At the end of 2010, the Metropolis television company organized a series of intimate concerts at their London studios, each showcasing a ‘heritage’ act to 140 people, each of who paid £175 for the privilege. Apparently a glass of champagne and a meeting with the artist was also included in this price. The series included Caravan, Barclay James Harvest, The Zombies, Roy Harper, Bill Nelson and Van der Graaf Generator. The idea was to professionally film the performances in a studio environment and broadcast them on national TV. Each audience member would get a DVD of the show, which would then made available to the public at some later date.In the event, the TV showings never materialized, with DVD releases and now these joint DVD/CD versions eventually appearing with apparently little or no consultation with the artists. Several of the acts concerned have all but disowned these releases, having only agreed to performances for the increased visibility of national TV. It was with low expectations then that I approached the Van der Graaf Generator title in the series, not helped by the uninviting, generic packaging.
Van der Graaf Generator have always been a very different proposition live than on record, careering off at reckless tangents that could result in train crash disasters or adrenalized transcendence. Sadly, little live footage exists from their ’70s heyday – just a couple of fairly true to the album TV appearances in Belgium and France. Since the 2005 reunion of course, there has been no shortage of footage, with just about every gig the group has played appearing online, in addition to an official DVD release of an excellent 2007 set at Amsterdam’s Paradiso.What this new DVD offers is the same intimacy that the audience remortgaged their houses for. The event appears to have taken place in a space the size of a tube train carriage, with audience, band and cameramen crammed together like Northern Line rush hour commuters. In such a controlled environment, the sound quality is excellent, although this is a bit of a trade off against the wilder energy of the group’s usual live performance, which is understandably slightly stifled in this situation. Camera angles are close and intimate to the extent that any casual viewer should have no excuse to not be able to master the VdGG repertoire themselves, given the detailed and lengthy studies of Hugh Banton and Peter Hammill‘s fingering!
Part of the deal was the première of three new songs from the then unreleased A Grounding in Numbers album, which are delivered with more life than the slightly lacklustre studio versions. Sadly, the rest of the set is not as well chosen as might be desired, with the inexplicable inclusion of dull songs like “Lifetime” and “Nutter Alert” – surely the low-points of the group’s 21st century incarnation – detracting from serviceably enjoyable run-throughs of ’70s classics “Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End,” “Lemmings” and “Man-Erg.” Happily, it’s a trio of songs from 2008’s excellent Trisector that save the day, with quite wonderful readings of “Interference Patterns,” “Over the Hill” and “We are not Here.” All in all, this is an enjoyable and accurate record of VdGG at their not quite best. However, VdGG at their not quite best is still considerably better than 99% of groups at their peak.
Despite the controversy over the release of these live concerts, the quality of this release actually inspired me to go out and buy the Roy Harper and Bill Nelson titles in the series, both of which are equally recommended.