Steve Hackett + Mostly Autumn @ The Symphony Hall, Birmingham – Tuesday 4th November 2014


Review by Paul H Birch and photos by Lisa Billingham

Mostly Autumn walk on stage to polite applause, performing as a duo tonight they play a set of six numbers that fall into a broad folk vein just shy of whimsy, pleasingly evoking a little baroque medieval tone here and there, and a slight raga riff on opening number ‘Simple Ways’. They chat briefly but amicably between numbers, ingratiating themselves with an audience who receive them well but generally seem unaware that the band (as a seven piece) are one of modern prog rock’s leading lights; intimating the audience has possibly been living in the past too long, and need to get out more.

Mostly Autumn
Mostly Autumn

They play ‘The House On The Hill and Dressed In Voices’ off their latest album, while ‘Evergreen’ gets opening applause from those who do know the band, Olivia Sparnenn playing flute on this number, tambourine on a few others. Bryan Josh sticks to the main song themes, really only embellishing his acoustic playing on ‘Heroes Never Die’, a song written about his late father. Vocally, the pairing works, in duet and solo, Sparnenn taking most of the lead lines, and Josh fulsome in tone. They leave the stage with healthy respect gathered and folk likely to check out their back catalogue.

Steve Hackett
Steve Hackett

As blue light floods the stage, then turn to sprinkle outwards the various bodies gathered about me lift their heads from texting on phones and welcome Steve Hackett and his band back for what’s now his Genesis Extended Tour. Bass pedals reverberate in the pit of my stomach, and ‘Dance On A Volcano’ starts the evening in a muscular fashion, Hackett in black t-shirt flexing biceps and to his left former Kajagoogoo member Nick Beggs decked out like he should be in Judas Priest laying into his four strings. The reticent seated guitarist of decades past is a faded memory as Hackett heads to the microphone upon the song’s conclusion enthusing how wonderful it is to be back for a third sold out show. “Extraordinary,” he says, “Are you the same people?” Even if they are, the set’s been swopped and changed. Next up is ‘Squonk’ with some lively saxophone runs from Rob Townsend, Hackett embellishing the main themes and taking in an almost Shadows dance move as his feet manoeuvre between his effects pedals before the main solo at the end. The jig continues further back in time with Roger King’s keyboards bubbling gaily forth for 1973’s ‘Dance With The Moonlit Knight’ and Hackett double-hand tapping his fretboard one minute, striking a power chord; sustaining with echoed feedback, infilling jazz chords and then going for the song’s signature solo melody, even as Townsend adds penny whistle to the ensemble.

Beggs will alternate between bass, guitar and stick tonight, and the latter’s used for the next two numbers, ‘Fly On A Windshield’ and ‘Broadway Melody of 1974’ as the line-up reduces to a four piece with drummer Gary O’Toole taking care of vocals. As on the previous tour they play up the prog blues angle, though the sound’s a lot less heavy than expected. If anything there were some rough edges to the mix earlier on, and it feels like the sound crew are ironing them out now, though Hackett will hold his Gold Les Paul up to him and study it throughout the night. Not that it’s a problem as he unleashes Arabian textures and sonic sustains during the latter part of this section. The beefiness is back as Beggs’ bass grunts a solid foundation that allows the tightness of the band to be admired on ‘Return Of The Giant Hogweed’, with Townsend alternating between flute and sax and Hackett’s guitar weaving in and out throughout.

