The Pantages Theater may be the smallest sibling of the Hennepin Theater Trust. It’s a gorgeous venue that hosts a range of incredible musical acts. All the feel of either the State or Orpheum with a greater sense of intimacy. Steve Hackett’s appearance last night was magnificent.
Let’s take a step back. The past year has seen a remarkable run of Hall of Fame musicians from Progressive Rock’s halcyon days. Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, Jon Anderson from Yes. Alan Parsons. The venues were full, the crowds locked in and the performances anything but a casual stroll down some nostalgic memory lane. Add early Genesis guitar virtuoso Hackett to the top of that list.
Growing up, I loved a lot of different genres. But I confess that Prog Rock had as much impact as all the rest combined during my college days. Lucky for me, and most of those in the audience around me. It was the finest music ever done.
I understand those are words destined to spark debate. However, I know I can’t be shouted down because I’m preaching to the choir. Just look at the manner in which fans still react to the shows. Simply because it’s better and they know it. Better is a loaded word. What constitutes better? Like Jeffrey Lebowski, The Dude, intoned: “Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man!” But let’s walk through the explanation and how it played out last night.
There are times somebody might hanker for a cheeseburger on the grill and a cold beer. Absolutely nothing wrong with that! That’s most rock and roll or blues. On the other hand, there are gourmet seven course meals out there. Meals that will challenge and take you on a journey. Admittedly, as soon as you do that, you’re going to lose some people. It isn’t that they are less sophisticated (OK, maybe I throw that out just so I don’t offend people). More that the palettes aren’t quite as well defined.
Music is funny. For the most part, when someone goes deep into a genre, they grow up immersed in it. So it’s no surprise you won’t find a lot of young people at a Prog show. This was my crew. I smiled at all the vintage garb. Snakeskin pants. Fringe. A King Crimson T under a blazer (funny that!). I Know What I Like In Your Wardrobe.
Steve Hackett and his prog brethren were better, however, for a couple more inarguable reasons. First, the quality of player in those bands was off the charts. Musicians’ musicians. Classically trained. Steeped in jazz. Able to seamlessly cross boundaries and integrate sounds and techniques that would leave most rock and rollers in the dust.
Those great Brit bands also had the advantage of having their run during music’s golden age. A time quite different from today. The bands which had proved themselves, bands like Genesis, were encouraged to re-write the rules. Given carte-blanche in the studio to raise the bar. It was a musical arms war. Bigger sounds, new fusions, bigger stage shows, more expensive production facilities. After all, there was a turntable arms race going on to support it. Talk to most 70’s audiophiles and they’ll tell you they continued to obsess over every component in their system because of bands like Genesis, Yes and Pink Floyd. Not because of The Stones, Aretha Franklin or Creedence Clearwater.
Finally, albums were more than just a collection of current songs. They were journeys. Designed to flow from the moment the cartridge touched the record until the last note on the opposite side. It was almost sacrilegious to carve out a single track (if you could even manage it, because the only reason for a pause was…a pause). The only compromise was to listen to a side. And that was, generally speaking, at least a 20 to 25 minute commitment. The music of Prog genre was not offered to the casual listener. It was offered to the musical traveler.
You know that never ending debate about Desert Island albums? Those 10 discs you had to take with you before the shipwreck? We’re not talking here about the greatest albums ever done. Leave that to Rolling Stone or The Current. I’m talking about those that are your personal favorites. The ones you’ve worn out, multiple times. Albums that you purchased on vinyl, transferred to cassette, upgraded to CD, migrated to on Spotify and finally full circle, repurchased. Re-mastered on 180g vinyl.
Genesis’ 1973 opus Selling England By The Pound is one of those records for me. Selling England was the penultimate studio album prior to Peter Gabriel’s departure for unfettered success as a solo artist. Genesis had a string of critically acclaimed albums in their wake. Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot. But the band had yet to cross into the big time that would move them from theater to arena like Yes, Pink Floyd or King Crimson. Selling England changed all that, producing the single that would reach the masses: I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe). Like all of that early Genesis, the songs were co-written by the band. Steve Hackett’s hand and influence is undeniable.
The final tour that incorporated all of the original musicians, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, was Gabriel’s swan song. Drummer and back up vocalist Phil Collins was drafted to fill his shoes. In fact, the next two albums Trick Of The Tale and Wind And Wuthering, did little to change the approach. They are brilliant albums and continued to add to the band’s popularity. But by the later 70’s, Collin’s penchant for writing radio friendly hits had taken over and the band headed off in a different direction. A direction which made them one of the most popular bands in the world while alienating most of their earliest fans. Hackett helped carry them to that level before stepping off to do his own thing.
I’m not too familiar with Hackett’s own thing. But we got a big dose of it in the opening set. Anyone who heard it, heard the sound of early Genesis. Huge and sprawling. Brawling and refined. At one point, the band turned on a dime from a delicate, ethereal drift to an explosion of dissonance which literally made me jump in my chair. Who else can do that?
Rules and boundaries went straight out the window. Time to actively engage. To crawl through the caves and to be buoyed up on the currents. Time for a revelation. Right behind the stage, 50,000 fans were packed into Target Field for post season baseball. And I’m a huge Twins fan. At one point, I almost reached into my pocket for my phone to check the score. Then that little voice. ‘Are you crazy? Why do you want to know anything going on outside Pantages?” Hackett’s music asks you for the time to be fully engaged. Otherwise, you miss it. That’s what makes the stuff “better”; like I mentioned at the outset. The audience hangs on every note.
Alright, I know some of you may have answered a text, checked a news feed or the Twins score. You know who you are. And Twins fans, I ask you now: Was it worth taking your eyes from the stage?
The second set was Selling England in its entirety. I was in heaven. Drifting, singing. Just like everybody else. In my humble opinion, there isn’t a single wasted moment on that album. Where it seemed appropriate, the band was able to duplicate some tracks while breathing new life into others. The only adjective I can offer to describe the audience sitting around me is ecstatic.
Normally, a rock band has a focal point. You watch the vocalist. If the lead guitar rips a solo you turn your attention. In this album, during this show, the focus is constantly changing. Each band member working full tilt. So I watched fans being drummers, playing air guitars, hammering out bass lines or tinkling over the keys. And singing every world. The audience became the band.
As the last notes of Aisle Of Plenty faded, Hackett introduced Deja Vu, an unfinished work from the Selling England sessions that never found the album. It was a highlight. And would have fitted seamlessly into the album. A beautiful melody.
But you don’t go out on a beautiful melody. You go out dancing on a volcano. That song from Trick Of The Tale was muscular and animated. The encore was cut from the same cloth. Two of the movements from that same album’s Los Endos. As the house lights came up, the band moved to the front of the stage to greet the audience. It seemed as if as many people were headed to the stage as to the exits.
This one will stick with me for awhile. It was old school and it was best school. Soaring music. Musicianship that was jaw dropping. A few lights and fog. Theatricality when it made sense. An absence of it when the music demanded the players take a back seat. Back in the 1970’s any college kid could come up with $6 and see some of the greatest bands to ever grace a stage. All you had to do was camp out on the sidewalk to ensure the show didn’t sell out in front of you. Maybe it was our youth which convinced us that a particular prog rock show was life altering. Or maybe, as Hackett demonstrated last night, it really was better.