MR.HACKETT AT SHEPHERDS BUSH EMPIRE 14/11/09
Review by Russ Lewis

No superlative could match the experience.

Yeh, sure, we're fanboys young and old, but last night's gig was simply sublime. Everything you wanted it to be, and more. From first to last, they blew the roof off.

For starters, IMHO this is the finest ensemble the maestro has assembled to date, and, joy of joys, the sound quality was crystal clear. The technology has finally, and at very long last, caught up with Mr.Hackett's sonic imagination -- delivering every nuance, twist and turn, from the FFs to the PPs, and all points in between. Big kudos to the man on the desk. Blinding work.

As for the players... Killer chops delivered with what was clearly a passion for the great man's ouvre. No jobbing session men (and woman) these. They all deserve to be mentioned in dispatches, but in Nick Beggs -- whose work on Rickenbacker and Chapman stick was outstanding, not to mention the subsonic rumble from the Taurus pedals -- Mr.Hackett seems to have found the perfect foil. An arresting stage presence, Beggs interplay with drummer (and occasional vocalist) Gary O'Toole and windman extraordinare Rob Townsend was brilliant to behold.

Unsung hero of the night was the redoubtable Roger King, that most self-effacing of sidemen, whose tasty keyboard work brought texture, shade and colour to tracks old and new, allowing Hackett's glorious lines to soar. And soar they certainly did.

Augmenting the line-up was the 'girl in the dress' Amanda Lehmann whose vocal contribution and choice guitar parts made her a very welcome addition to the crew. The four-part harmonies have never been sweeter, and she complemented Steve's vocal work brilliantly well, never more so than on new number, 'Emerald and Ash'. For the record, your correspondent is delighted to report that Mr.Hackett has never sounded in finer voice.

The tone was set with a stop-on-a-sixpence rendition of 'Mechanical Bride' and never faltered thereafter.

A cluster of tracks from the new release 'Out of the Tunnel's Mouth' followed close behind, and though but freshly minted already had the whiff of classic about them.

Never one to shy away from his heritage, Steve Hackett delivered on his back catalogue in spades, with a heart-warming selection of family favourites - not only from his solo output, but also from the Old Carthusians' collective.

A singalong Firth of Fifth brought roars of approval from the house and tears to many an eye when the solo was finally delivered by the man who was born to play it. Clean, brimful of tone and faithful to the simplicity of the melody, there was no need here for technoflash. We would have followed him anywhere, but Hackett's genius was to simply trust the notes, letting them work their magic to bring us all safely home. The theatre rose as one to show its appreciation.

An acoustic interlude which featured the maestro's brother, flautist John Hackett, on a great version of 'Jacuzzi' was a particular delight, and made all the more touching by the knowledge that their mum was in the house. Thank you, Mrs.Hackett, for gifting two men to the world who have brought such great pleasure to millions of appreciative listeners.

Yeh, it was kind of one of those nights. Homecoming, triumph and love-in rolled into one.

And then he was alone in the spotlight, one man and a nylon six string, and the harmonics that announce the arrival of 'Horizons' were ringing out into a hushed auditorium.

As if this 'flagship' of his 'doodles' were not enough of a treat -- the acoustic stayed in his hands as he began that most haunting of all his 'list' songs - 'Blood on the Rooftops'. Like Steve Hackett himself, down through the years 'Rooftops' has only grown in its power to grip, move and astonish. It's the audio equivalent of Seance on a Wet Afternoon, or a ghost story by M.R.James. After Dark in the Playing Fields. Eerie, disquieting, and resonant of an England already slipping out of view at the time of writing, 'this' was the true voice of Britain before The Daily Express. Dark and grey indeed.

Its companion piece, the aptly titled 'Serpentine Song', also made the set-list; reaching back even further in time to our hero's childhood memories. Given Hackett's overwhelming abilities as composer and player, it would be easy to overlook his talent as a lyricist, but as a chronicler of the English condition he is simply without equal. And 'Serpentine Song' is no exception to the rule. The economy with which he brings the scrapbook of memory to cinematic life is nothing short of breathtaking.

Tonally, if 'Rooftops' is the approaching storm, then 'Serpentine' brings us into the light after the rain has passed. All is mended.

But was he done? Was he heck as like? One treat followed hard upon the heels of another as he spoiled us and indulged us rotten. 'Fly on a Windshield/Broadway Melody of 1974'; a thumping 'Los Endos'; and a killer encore of 'Clocks' -- crivens! we even got a touch of the blues and a nod to Joe Bonamassa with 'Still Waters.'

That 'Spectral Mornings' , 'The Steppes', 'Slogans' and 'Everyday' appear so far down in this review, the reader should not infer that they were also-rans, merely that such was the generosity of the feast set before us by that most considerate of chefs de cuisine that there is not room here to lavish on each dish the praise it so richly deserves.

Now, having tortured that metaphor until the pips squeaked... I guess it's time to bring things to a close.

Did I like it? Was it any good? Hmm. Whaddaya think?

Still pushing the boundaries after all these years; still, and to our great delight, following his darkling muse; the one word which kept running through this listener's mind last night was 'Vindication'.

It can't have been an easy choice to - in the words of his erstwhile colleague - 'step right out of the machinery' back in 77, but time has proved Steve Hackett's wisdom. Over the past 32 years (count 'em) he has created a body of work beyond reproach, and we are the richer for it. Never afraid to experiment, never afraid to take the road less travelled -- against all the odds, and often in the teeth of a howling gale blown by the idiot wind of musical fashion, he has continued to create, forge and deliver his memorable tales of mystery and imagination. He has repaid the unflagging faith of his many devoted fans around the world a million times over. Thanks, Mister Hackett.

IN SUMMARY, THEN...

In a game of two-halves, the lad from Pimlico came through -- as we always knew he would -- and did himself (and us) proud.

Russ Lewis