I didn’t expect them to play “Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End”. I also didn’t expect the line “Believing that what waits for us is the cosmos compared to the dust of the past” to nearly bring me to tears. Life has been full of surprises lately.
The VdGG logo from '75 to '78 was a sort of Escher triangle representing the "V" in "Van"—very prescient considering the band is now a trio (Hammill/Banton/Evans) and their latest album is called Trisector. With saxophonist David Jackson absent, the stage is also set up in tripartite fashion: Hammill’s keyboard on the left, Banton’s "manuals and pedals" on the right, Guy Evans’ kit in the middle. The Opera House has no seating, so I chose a spot in the centre-left on the floor.
The audience sported much gray hair and many beards, and talked in public about things like downloading the entire Ash Ra Tempel catalogue then never finding the time to listen to it. Oh, we should all have such problems! I spotted a few young ’uns up front as well.
When Van der Graaf Generator walked on stage at 9:00, my first feeling was total affection. There’s Peter Hammill – I love that guy! I deliberately hadn’t listened to any of their music before the gig, nor had I studied the setlists from the tour very closely. I did know they would be playing a good chunk of new material from Trisector, which I’d never heard. Present, their first reunion album, was a huge disappointment and hadn't inspired me to scoop up its sequel. I was looking forward to hearing the new songs live, as the rawness of the live setting would probably put them in their best light.
They started with “Interference Patterns” off Trisector, a jigsaw puzzle of a song that put the audience on its toes from the off. A transitional jam led to the first classic of the night, Godbluff’s “Scorched Earth,” a song that to me exemplifies the “serious fun” ethos of VdGG. The audience came alive at this point, giving the song a huge ovation. Hammill switched to guitar and tuned up while politely announcing the previous two songs. The next song emerged from another jam—good lord, it’s “Lemmings.” This was a mad dash through the maddest song from their maddest album, It’s not a handsome song, nor was it a pristine performance. After several precarious moments on the cliff’s edge, Hammill led the charge to its finale with a lusty “hey!” clearly audible off mic.
Van der Graaf Generator aren’t especially tight; they’ve never performed polite recitals of their recorded work. They push the songs to the ragged edge in their excitement at playing together, they probably push even harder these days without David Jackson’s sax to drive the riffs along (Jackson split acrimoniously from the band after the Present tour). It's easy to get caught up in their excitement watching them work through these songs and realize that most of the transitions don’t really have counts—they rely on eye contact, head nods and vocal cues to make it through these beloved labyrinths. Hammill is in fine voice for a 60-year-old heart-attack survivor. I don’t know how he does it—my heart’s wobbly just witnessing them race through the material.
“Childlike Faith…” was both unexpected and devastating, as I mentioned earlier. Hammill dropped the guitar and stalked the stage for the sinister carnival crawl of “The Sleepwalkers,” another immense track from their glory days. Guy Evans whacked the cowbell like it’d been very naughty. The song now has some extra dynamics in the instrumental section towards the end, showing they’re not afraid of trying new ideas, no matter how sacred the song is. “Man Erg” was the last song of the set, its instantly recognizable opening chords sending a ripple through the crowd. There, now they’ve played half of Pawn Hearts and half of Godbluff. I couldn’t have hoped for a better set list.
After such an epic-laden set, I expected some (comparatively) light relief for the encore, and that’s what they delivered via “Nutter Alert” from Present. With a bow and a wave, the three gents of VdGG exited stage left.
I was up for another beer and a few minutes to collect my thoughts. However, the bar staff were already packing up, so I went out to wait for a streetcar to take me across town. I met a few other pilgrims—a guy from Hamilton who would see them again the next night, a fellow of Russian extraction who had seen the band in Moscow in 2005, and someone else from B.C. who’d made the trip east for the gig. We talked about other Hammill gigs and whether the lack of Jaxonsax left too big a hole in their sound. I didn’t feel like talking much about such “could have beens”; I had just seen Van der Graaf Generator and I thought it was perfect.
I’m still coming back to that line from "Childlike Faith..." every day: “What waits for us is the cosmos compared to the dust of the past.” When a 27-year-old Hammill barks it on the Still Life album, the line's hopefulness comes across as blustery; a bit cocky from a young man in a more promising time. When the 60-year-old Hammill sang it 10 feet away from me at the Opera House, it sounded to me like the absolute truth.