Just One More CD - A Merchandiser's Tale: Alan Hewitt - March 09
So here we are once more... (sorry wrong band there, at my age I get easily confused!). The story of how I got involved within the machinery of Steve's tours seems to have become more apocryphal as time passes, so here for the benefit of those of you who may not be familiar with it, here is the TRUE story in brief. Cast your minds back my beauties to mid 2003 when it first became known that Steve was about to tour the UK for the first time in almost ten years in suppprt of his To Watch The Storms album. I decided to send Steve's then manager, Billy Budis, an e-mail offering my "services" on the merchandise stall for "very reasonable rates". Expecting no reply at all ( there's a song title in there somewhere isn't there???). Or at worst the e-mail equivalent of a phonetic raspberry, imagine my surprise and delight when a week later one of those highly coveted "Access All Areas" pass thingies thudded through my letter box! Anyway, the end result was that I have had the pleasure of being present at more than my fair share of Steve's shows over the past few years in one capacity or another - as I am sure some of you may remember?!
With only a handful of gigs lined up in Italy this year, I did not think that Steve would require my services and was already debating whether or not to line up a flight to Rome so that I could at least see one of this year's gigs. After all, I hadn't seen Steve live for over three years and withdrawal symptoms were definitely setting in! I believe that the medical term for this condition is known as "Dementia Hackettitis". Anyway, I had made enquiries with a couple of travel agents when a telephone call changed the complexion of things entirely. The call was from Brian Coles, whom some of you may remember was the man in charge of Steve's 2003 and 2004 tours. As it happened, he was fronting up this year's "Italian Job" and had been asked by Steve to contact me to find out if I would be prepared to handle the merch on this short tour. Well... after about a nanosecond's hesitation, I accepted and then proceeded to dance round the room for the next half hour until I regained my senses.
The weeks between that call and finally setting off to join the tour party were among the slowest of my life but eventually I made my way down to Gatwick airport to ensure that i was there in plenty of time for our 8am check for the flight to Genoa. Airport terminals are depressing places at the best of times but at 1.30am they are even more so but there you go! However, there was a modicum of "in house" entertainment to be had this time courtesy of HM Constabulary who during my sojourn arrested not one but two individuals for nefarious activities. They let me go for some reason, though! Anyway, I was somewhat relieved when the familiar faces of Steve, Brian and the rest of the band finally arrived and we could check in for what was a really rather pleasant two hour flight to Genoa. I hasd never been to Genoa before and so this was really going to be quite an adventure. We arrived in the early afternoon and the first thing I noticed was that the weather was inordinately warm - no need for the winter woolies I had packed here, folks!
With a whole day's liberty before the first gig it wasn't long before we set off to explore the sights and sounds of Genoa. The city is a major seaport and as such was a hive of activity but it wasn't long before we were drawn to a rather nice little bar overlooking a marina which was full of very expensive looking yachts and motor launches - no signs of recession there then! With the sun cracking the flags, we opted to spend a couple of very pleasant hours here sampling some of the local beverages and catching a few rays.
Brian, Steve & Jo
Alberto Agostini who was acting as our translator/chauffeur and general good egg for the Italian promotors Blue Sky Productions, had told us that there was a meal laid on for us at a rather nice restaurant in the old town later that evening and so, after returning to the hotel to freshen up, we gathered in the hotel foyer where I was susprised to see a familiar face in the shape of long time Steve/Genesis fan, Mino Profumo. He was there with a couple of his friends and it was nice to have a chat with him while waiting for the rest of our group to arrive before setting off for the restaurant. The meal was everything you would expect of Italian cuisine; delicious and plentiful! However, whether it was the food or the wine, the evening saw one of the most unusual things I have ever seen happen. Perhaps it was a surfeit of wine or a momentary lapse of reason (there's an album title there, I know!) but one member of our party decided to pour himself a glass of balsamic vinegar and proceed to drink it much to the astonishment of those of us around him. Fortunately (for him) both the name of the party involved and the incriminating photograph remain locked up here at TWR HQ - for the present! The rest of the evening passed off with no similar occurrences and we eventually wove our way back to the hotel for a couple more libations before hitting the hay - big day tomorrow.
The day of the first gig dawned equally warm and bright and after a leisurely breakfast, we made our way to the venue for load in and later for the band to sound check. The Vaillant Palace is one of those venues which you didn't think existed anymore; a medium sized sports arena with room for about 2000 people. Just the right size for magic to happen without being lost in the echoey expanses of larger halls. Once again, soon after I arrived I spotted another familiar face-lift in the shape of Roger Salem, devoted Hacketteer and major contributor to Steve's biography. I happily chatted to Roger and his friends which included Mino again as they and I got the chance to watch the band run through their paces for tonight's show.
