Steve Hackett Sublime At The Pantages


My usual modus operandi when covering a show is to attend solo.  Enjoy the ride.  First and foremost, I’m a live music fan.  I don’t do it as a social pursuit.  And then write up my thoughts the following morning.  My brain has by then cooled off.  I can usually self edit down to one or two basic themes to describe my experience.  The hyperbole wanes.  It sounds, to some, like I know what I’m talking about.

Every now and again, I drive home and keep rolling simply because my senses are too lit to call it a night.  Those are the massive nights.  It’s good to know that, despite who knows how many shows, I can still get blown away.  Tonight’s one of those nights.  So I write with no brakes.  Hang on.

Couple quick confessions.  I’ve covered Steve Hackett before.  Last time he was in town, I ranked it one of my favorite nights of the year.  I am also an unabashed lover of the early Peter Gabriel led Genesis.  Hackett was his main collaborator.  I also still think that Prog Rock, in its heyday when these guys ruled, was the best that rock music ever got.  Certainly, it was the biggest.

Most serious music heads tend to be galvanized into a specific time, band or genre at some seminal moment in our teenage lives.  Something spoke directly to us.  Mesmerized us.  There was an image to which we felt compelled to aspire. It pushed our fashion.  Influenced our haircuts.  We sang those songs in the shower.  Right brain or left brain?  Some people got shocked; frozen in time.  Some just moved right on.  I’m glad to be one of those who got electrified.  Who can honestly point to something and say the passion runs as hot as the first time I heard it.  Because it’s impossible to separate the sound and my self.  Some of you will understand that.  Most of you will probably conclude I should wait until the next morning to begin to write. 

The Seconds Out tour captures a time for me when music seemed the most powerful; the possibilities for originality seemed boundless.  Prog Rock promised more.  It promised a magic carpet ride; something bigger, more complex, technological and colorful.  An alchemy.  Something more akin to the work of gods than man.

Told you there’d be hyperbole! 

But I’m thinking here about some of the themes in a great book by local author Steve Hyden called Twilight Of The Gods. A Journey to the End of Classic Rock.  In it, he reflects on that period in the early 1970s when a whole lot of musicians reached the rank of minor god.  Pretty good gig!  But excess, deaths, the democratization of music brought about garage bands and punk, the rise of media, the greed of the suits, etc. all conspired to render our gods mere mortals.  You mean to tell me that guys like Mick Ronson, Bowie, David Gilmour and Keith Richards are really just….blokes?  Well, maybe not Richards.  Keef really wasn’t human.

When that began to happen, rock began to change.  To my mind, not necessarily for the better.  There’s a fundamental difference between a rock god and a pop star.  The former is permanent.  And the latter?  Like Del Amitri sings:  “Every generation throws another Hero up the Pop Charts!” 

We don’t do gods much any more.  Maybe it’s too dangerous.  When you can track somebody 24/7, at some point you’re going to stumble into something heinous.  Human beings are fundamentally flawed.  Who wants to be caught out having to admit that their idol is actually a real bad dude?  We’ve learned to take the safe route and just put our favorites on a virtual pedestal.   Gone are the days we were inclined to carve their image in marble and place it in our front room.

Is that a good thing?  What’s so interesting about reality?  What about the value of fantasy? Isn’t theater still important?  You know, that time between curtains when we willingly suspend all our beliefs and engage in the story before us.  If Zeus steps from the back of The Guthrie Stage in a blast of smoke, then he’s goddamn Zeus! 

That’s the magic which Hackett brings us with the music of Genesis.  I, along with everybody else in the auditorium, was there to be served a heady stew of music and theater.  We came for the rock god.

During the encore we sat through an extended drum solo.  It brought the crowd to its feet.  It occurred to me how this is another indicator of how this deification deal has eroded.  Somewhere along the line, drum solos became pretentious.  We deemed them self indulgent.  Get to the point!  Admit it, you glance at your watch and wonder “Okay, how long is this going to take?”  Then decide: “Three or four minutes are fair because drummers need attention, too.”

Are we nuts?  How many rock classics are imbued with a massive drum solo?  It isn’t that there shouldn’t be drum solos!  It’s like standing in front of an artillery salvo.  If you were lobbing those shells out into the empty ocean and nobody was shooting back, who wouldn’t want to experience that?  The modern attitude on drum solos arose about the time that mere humans began playing them.  Drummers can be rock gods, too!  These things began back in the mythological days.  When we sat in an audience and watched a being who seemed somehow alien to our dowdy selves.  He or she would do things on an instrument that other humans simply couldn’t do.  I mean, what would you call them?  

If you know Hackett’s band.  Or if you were in attendance, you already know.  These guys are the creme of the crop in terms of sheer musical chops.  They can play circles around other rock stars.  They go 15 rounds because that’s the distance.  They don’t play together because they’re picking up a paycheck.  Or because they’re life long buddies.  They’re playing together because they actually found some other guys who could challenge them.  Allow them to transform to something other.

