Where does Steve go from here? It may seem a strange thing to say at the start of a review but I'm still, three days later, coming to terms with what I've just seen and heard... On October 24th 2013 a well known figure in musical circles stood with his band of exceptional musicians behind him and announced, "You know, I've always wanted to play here. It's a bit special. So welcome to the last night of the progs."
Steve Hackett and his merry crew then went on to deliver one of the most astonishing sets I ever had the privilege of seeing them play. Genesis Revisited II had arrived at the Royal Albert Hall and would leave an indelible memory on all who were lucky enough to be there. Fans had travelled many a mile. From Poland, Scandinavia, the USA and even Australia fans had gathered here to witness the event many thought would never happen - a former member of one of the world's greatest rock bands playing classic material from their back catalogue. They didn't make the journey in vain. Nearly two and a half hours of musical brilliance left many in the audience lost for words. Yes, it was that good.
"Dance on a Volcano" kicked the show off and it became immediately obvious that the band were on top form. The sheer power of this group takes some beating, yet there's a deftness of touch that is quite remarkable at times. Nad Sylvan's vocals soared into every corner of the iconic venue as the song grew in intensity. It was a mere taster of what was to come. With a stripped back lighting set it was more than apparent to me that Steve was saying to the audience "Sit back and enjoy the music. It's the music that matters - not the lights or assorted visuals." I don't know why but I found that both touching and daring at the same time. Cue first standing ovation of the night.
The first of many chances for the audience to sing along if they wished was served up next. They did wish and Nad Sylvan seemed more than a little aware that it was only the opening line of "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight" was truly his to sing alone. I'm sure he and the rest of the band could hear the fans from the stage, even as the prophetic song of growing corporate greed and creeping social apathy, so relevant in today's modern age, grew in intensity. Of course, all Genesis songs can never be called straight forward or easy but this one in particular stretches the vocal skills of a singer like no other. It's a tough number in that the range of different delivery styles needed in this piece tax ones vocal chords to the maximum, yet Sylvan carried it off with what seemed elegant ease, revelling in the linguistic - lyrical complexity of the song. It could have been, on another night, a show stopper in itself; the song that fans talked about and fondly remembered days, weeks or months after the gig. Tonight, however, it was seemingly just a building block, albeit a solid gold building block, as Steve and the band began to ramp up the anticipation level on this most special of evenings.
Sylvan left the vocals to Gary O'Toole, stickman extraordinaire, for "Fly on a Windshield" and "Broadway Melody of 1974", songs he covers with ease when touring with Steve and the Electric Band, but there was something else tonight, an edginess to the delivery that boded well for the rest of the night. Hackett and Lee Pomeroy were at their collective best, bass and lead guitar driving the songs forward with great precision and power, supplementing Gary's drums perfectly. The Lamb brought to life...
The first guest artists arrived in the shapes of Ray Wilson taking the vocals for a great rendition of "Carpet Crawlers" and Nad Sylvan's partner from Agents of Mercy, Roine Stolt, hammering out ferocious guitar licks with Mr Hackett as "Return of the Giant Hogweed" pounded out into the packed auditorium. I doubt that I was the only one who noticed a quite crazy, tongue in cheek video on the LED screens at the back of the stage during Steve's pioneering taping intro - the two Mr Potato Men on screen thrashing away at their guitars in fine heavy metal style.
The mercurial Nad Sylvan returned to grab the next song by the throat and almost single handily turned the intensity of the set up yet again. "The Musical Box" saw him grimacing, leering and generally behaving in a most unsettling manner - the Old Man so wonderfully portrayed by Peter Gabriel was back on stage albeit without the mask. Sylvan didn't need it. His vocal delivery alone assured the audience was transported back to the by-gone days of the early 1970s... The evil aura surrounding that most iconic of Genesis creations was actually palpable. And the audience loved every spine tingling note.
Just to show that power and menace aren't everything Steve found himself alone for a few minutes. A stunning rendition of Horizons - with more than a nod to "Blood on the Rooftops" - was both calming and mesmerizing at the same time, as Steve's fingers coaxed the very best from his trusted Yari acoustic. With his audience firmly under his guitar's spell it seemed to me that Steve visibly relaxed as the core of the band re-appeared to revisit "Wind and Wuthering". "Unquiet Slumbers for the Sleepers" meshed effortlessly into "In that quiet earth", two very different though obviously linked pieces from the last studio album that Genesis made with Steve bending the strings. Hats off to Roger King and Rob Townsend here; their musical craftsmanship in these two classic instrumental pieces was quite marvellous.
