“From small orchestra to full orchestra” - TWR’s 2018 Hackettdays jaunt relived by Alan Hewitt. Photographs by Alan Hewitt and Tony Bridgeman. Memorabilia: TWR archive.
Steve always has referred to the guitar as the “Small Orchestra” and he has always expressed a desire to work with a full orchestra in many conversations I have had with him. Wishes sometimes do come true then, as after a one-off gig in Buffalo NY last year with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra things rapidly escalated until we were presented with a full scale orchestral tour of the UK in October of this year.
As anyone who remembers the escapades of ELP in the 1970’s will recall, touring with an orchestra is both a risk and expensive venture, not for the faint-hearted ! There are so many things that could go wrong with such an enterprise. Well, did those things go wrong this time? We shall see…
I opted to give the opening night in Nottingham a miss and so the first show I saw was the second night at Manchester’s magnificent Bridgewater Hall. Entering the now familiar hall, it was still something of a surprise to see the set up behind the band for the orchestra, it does take a while to readjust to the novelty of such a set up! Anyway, at 7.30pm prompt, the show got under way with Dance On A Volcano, a suitably feisty opener for the proceedings. A fantastic performance from the band drove this one along and I don’t think I have ever heard Nad Sylvan sound so good on stage. Sadly, the orchestra failed to really make an impact on this one although given the sheer volume of the band, this was not surprising.
What was surprising though was Out Of The Body from 2014’s Wolflight album. This too was delivered with minimal fuss and here at last, the strings did break through the mayhem created by the band to make themselves heard and hearing them did make a big difference to the end result which if anything was even better than it had been when the band performed it previously. It is only when you hear an orchestra in this setting that you finally realise the whole variety of nuances which their presence can bring to a piece and we were to have further revelations as the show unfolded.
Firth Of Fifth next, unexpectedly early in the proceedings but we didn’t mind, did we? Roger King nailed the intro with his usual flair and it is on a piece such as this that the orchestra really should have come into their own but once again, they didn’t really manage to overcome the wall of sound made by the band.
Dancing With The Moonlit Knight was met by cheers from the crowd and it was a superb reading of this classic tonight and at last, the orchestra made some headway here to make their presence felt vastly adding to what is already a masterpiece of a song. Steve was evidently enjoying himself on this one as he was grinning from ear to ear throughout.
Blood On The Rooftops next… did it have its usual effect on yours truly? Of course it did! This piece never fails to hit all of my emotional buttons and tonight it was simply divine. The delicacy of Steve’s acoustic playing was matched by the impeccable sounds of the string section for a truly remarkable performance, topped off by a superb vocal from Gary O’Toole.
With no Amanda Lehmann at tonight’s show, the next track was performed in a somewhat truncated form but when the track in question is Shadow Of The Hierophant, that doesn’t really matter. Here, orchestra and band merged into one harmonious whole and I am sure I was not the only one who wished this one could have gone on forever, it was simply glorious! Following this was going to take some serious work but band and orchestra managed it effortlessly with a sublime reading of In That Quiet Earth leading, of course, into Afterglow, cue more tears from yours truly.
Another surprise next as the band went a bit further back into Steve’s solo work to give us Serpentine Sing, which was for me, the highlight of this and every other gig on this tour. A delightfully poignant song which resonates on so many levels and performed to perfection tonight by band and orchestra.
One track from Steve’s latest album, The Night Siren that I was hoping would be performed this time did indeed make an appearance next. El Nino is without doubt, Steve’s best instrumental track since Spectral Mornings and for my money the band absolutely nailed it tonight. The added percussion from Rob Townsend on drumpads alongside Gary O’Toole’s ferocious drums made for a truly awesome spectacle.
What can I say about the next track that hasn’t been said already? Well, I have to say something about Supper’s Ready, don’t I? Well, always a tour de force, it definitely soared to new heights tonight. Conductor, Bradley Thachuk and the Heart Of England Orchestra tackled this one with what was evidently collective glee. I have been going to orchestral concerts for almost fifty years now, and I have seldom (if ever) seen a conductor quite so animated and indeed enjoying himself and why not, this music should be enjoyed as much by those performing it as those lucky enough to be watching it, shouldn’t it?
