“The Other Side Of The Tracks” - TWR hitches a ride on the footplate with Steve Hackett and his band on this year’s Train On The Road UK tour. Review by: Alan Hewitt.
Another autumn and yet another jaunt around the UK in pursuit of Steve and his merry band of men ( and women). Unusually though, the fun and frolics started a lot nearer to home with an unexpected visit by Steve and Jo to my part of the world. Yes, at last, yours truly had the chance to show Steve and Jo around my own home town for the day. Starting off with the now traditional round of interviews for various local radio stations, the weather gods were kind too us and we managed to indulge ourselves in a bit of nostalgia courtesy of the legendary Magical Mystery Tour of The Beatles’ homes and haunts including a guided tour of the Cavern Club and suggestions of a potential gig there next year perhaps? There was even time for a bit of proper “culture” with a visit to the famous Philharmonic Hall for a concert by the best orchestra in the country (OK, so I am biased, so what?!). Steve and Jo seemed to have a good time and I have to say that I was delighted to have finally had the chance to repay their hospitality with some of my own.
Barely four days later and yours truly found himself on a train (quite appropriate, eh?) bound for Glasgow and the first of this year’s shows that I was to take in. Thankfully, there was no repeat of last year’s dreadful weather and the journey was surprisingly uneventful. Arriving in time to partake of several celebratory libations with mine hosts Alison and Brian, show time soon arrived and yet another marvellous night of magic at the Ferry beckoned. As had been promised, the set this year had been substantially re-jigged from the previous one and there were to be several surprises throughout, not least the opening salvo of Every Day and Valley Of The Kings which contrasted the old and new facets of Steve’s music extremely well. Emerald And Ash was the first offering from Steve’s latest album and it has improved immeasurably by the almost constant road-testing it has received.
The first of the surprises came next with a trio of songs which took everyone by surprise. First of these, a delightful rendering of The Golden Age Of Steam from the underrated Darktown album. With the addition of both Amanda Lehmann and Nick Beggs on vocals, this one took on a truly magnificent lease of life throughout the tour. There were gasps of surprise from the crowd as Steve announced something of a slightly older vintage next with a full throttled version of Watcher Of The Skies which gave everyone a chance to shine, not least Roger King who took on Mr Banks’ mantle in suitably emphatic style. The oldies continued with a respectful rendering of Carpet Crawlers which gave several of the audience the vapours of their reactions were anything to go by.
Back to the new stuff next with Fire On The Moon, which once again, gave everyone a chance to stretch their legs. Nick Beggs’ bass playing and vocals lifted the song enormously and he looked suitably threatening in his very own version of the Child Catcher’s costume from Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang to boot! The contrast between this and the evergreen Ace Of Wands couldn’t have been more marked but once again the entire band swallowed the chance to perform this classic with collective glee. Another surprise next with the welcome return to the set of the glorious Shadow Of The Hierophant, not seen in a Hackett live set since the heady days of 1979. Always a delight it was nothing less here either and it has to be said that Amanda’s vocals brought the song to life in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible - marvellous stuff.
Sierra Quemada from Guitar Noir also made a welcome return to the set. One of Steve’s truly searing instrumentals this one threatened to lift the roof off the ferry as he grabbed his guitar and wrung every last ounce of emotion out of it. The interval which came next was certainly welcome by both the audience AND the band no doubt but it wasn’t long before the band returned to the stage for the now traditional acoustic section. This year it was surprisingly short though, comprising a couple of guitar passes and the ubiquitous Horizons without which a Hackett show really isn’t complete. I was delighted to see that Blood On The Rooftops had retained its place in the set though and yes, it had its usual effect on yours truly!
Tubehead, took the audience by the scruff of our collective necks for a stomp box fuelled romp which Steve evidently enjoyed, he was grinning from ear to ear throughout. Sleepers too is another latter day classic, a delightfully brittle jazz tinged beauty which really shone through here tonight, especially Rob Townsend’s sax playing. Nick Beggs’ solo piece; The Darkness In Men’s Hearts played faultlessly on the Chapman Stick has also grown into another delightful moment in the set.
The Blues got their moment too with a barnstorming performance of Still Waters which really did seem to bring Storyville (New Orleans’ infamous old red light district) vividly to life. The show closed with a magical pairing of a work in progress and a classic. Prairie Angel was being given the traditional “road test” as a new working title and from the reaction of the crowd tonight and throughout the tour, Steve is definitely on a winner here. This segued nicely into the now familiar strains of Los Endos which Gary O’Toole led from the start with some truly ferocious playing bringing the show itself to a suitably dramatic close.
Of course, we all knew that we were in for at least one encore and the band weren’t long on returning to the stage and Mr King wove his spell over the entire audience with a faultless introduction to Firth Of Fifth, which was greeted with ecstatic cheers from the crowd. The rest of the band augmented Roger to give this performance a really magical resonance which was greatly appreciated. The tick-tock of Gary’s drums gave the game away as Clocks took to the floor like the rampaging beast that it is. A truly breathtaking instrumental workout by the entire band which brought the show to a truly awesome close.
One show down, a mere five more to go. Next up a mad dash back from Glasgow and an equally mad one across to Manchester. Surprisingly enough, Steve was not performing in the larger of the various “Academy” halls but in the smallest; the old Hop & Grape which those of you who saw him on the Guitar Noir tour back in 1993 will remember. Well, they say that size isn’t everything and that was certainly the case tonight. Changing the set openers round so that the show now opened with Valley Of The Kings certainly worked a lot better. Much as I love Every Day it is not really a set opener whereas Valley… most definitely is!