On two occasions, I watched Hackett stand front and center, bathed in colored lights and framed in fog, unleash a soaring 10 minute guitar solo/exploration/odyssey.  Took my breath away.  It occurred to me that, at least in my world, there are only two who could stand there and do that.  The other was David Gilmour emerging from the fog on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon Tour.  It worked then.  It works the same way now.

Interesting to note that I was with my wife and a young music friend.  A First Avenue employee, no less.  She shook her head bewildered.  “I’ve never seen anything like that!”  She experienced an echo of a time when music was allowed to be something more.

The night began with a quick 30 minute set comprised of Hackett solo material.  A couple familiars like Every Day and some brand new epics like the brand new The Devil’s Cathedral.  A 20 minute break before returning to the stage to deliver the Genesis double live album Seconds Out. 

We can sit around all night and debate what 10 Live albums need to go on the proverbial desert island.  In my world, Seconds Out is a no-brainer.  If you were sitting in that gorgeous Pantages Theater, I bet you agree.  (And I’d wager you had a blacklight and bong back in the day, too).  They played it front to back.  Eleven songs and a drum solo.  No stops.  A nearly two hour musical spectacle.

This business of resurrecting or featuring a classic Genesis album is something that Hackett has been doing for awhile now.  Fans love it because Genesis fans are anything but casual.  We go deep.  Lots of us desert island pickers were sitting in Pantages.  We all have a favorite.  We’ll argue our point long into the night.  (Okay, maybe we’ll shift allegiances from time to time, kind of like Who’s Next or Quadrophenia?, but isn’t that a good problem?). 

So that’s why touring this particular album is as alluring as it is challenging.  Seconds Out was produced in 1977 and was the final album on which Hackett was featured.  Peter Gabriel had departed a few years earlier and Genesis soldiered on by moving monster rock drummer Phil Collins to the front of the band.  In my opinion, the Hackett led, post Gabriel albums of 1976, Wind And Wuthering and Trick of The Tail were also brilliant.  But you also begin to hear the pop sensibilities of Collins pushing their way forward.  Until he’d finally drive the band to its greatest commercial success.  And right into the ground. 

Seconds Out is all Hackett.  It incorporates songs associated with both Gabriel’s tenure as well as Collins’.  That’s why I find it such a great joy.  It’s a time capsule from a time when Prog Rock was bigger than life.  It’s a root ball describing who I am.  It’s music which still soars and stretches toward the heavens like a Renaissance cathedral.  You just can’t weight it down with a jaundiced eye or some life induced cynicism.  You don’t get to just snack on it.  Most of all, it can’t be subjected to our On Demand tendencies.  

I’m reflecting on my last couple shows to get to this point.  For the most part, I see rock and roll bands.  I’m rarely disappointed in a rock and roll band.  I understand how it works.  I like what it does to me.  It can rate anywhere between a really good cheeseburger and a Manny’s steak. But I was in The Entry on Thursday for this Polish band called Trupa Trupa.  They were a revelation.  I really didn’t have words to describe it then or now.  What I loved was that there weren’t any rules.  Just really talented players tapped into something very strange and very inviting.  You had to work for it.  It challenged you.  If you engaged, you were richly rewarded.

That’s exactly what makes Steve Hackett’s stuff cool.  If you want it, it’s there in his hands.  It’s sublime.  He’ll gladly give it.  But you need to come to him and fully engage with the music.  Because he’s going to do what he wishes to do.  He’s earned the right.  Like surround himself with some of the finest musicians on the planet. Is he going to pack along a spectacle worthy of the material?  Of course he will.  Because when he steps onto the stage, the lights glow, and we sit before what seems an ageless elder. Abilities undiminished by the years.  The hair still flows.  Hands cascade like water.  And there’s this overwhelming sense that he’s pleased and amused that his mortal friends have come to hear him play.  It’s like sitting before one of the last remaining rock gods.

I’m well into my Social Security years and I’ve been doing whatever it takes to get into shows for half a century.  There is something remarkable when you attend a show with one of your idols.  One of those individuals who grounded you to a specific time, place and genre. Who was there in the beginning when you were molded from rough clay.  It’s this double edged sword.  You can sing every word and air guitar every note.  But there’s danger.  Will Ponce de Leon have delivered some cup from a fountain of youth that reinforces all your memories?  Or will we watch somebody’s granddad play us some songs we still really like?  Am I going to stand and admire the Mona Lisa?  Tell all my friends I attended the Exhibit?  Or will she stand, extend her hand and invite me to dance? 

The big question is whether you’re willing to risk bearing witness to a deity reduced to the ravages of mortality?  Particularly, if it’s one with a bust that features prominently in your private pantheon?  My answer is Yes.  As long as I get to dance with Mona Lisa.

What a remarkable time I had.  50 years ago that Hackett guitar first struck me like a bell.  It convinced me that the potential for music to move me was unbounded.  Tonight it was still ringing and undiminished.  It was music from a time when I musically came of age.  When the last of the dinosaurs roamed and the last of the rock gods stode the stage.

God, I love hyperbole.  Otherwise, if I waited until morning and applied some concise editing, I’d probably just say the night was perfect.