What could follow that? Well, an encore was obviously in order and we were not disappointed as the band and orchestra returned and Roger King’s keyboards chimed in with the introduction to the magisterial Musical Box. Cue audience going wild as this epic tale of love, lust and revenge was played out with gusto and verve by band and orchestra bringing the evening’s proceedings to a suitably dramatic close.
So, first impressions? The experiment had worked, the orchestral treatments were performed with bravura although work still had to be done on getting the balance right between the varying components on stage. However, when the orchestra did manage to peek out from behind the band, the results were quite astonishing and with a further four shows to go for me, things could only get better…
Next up a trip to London and a venue I had never been to before. The Royal Festival Hall was built to celebrate the Festival Of Britain in 1951 and, to be honest, time has not been kind to the venerable pile as it had a rather shabby look to it, Meeting up with a few friends before the event was as enjoyable as ever and joining the pre-show get together I was delighted to get to meet longtime Genesis biographer, Armando Gallo.
Taking my decent seat in the stalls the show got under way with a blistering rendition of Dance On A Volcano. If anything, this was even more powerful than it had been at Manchester and got everything off to a suitably dramatic start. Howling wolves echoed around the room as Out Of The Body from Steve’s Wolflight album came next. A favourite of mine and one which was augmented greatly by an audible orchestra tonight.
With the show remaining the same as it had been for the previous night, it will be easier for me to select the parts of it which made the biggest impression on me. Firth Of Fifth for example, benefited enormously from the addition of the strings where they accompanied the guitar and keyboard solos to stunning effect. For me, as I expected, Blood On The Rooftops and Serpentine Song had the biggest effect on me (cue much blubbering and tears during both of them) these two songs are already beautiful in their own right, but with the delicate touches from the orchestra they both gained an entirely new persona.
So too did the full version of Shadow Of The Hierophant which was graced by the awesome presence of Amanda Lehmann on vocals. I could have listened to this one all night it was that good!
Another highlight for me was the simply amazing performance of El Nino from Steve’s latest album; The Night Siren. Blistering percussion from Gary O’Toole and Rob Townsend drove this one along at a breakneck pace, and when Steve’s frenetic guitar work broke into the chase as well… I have no hesitation in saying that this is the best instrumental he has written since the revered Spectral Mornings and I absolutely love it!
Two of the greatest classics that Genesis ever wrote closed the show. Supper’s ready has already had a book’s worth of superlatives written about it over the years but even now after all these years, it still manages to take me by surprise every time I hear it. And with the orchestra making their presence known throughout it, this was the absolute highlight of the evening and received deserved applause at its conclusion.
Encore? Well of course, and what better than The Musical Box? Here, band, orchestra and the vocals of Nad Sylvan melded into one glorious whole. You really had to be there to realise exactly how magnificent this sounded with the addition of the orchestra!
Next stop, Birmingham and the majestic Symphony Hall. I admire this venue enormously but cannot help but find it a somewhat soulless place. Maybe because it has yet to really develop a character of its own. Give it time and I am sure it will though!
Anyway, with one of the most acoustically perfect rooms in the UK at his disposal, Steve, the band and the orchestra should have been able to take full advantage of that. However, the result from my seat in the rear stalls was a somewhat muted performance. The orchestra seldom managed to rise above the wall of sound being created by the band which was really surprising but it did not stop my enjoyment of the evening’s performance with kudos to Gary O’Toole who put in a superlative vocal on Blood On The Rooftops and Serpentine Song which had the expected effect upon me. Rob Townsend’s percussion on El Nino too was simply to die for as was Steve’s majestic guitar work, whilst Roger King and Nad Sylvan had several moments to shine throughout the evening.
A lengthy trip after a few detours next Oop Norf to Gateshead and the relatively new venue; The Sage. Having seen Steve here a couple of years ago I knew how good a venue it was and so I was looking forward to this one enormously.
This gig turned out to be the undoubted highlight of the tour for me. From the moment the show began it was noticeable how clear the sound was,. At last I could HEAR the orchestra throughout and this made all the difference to much of the music.
The ferocity of the opening salvo of Dance On A Volcano and Out Of The Body got everything off to an impressive start but it was Firth Of Fifth which really opened my eyes. Roger King’s magisterial reading of Tony Banks’s introduction was augmented by the shimmering arpeggios of the strings and I do not think I have heard a finer version of this than the one I heard tonight.