Soundcheck - Vaillant Palace, Genoa
Eventually duty called , and I had to make my adieus and set up the merchandise for the show. It is amazing what one appearance on a TV documentary can do for your profile. Several fans asked me, many even in hushed tones "are you Alan Hewitt?". I had to check my security pass to make sure but found that I was who it said I was -phew!
Showtime eventually arrived, and after packing everything away, I made my way into the hall just in time to see the band emerge on stage. Even after all these years, the shivers down the spine at a gig were still there, even more so when the band opened with a brand new number; Fire On The Moon which to my ears at least continued in the same trend as Steve's Wild Orchids album, a song of many layers and one which will surely be a belter once committed to his next waxing! There was a new addition to the ranks this time. I am ashamed to say that I knew little about Nick Beggs apart from his time with '80's popsters; Kajagoogoo but once he hit the stage you knew you were in the presence of a genuine talent. He augmented Steve not only in the bass department but also in the vocal department too and one of the repeated highlights of this and each subsequent gig was to be the wonderful harmony vocals that were achieved by the quartet of Steve Nick, Gary and Rob. From the new to the old with Every Day and Ace Of Wands next both given marvellous new treatments by the band.
The gig - Genoa
Pollution B made an ideal link to the windswept grandeur of The Steppes where once again Nick's bass and Rob's haunting flute overlaid Steve's desolate guitar performance to really bring the subject to life. Darktown too was given a new lease of life with Steve really hamming it up in the vocal department like the Lawrence Olivier on speed character I have referred to in my reviews - not for any faint-hearted luvvies this one! Slogans featuring the "Mighty Kingatron" was another awesome spectacle. We were given a moment or two to relaxe as the band took the pace down a notch with the glorious Serpentine Song, still one of my favourite songs by Steve and here tonight the band nailed it to perfection, Gary's vocals were simply perfect!
Perhaps the biggest surprise tonight was Steve's decision to perform Firth of Fifth in its entirety. Yes, ALL of it, including the piano introduction! Whether or not Roger felt any nerves as he started the song, I don't know but if so, they certainly didn't show and the rest of the band didn't put a foot wrong although Gary did have some problems with a faulty vocal mic but he took it in his stride and the applause at the end was both warm and well deserved. No show by Steve is complete without an acoustic set and tonight's was just as good as any I had seen. The acoustic trend continued with the delightful Walking Away From Rainbows in which Steve and Roger duetted magnificently. Personal highlight of the show next for me though. Ever since I first heard Blood On The Rooftops back in 1976, it has remained one of my most cherished Genesis songs. Steve's decision to dust it off and finally give it the long overdue concert performance it deserved back in 2004 very nearly finished me off but here it was again and equally as glorious with kudos to Gary for a magnificent vocal performance! Oh and yes, by the end, yours truly was doing a very good impression of a Squonk!
Back to some Rock n Roll, Hackett style of course, with Mechanical Bride which gave everyone a chance to ladder their musical tights and grab the audience by the scruff of its neck. This was in turn followed by Spectral Mornings - oh how the memories came flooding back as Steve opened up on this one! It was difficult to believe that it has been THIRTY years since I first had the pleasure of seeing Steve play this one live and time has not dulled its impact one single jot! The Wall Of Knives ( a reference to the impression Peter Green's playing had on a young Mr Hackett back in the 1960's I believe) formed a great (if raucous) link with Fly On A Windshield which was greeted by howls of delight from the crowd. If ever you have any doubts about Steve's contribution to The Lamb... then this should surely allay them - his playing was simply superb throughout!
Another trip back down Memory Lane for me with Please Don't Touch which has gained in stature over the last couple of tours and the ensemble playing here tonight lifted this one to new heights which were expanded as we reached the explosive aural orgasm that is A Tower Struck Down. It takes a good band to play this one and bring the nuances inherent within the musical structure out but Steve's new band had no such problems. With a rock solid rhythm section comprising Gary and Nick augmented by the talents of Steve himself alongside Roger and Rob there was no way this was going to be anything other than perfection. One surprise though was the inclusion of an extract from The Hermit which was a nice touch and one which the crowd seemed to appreciate.
Then we were really into the final strait beginning with the classic In That Quiet Earth which gave the entire band another opportunity to display just how good they are at translating some of Genesis's finest moments although as usual I did miss Afterglow (perhaps next time, eh Steve?!). Another new track followed, this one being one of the tracks which Steve had co-written with Chris Squire for the much talked about "Squackett" project. Titled Storm Chaser, it was as suitably dramatic as its title suggested and once again this was another example of harmony vocals at their finest and some damn fine rhythm from Nick and Gary to boot!