The rest of the show fundamentally remained as it had been the night before although, there were a few amusing moments not least; Gary counting Roger in during the intro to Shadow Of The Hierophant - Roger was NOT amused! And Nick advising the audience to stand back to avoid being “splattered” by Steve’s antics with his violin bow during Tubehead. The crowd which filled the hall certainly enjoyed themselves and it was quite a surprise when after the gig, another well known musician came over and said “hi” to me. Unbeknownst to me I had been standing next to Mr Peter Nichols of IQ for most of the evening - small world, innit?!
A couple of days off during which I drove the neighbours to distraction by incessant playing of the new Live Rails CD, then it was off down to Leamington Spa and a return to The Assembly, without doubt one of the best venues that Steve plays these days - complete with Tammy Wynnette’s Winnebago backstage! Steve’s dad was at this one along with brother John and his good lady Katrin. Sadly, this year John was not getting up for a bash with his big brother but simply content to spectate. It was great to see so many familiar faces and real Hackett fans among the crowd tonight, almost like a mini Hackett convention in fact. Show wise, the set remained as it had been for Manchester although the band were evidently beginning to relax a bit more now with a handful of shows under their belts. Interestingly enough, a documentary about Steve’s career is currently in preparation and it was amusing to watch band members being dragged one by one into Tammy’s Winnebago to be interviewed after the gig - then the same happened to yours truly as well!
This tour did have one first for me however. I had asked for, and received, permission to film a couple of gigs and so our next jaunt over the Pennines to The Picturedome in Holmfirth saw yours truly replete with video camera and tripod Arriving in plenty of time, it was weird being escorted upstairs by two of the security staff to a prime vantage point for filming in the balcony from where I think the resulting film should capture the magic of the evening. One thing I did learn from this exercise is that anyone who films gigs (officially or , ahem unofficially) has to have three things; a good eye, steady hands and the patience of a saint! Another capacity crowd gave Steven and the band a rapturous reception, aided by a few familiar faces again.
Back on more familiar territory next and yet another gig at the fantastic Pacific Road Arts Centre in Birkenhead. Turning the filming tonight over to a friend of mine, I was content to relax and enjoy the atmosphere of yet another excellent gig. Steve was in suitably relaxed mood even telling the audience to “calm down” in a fine Scouse accent.
Deciding against travelling to Wolverhampton due to the decidedly nasty turn in the weather I made my way instead down to London for the performance at the Shepherds Bush Empire. Filming was being undertaken for a live DVD tonight and there were a couple of “special guests” augmenting the proceedings. The show itself followed the usual pattern until Shadow Of The Hierophant at which point Steve announced Steve Wilson (Porcupine Tree) on stage. Sadly he was hidden from view pretty much behind Nick Beggs and didn’t really make his presence felt here at all at least that was the case from my vantage point in the balcony - how was it for you folks down in the stalls? The other “guest” John Wetton appeared later in the show for a ramshackle version of All Along The Watchtower. Steve Wilson returned to the stage for the encores but once again, he might not have been there for all the aural evidence of his presence. Surprisingly by the time it got to the intros at the end, Mr Wetton had departed the building! All in all, despite (or perhaps because of?) the special guests, this show was the most disappointing of the tour thus far for me personally although still extremely enjoyable throughout.
Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, London proved to be the last gig of the tour that I was able to attend. Once again, Steve has managed to keep things fresh for both himself and the band but also for the fans. The inclusion of several Genesis classic which had never been performed by Steve or not in this country at any rate gave the older fans something to cheer about. For me, the highlights were as always, the new material, although I have to admit that Shadow Of The Hierophant ticked all the right boxes for me as well! And The Golden Age Of Steam certainly deserves its spot in the set as well. I only wish that Steve would perform more from the Darktown album and indeed, from the as yet unheard Wild Orchids album. Maybe next year? In fact, I might be one of the few that would like to see more of Steve’s own material and a tad less Genesis material in the set - hey only an opinion folks! What is never in any doubt however, is the desire of Steve and the band to entertain the audience and that they did in spades. The on stage antics are also a sure indication that this band is not only a tight unit but also one relaxed enough to have some fun and with Mr Beggs’ sartorial eloquence evolving from one tour to the next whatever happens you can be sure that the show will definitely go on - and long may it continue to do so!
As usual, it is time to extend some thank you’s to certain individuals for their part in this year’s extravaganza. First of all, of course, a massive thank you to Steve, Gary, Rob, Roger, Amanda and Nick for putting the shows on in the first place. To Richard Buckland, Dave Cobby and the omnipresent Mr Brian Coles for their part in the proceedings. My grateful thanks to Joanna Lehmann for all her hard work and encouragement over the last few years.
Of course, there are a few fans as well without whom the whole touring experience would not be anywhere near as enjoyable as it is so first of all, my grateful thanks to Steph Kennedy for all her hard work on behalf of Steve and the Hacketteers. To Kevin Fearn and Barry Cass for sharing this year’s chauffeuring duties. To Brian and Alison Lancaster for their inestimable hospitality once again. To Nas Chaudhry for all those not so ancient T shirts! To Stuart Barnes and his long suffering wife Emma and their children for hospitality beyond the call of duty once again and to all the other fans I had the pleasure of meeting at one or more of the gigs - let’s do it again soon!