Dancing With The Moonlit Knight too, benefited from the additional colour the various components of the orchestra brought to it. Blood On The Rooftops too has seldom (if ever) sounded quite as stately and majestic as it did tonight whilst the instrumental section of Shadow Of The Hierophant leading into In That Quiet Earth and Afterglow were simply divine tonight. Every nuance of the performance was balanced to perfection and were absolutely amazing, I really don’t have the words!
Serpentine Song too was performed to absolute perfection. A deceptive song with a lot more too it than it might at first appear, here the strings in particular really lifted the melody to another level whilst Gary O’Toole simply nailed the vocal reducing me to a gibbering wreck as usual!
The final trio of El Nino, Supper’s Ready and The Musical Box were simply flawless. OK, the band really made the orchestra work to make themselves heard at times but they rose to the challenge with gusto and brought so much additional colour to these well known classics it was almost as exciting as hearing them again for the first time.
A couple of days’ R ‘n’ R before another trip down to London, this time to that venerable pile the London Palladium. Now, as this venue and my own local theatre, the Liverpool Empire, share something in common ( they were both designed by the same architect, Frank Matcham) I expected something a little bit special tonight.
Sadly, this was not to materialise. Taking my seat at the rear of the stalls, the first thing I noticed was how flat the sound was. No shades, no colours. It was as if the music was being absorbed into the walls of the Palladium itself.
This made for a somewhat lacklustre atmosphere for me but there was no denying the energy coming from the stage as the band and orchestra battled against each other for musical ascendancy whilst conductor, Bradley Thachuk who had been a real hero throughout these gigs and evidently enjoying himself enormously into the bargain was behaving like the ringmaster in a three ring circus whilst grinning from ear to ear!
The acoustics did not stop the effect of certain tracks upon me however, as both Blood On The Rooftops and Serpentine Song, hit the spot as usual. El Nino too, benefited from the somewhat flat acoustic to really pin back the audience in their seats throughout. The rest of the evening passed in a blur of musical and emotional nostalgia as the best of these events always do. Then that was it, Supper was ready and had been served and The Musical Box had played its final tune for this year’s tour.
|And there you have it, a tour with a BIG difference. This tour represents an enormous gamble on Steve’s part. It would have been so easy for this to have fallen flat on its face musically and financially. Thankfully, neither was the case here. The first ting we have to bear in mind is just how difficult it is to balance the needs of an orchestra against those of a rock band. Such a trade off always results in compromises which might not always work from the audience’s standpoint. Getting the balance right for an additional thirty plus musicians must have been a nightmare for Ben Fenner, (Steve’s sound engineer for many years). OK, it didn’t always work from my viewpoint. That may simply be down to my increasingly defective hearing after all these years of gigs. Or location within a venue. Whatever. However, when it DID work (and it did work most of the time) the end results were truly glorious and remarkable and for that we have to thank Steve, Gary, Nad, Rob, Jonas, Roger along with their guests Amanda and John as well as the magnificent musicians of the Heart Of England Orchestra under the superlative baton of Bradly Thachuk all of whom played their hearts out each and every night.|
That just leaves the usual round of thank you’s. First of all, of course, my grateful thanks to Steve and Jo Hackett for their unstinting generosity and kindness which is simply amazing. To the musicians: Roger, Rob, Gary, Nad, Jonas, Amanda, John, the members of the Heart Of England Orchestra, Bradley and Steve Thachuk, Helen Fitzgerald for creating such a web of musical magic night after night. Grateful thanks too to Adrian Holmes (Tour Meister extraordinaire), Chris Sutton, Ben Fenner, Richard Buckland and all the local crews at the venues without whom such evenings simply would not happen, ya know!
Finally, to those other people without whom such tours would not be quite as special - the fans. Here’s to the usual suspects: Mark and Lynn Praid, Jonathan O’Neill, Kevin Burton, Alison and Brian Lancaster, The Mellotrons (Rachel, Shirley and Kevin Powell), The Hammonds (Julie, Steve and Richard), To ace ‘toggers Mike Ainscoe and Lee Millward for such superb photographic work time after time. To mein hosts with the most Mr and Mrs Kate and Andrew Green (and Milano of course!), Tony Bridgeman, Gerald Collins, Paul Gibbon. And to the newbies and friends from overseas: Ian Logie, Vincenzo Ricca, Roberto Rael Is Here, Roger Salem, Volker Warnke and Michaela Ix. Gigs are always fun but when you have company such as these, they truly become magical. Thank you. Same time next year…?!!