Steve Hackett
Steve Hackett

Added on the last tour ‘The Fountain of Salmacis’ is next and Hackett explains that this early track was the foundation of a lot that he sought to achieve musically thereafter. Beggs’ bass solos in melodic counterpoint to Nad Sylvan lead vocals; Hackett again in duet with Townsend’s wind instruments, then adding melodies and phrases before performing the main solo and literally banging his pickups at the end. Lights dim and ‘The Musical Box’ whirs into life, a deft guitar tone from Hackett invigorating the sound before he decides to also become a showman; double-hand tapping, his right hand’s little finger sliding up the guitar’s neck producing glissando sounds, strangling notes out then sustaining melodically, then he and King’s keyboards race towards the epic’s conclusion as Sylvan swaggers round the stage with his microphone stand giving it his all and hitting high notes that Hackett echoes as it all reaches the climax with a standing ovation from the crowd. They’ve played with the arrangements, and the African beat featured last time round on ‘I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)’ gets a jazzier groove, Hackett pulling out gentlemanly funk statements before  giving his tremolo arm a good working either side of Townsend strutting on sax and partying on penny whistle, band and audience singing along throughout.

Solo, Hackett once more takes a rag time intro to the acoustic ‘Horizons’ before King’s piano resounds with the introduction to ‘Firth of Fifth’ and Hackett swops to electric and plays bottleneck style. Suddenly the crowd cheer as an initially hesitant but atmospheric flute calls out and they recognise Hackett’s sibling John, from the guitarist’s original solo band line-up guesting on stage. O’Toole’s drums ride and crash profoundly while Beggs, seated in the background, drops in punchy octaves; reminding us of the original Genesis rhythm’s section’s arrangement but with decades’ hence better quality PA, while come the main guitar solo Hackett stretches out, pulling at and inverting the melody’s favoured nuances enticingly. Beggs is back on stick for ‘Lilywhite Lilith’ and King’s keyboards are particularly pleasing, but overall it lacks The Who like distortion of the original. But, if rock is what we’re after, they add the thrust, charge and prog-revolution rifferama of ‘The Knife’ to the set: Beggs bounces round the stage, Hackett squishes out clusters of notes in seductive menace,  pulls back subtly for the first part of the major solo, sustains notes then hammers at his pickups as a flute cuts in; everyone hard-rocking it up as they chant as one: “We are only wanting freedom” and Hackett digs deep pulling out some amazing phrases, wah-wahing away with urgency and soul, Beggs pulling in alongside him tight and heavy before Sylvan’s final “We have won!” screams out the ancient number’s finale.

Exhausted, the crowning glory of ‘Suppers Ready’ is registered only about half way through by me as all around everyone shouts out exuberantly: “A flower!” By the time it’s approaching its apocalyptic section, an organ dominates and blood orange lights engulf the stage changing ominously to crimson red as Sylvan sings of a “new Jerusalem” and Hackett pulls at the melody line in an altogether blues rock manner, then double-hand taps prior to his left hand reaching down from neck to body and pulling at his tremolo arm for his guitar to echo then bring it all back for some final virtuoso moments as O’Toole pounds furiously while Beggs strums gently in counterpoint on guitar and it’s all over with another standing ovation.

Steve Hackett
Steve Hackett

Encoring with ‘Watcher Of The Skies’ white lights form prisms across the stage floor rather fittingly for a version that filters in white noise more reminiscent of Van Der Graaf than Genesis. With Townsend and Beggs standing stage front either side of Hackett they give it their all, invoking the gods of jazz, heavy metal and prog before the more familiar strains of ‘Los Endos’ take hold in a beefy majestic tour de force. Then, before you know it, it’s over.

That Steve Hackett and his band can play these Genesis numbers with such hardy conviction and entertain so many people during these tours is impressive, not simply topping up a future pension. That it makes some of us look forward to future tours where we can get to hear his solo material again, all the more so.

Set List:
1. Dance On A Volcano
2. Squonk
3. Dancing With The Moonlit Knight
4. Fly On A Windshield
5. Broadway Melody of 1974
6. The Return Of The Giant Hogweed
7. The Fountain Of Salmacis
8. The Musical Box
9. I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)
10. Horizons
11. Firth Of Fifth
12. Lilywhite Lilith
13. The Knife
14. Supper’s Ready

15. Watcher Of The Skies
16. Los Endos

See more of Lisa photos here