Townsend, and Swedish-American Vampirate Nad Sylvan as the vocalist, and they are all still in the band, to all our favor King’s deft handling of vintage analog sounds- while playing serious contrapuntal rock - all without breaking a sweat, leads me to question his mere mortality. Oh, and it was his birthday too! He almost did a little jig walking to the front of the stage before the encore, shyly accepting the rousing applause.
Rob Townsend is a master craftsman, and every horn in his arsenal is played like it’s his first instrument, from flute to soprano sax to tenor sax to penny whistle. He is unassuming on stage, and his ensemble parts are as restrained as they need to be; but when he takes a solo, the music becomes his, rather than him playing it. And that has been my great joy in having seen this band with four different line-ups: every player finds a way to insert their own individuality while still being true to the core of the material.
Nad Sylvan has quite a presence onstage, tall and beautiful with a golden mane and subtle velvet blazer. His voice, his timbre and delivery, can invoke Peter Gabriel; it can invoke Phil Collins; it can feel like a blend of both, or neither. He is playful but serious, never hamming, often going offstage for long stretches of the note-y bits. He released an album under the name Unifaun in 2008, which I consider to be a lost 70s Genesis album, it is that good. He has also released four solo albums in the last 8 years.
Hackett plays two sets, the first of solo material, and the second from his Genesis catalog (1971-77). This tour he features Pater Gabriel’s penultimate work with the band, “Foxtrot,” fifty years young and a personal favorite. He opened the night with Ace of Wands from ‘Voyage of the Acolyte’ which should be everyone’s favorite prog song but life is unfair. Right away I was aware that the sound had a clarity and crispness so that all instruments could be heard clearly and easily, and then the dynamic range was able to be cranked up without any loss of definition. It was sonic bliss. Other highlights of the first set were The Steppes, Every Day, Tower Struck Down, and a mesmerizing Shadow of the Heirophant, with its slow build to a blistering intensity. This received a standing ovation to close the first set. Steve joked “Okay, we’ll do Genesis for the encore.” A short break later and the band was back, hurrying us to our seats with the Mellotron strings that heralded “Watcher of the Skies.” (And props to the smart-ass in our row that quipped, as we squoze past, “I thought it was Watcher of the Skies and not Watcher of These Guys.” ) If you aren’t familiar with this album, I won’t describe it in depth; go buy it used at Amoeba and have it, to listen to forever. This is hands down my favorite Genesis album. Meter changes abound, the drums are insistent and driving, the keys grandiose and wonderful, the lead guitar soaring, the 12-strings creating a pastoral but slightly neurotic mood. And the songs are perfectly crafted stories, with Gabriel’s prose at the height of his English Cottage persona. Next comes TimeTable, with my favorite line: “Though names may change, each face retains the last it wore.” The bass dances thru this, reminding us what a craftsman Michael Rutherford is, as he swaps the bass for the 12 string (and throwing in bass pedals to boot). And Jonas Reingold is magic in his role with Hackett’s band, nailing the parts and adding his own growl and flair. On to ‘Get ‘‘em Out by Friday; and if you think YOUR landlord is a Dick… Closing side one is Can-Utility and the Coastliners, as oddly titled as it is a perfect little event in Genesis history. Side two opens with Horizons, a breath-taking solo guitar piece by Hackett, reminiscent of fairy tales, lullabies, and a late stroll thru a darkening wood to… Supper’s Ready. Supper’s Ready is Genesis’s most moving and ambitious piece, clocking in close the 20 minutes, with 4 or 5 movements, chiming 12-strings, an earnest storyteller, a lunatic farm, an apocalypse in 9/8, and ultimately redemption: I think it’s gonna work out fine.
At the end of this album, the band took bows and Steve told us it was Roger’s birthday, so we all sang to him. It was the least we could do. They returned for a long encore with the piano driven Firth of Fifth (from Selling England by the Pound, 1973), and a fine drum solo into Los Endos (from A Trick of the Tale, 1975). We poured happily out to the fine San Francisco evening, but first all gathered for a photo in the foyer. Many of us met via Cruise to the Edge, a prog-rock themed Cruise that began in 2013, with Yes and Steve Hackett being featured artists. Now we usually run into 20-30 of us that still love this powerful prog rock music, and are grateful beyond words that artists like Steve Hackett are still giving it life.
© Cheryl Alterman Photography 2023