The show closed properly with what else? Los Endos of course, the Genesis Revisited version has grown in stature within the live context enormously since it first appeared over a decade ago now and the whole band really got their collective teeth stuck into it to round the show off in a suitably dramatic fashion. The band then took their well deserved bows but everyone knew that they were going to return to the stage for at least one encore. It wasn't long in coming and the metronome intro to Clocks had everyone on their feet cheering and stomping away. Always a live favourite, this version hurtled along like an express train driven by the awesome percussive talents of both Gary and Nick.
Then it was all over, two hours had flown by and it was time to pack up and head back to the hotel. With a reception like this one under their belts, I am sure that Steve and the guys felt quite pleased with themselves and deservedly so.
The following day saw everyone depart for the lengthy haul to the next destination; Schio, another place I had never been to before. Alberto organised our journey with consummate skill and the four hours it took to drive there flew by. Schio is situated at the foot of the Alps and the views as we approached the town were simply breathtaking. Even better for us, the venue was a mere 900 metres from our hotel! The Teatro Astra was a delightful little theatre/cinema which promised a great intimate vibe for the evening's concert. After sorting out some merchandising requirements, I was soon enjoying some excellent conversation with some of the locals who made everyone so welcome it was very much like an extended family. The gig itself was a sell out too which was excellent to hear and from the very start, the audience and the band developed a lively interplay which was to last for the entirety of the gig - Friday 13th and not a hitch in sight - what a relief!
Our next gig was at a different venue to the original one which had experienced technical difficulties so I was informed and so, instead of Cortemaggiore we were off to Pordenone, another little corner of Italy which I had never seen before. The venue was very much your typical rock club which promised a good vibe depending on how the crowd reacted. One little bonus for me was the arrival that afternoon of Steve's mum. June in the company of the ubiquitous Mr Nick Clabburn. June did not know that I was out on this tour and her expression when she saw me at the hotel was priceless. Steve's mum is, naturally his biggest fan and her enthusiasm is catching.
Ben Fenner & Steve Barnett hard at work - Pordenone
The afternoon was then spent watching the band running through their paces and making sure that everything was right for the evening's concert. Those of you who think that gigs just happen don't know the half of it. Ben Fenner and Steve Barnett who between them were managing the sound and lighting for this tour had their work cut out every night making sure that local technical difficulties were overcome and that the end result was as satisfying for the band as it was for the fans. Their dedication to their profession really beggars belief and the shows were a testament to their hard work. The band too went through everything with a fine tooth comb to ensure a perfect result for the fans. The show went off without any noticeable hitches and the crowd were generous in their applause especially when Steve announced his mum's presence in the room - bravo June!
Thanks to the change in venue, the following day was going to be something of a trying one all round. Everyone faced a six hour drive to get to our final destination: Rome. Those of us in the crew set off at the unearthly hour of 7am after a mere five hours' sleep. Mind you, the gold star award for persistence must go to Alberto Agostini who, as our driver got us there not only safely but comfortably! Sunday is a laid back day pretty much anywhere and it certainly was in Rome.
The gig - Rome
Eventually the doors were opened and the punters streamed in until the club was pretty much full. As for the show, well by now the band were into their stride and it went off without any problems or changes apart from a couple of songs being altered round in the running order just to confuse me (doesn't take much I know!). The crowd were extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic greeting everything with cheers and spontaneous applause which must have been gratifying. Steve looked extremely pleased and deservedly so. The entire operation had been a delight to be part of and with such a professional group of people working on it, the end result was as smooth and clean as you could expect.
And there you have it, the view from the merch stall so to speak. Once again, I have to say how much of a pleasure it has been to be part of the "Hackett Experience". I was genuinely not expecting to be doing this this time round and so every moment was a bonus for me personally. Yes, it's hard work and LONG hours but the thrill outweighs any such minor details. Put me down for the next one, boss!
None of this could have been possible without the help of the following people so I would like to thank.....
First of all, Steve and Jo for asking me in the first place. Brian Coles for his untiring patience when I was "at home to Mr Cock-up". To the guys in the band; Rob, Gary, Nick and Roger who gave 110% each and every night and made it all look so easy. To Ben Fenner, Steve Barnett, Richard Buckland and Steve Spring for their tireless work behind the scenes. And to mi nuovi e viecchi amici Italiani; Mario Giammetti, Mino Profumo, Roger Salem; Attilio Rovai, Bruno Cavicchini; Paolo Bolla; Marco Lo Muscio; Giulio Canova; Alberto Agostino and Vania Santi from Blue Sky Productions and Oscar our devoted driver and to anyone else I may have missed... mille grazie!
Text by Alan Hewitt. Photographs by Alan Hewitt & Roger Salem ©