As all Genesis fans know this can only mean one thing to follow, the wonderful "Afterglow". Not a guest singer this time but Nad Sylvan again showing what a fabulous singer his is. Looking around me I know for certain that several members of the audience were in tears as this paean to love floated into the atmosphere with a grandeur that had the effect of pinning people to their seats until the last note had faded into almost total silence. Cue pandemonium and yet another well deserved ovation of the standing variety.
Ray Wilson was back on stage for an all time crowd pleaser in "I know what I like", trading vocal duties with the by now almost manic Sylvan. "Your Show!" they sang in unison - and it was so obviously meant. It was the audiences show as far as the band was concerned and never has it been more appreciated. Although very different in style and delivery the vocal performances of Wilson and Sylvan were nothing short of fantastic.
The man many expected to sing "Afterglow" was on stage for the next number. Guest vocalist John Wetton stood on the raised platform at the back of the stage to deliver a wonderfully understated version of "Firth of Fifth", a Hackett classic. Steve's soloing here was simply jaw dropping, even by his exceptionally high standards. He made it look so effortless, so easy. The true sign of a master guitarist at the very top of his game. Standing ovation? Of course.
Exit the band yet again. Enter the black clad Amanda Lehmann and Steve's acoustic. "Ripples" was stripped down to the absolute minimum, just the guitar and Amanda's supreme vocals. It was all so deceptively simple, so clean, so devoid of clutter that it was, for me any way, one of the highlights of the show. The contrast between this song and the rest of the set merely served to highlight once more what an astonishing variety of material was to be found in the classic Genesis years.
"We kind of put this one in as we toured," said Steve. "When I was with the band in the early days we really, really struggled with this one". Well there was no struggle tonight as "The Fountain of Salmacis" returned to the Genesis fold. Terrific stuff and a reminder of just how innovative the band was even in its early "learning" period. The surprise number of the night, and all the more welcomed for that.
The tension was almost palpable as the band went into stasis mode... Then came the words that all Genesis fans know by heart. "Walking across the sitting room..." Nad Sylvan leading the band vocally into that most loved, almost revered of Genesis songs, "Supper's Ready". The audience greeted the intro with cheers of sheer joy, as if they sensed the brilliance that was to follow. I wasn't the only one who noticed that Sylvan's vocals were actually getting stronger as the gig had progressed and now, as the song developed in all its strange, wonderful weirdness, he really let rip. The venerable venue shock as the audience yelled as one, "A Flower!" It was that sort of an evening. Then the powerhouse of "9/8" threatened to lift the baffled roof off the hall, all musicians save Sylvan hammering like madmen into this ferocious piece. Nad returned with a stunning vocal climax to the song that had many fans looking at each other in wonder. Where has this guy been hiding all his life? (Sweden as it happens, but that's another story). Fittingly it was Steve's tremendous guitar work that brought this epic to an end, the final note being greeted in almost total silence before all hell broke loose - in the nicest possible way of course.
Encore time...The band re-emerged to rapturous applause that grew into cheers as Roger King led the band into the all time classic "Watcher of the Skies". Cue Nad Sylvan in long black coat and blood red eyes beaming eerily into the audience, the "Watcher" come to life. What a great performance, what a band.
There could only be one song with which to finish this most astounding of gigs. The brilliant "Los Endos". Sounding like a fearsome jam session at first it quickly becomes apparent that this song is very, very tight indeed. There are no errors, no room for bum notes or missed cues - it's far too precise for that to happen. And yes, there was "An Angel standing in the Sun" as Sylvan delivered the single, killer line to this marvellous song, head thrown back, arms out stretched towards the audience. What a song. And what a set of performances.
Having watched Genesis with both Gabriel and Collins many, many times in the past I think a little bit of me was prepared to be critical, wanting to find fault as it were. But how when the band is this good? How when the set is so well delivered? How when Hackett goes out on a limb and recreates songs many of us thought we would never hear performed live again? It would not only be wrong to do so, it would be stupid.
As one Italian fan, the wonderful Maurizio Vicedomini, the photographic artist behind the wonderful visuals to be found on the GRII album, pointed out to me after the gig, "That was marvellous. I've never heard Steve or the band play better. My God... "Supper's Ready"... I don't think I've heard it played so passionately... It came from the heart". Or as fellow English photographer Lee Millward put it, "Don't even try to find a weakness in this band - there isn't one."
I agree wholeheartedly with both comments but would like to add one of my own...
On Thursday October 24th at the Royal Albert Hall in London a good few thousand people witnessed genius. It was a privilege to be there.