Hackett has been prolific in recent years, but this was always going to be the big one.
Time: 21 Tracks / 63 and 64 mins
If there has been one near-perfect studio album that Steve Hackett has been involved in during his long career, it must be the Genesis classic Selling England by the Pound. So to play this in its entirety was a huge treat for fans. The same tour was celebrating forty years of his patchier solo album Spectral Mornings, as well as promoting his most recent release At the Edge of Light. It is unusual for a longstanding artist’s newer material to be so appealing and it added up to a highly promising tour, recorded here in all its glory.
After a brief introductory piece, the two starting tracks pump G-forces into the show: “Everyday” is surely the highpoint of Spectral Mornings. It acts as an overture here to all that follows, demonstrating the strongest features of his music: an almost poppy tune, achingly emotive guitar tones, appealing vocal harmonies – and that’s all before the second half of the track, where his guitar solo comprises a short succession of melodic hooks. Then the newer “Under the Eye of the Sun” shows that the guitarist’s muse has snuggled up even closer to him in recent years, as this would always have been a favourite. It has real guts.
The set then continues with another couple of fine tracks from the 2019 album. Although it expanded his reach into tones from world music, it is still a far more cohesive and consistent release than the rather scattergun Spectral Mornings, several tracks from the latter showing its diversity.
“The Virgin and the Gypsy” shows Hackett’s ability to float in airy atmospheres and demonstrates the strengths of the band. Amanda Lehman’s harmonies, some slow keys and flute intertwining with picked guitar all mix into a lovely blend. A shorter piece, “The Red Flower of Tai Chi Blooms Everywhere” also has a distinctive mood, even if it seems a little like a pastiche of oriental sounds.
But a reworked “Tigermoth” shows how Hackett can sometimes take one strong short idea and bludgeon it to death by repetition. “Clocks” similarly feels in need of development – and a three minute drum solo is not exactly what I have in mind to break up the repetitive bits! The title track stays on the right side of this, helped by a few more ambient interludes and some impeccable tone (as he shows in the whole release).
Then comes the second set. Selling England by the Pound is a masterpiece throughout. The great tracks that made it such a classic release have all been played extensively on Hackett’s tours, because they are immensely popular. “Firth of Fifth” with its transporting keys work and magisterial guitar solo, the delicately magical “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” and the sublime “Cinema Show” (complete with the “Aisle of Plenty” ending) continue to delight here.
As a complete album tour, it includes the songs that were often overlooked in favour of these epics. “The Battle of Epping Forest” – a punfest that must be virtually incomprehensible to Americans – gets a fine run out. Nad Sylvan does a fine job of capturing Phil Collins’ vocals on “More Fool Me,” and “After the Ordeal” is a much overlooked beauty. Rob Townsend’s soprano sax harmonies add an almost classical edge to the piece and Hackett’s improvisation towards the end adds feeling to his usual precision.
The only niggle is that the welcome extended version of “I Know What I Like” feels a bit waffly at the end. Hackett tends to let Rob Townsend add a sax solo here, bringing in a definite jazzy feel to the piece – and it works really well. It’s the extra guitar solo that feels a bit directionless.
For completists, the album section concludes with “Déjà Vu,” a Peter Gabriel co-write that would have been on the album, had there been room. Hackett has finished the piece with Gabriel’s blessing. At first, it felt like a bit of an interloper that failed to match the power of the rest of the album. But subsequent listens have revealed a gently loveable piece that feels like pure Genesis.
The encore is the usual “Dance on a Volcano” (excellent) and “Los Endos” (complete with the new unnecessary rock and roll beginning).
Hackett works with an excellent collective. Nad Sylvan has emerged from among several vocalists to be the singer of choice, not least because of his stage presence and vocal tone that so easily replicates those of Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins. Roger King has played keys for Hackett on and off since the beginning of his solo career and impresses with every recording. Rob Townsend’s multi-instrumental work adds a precious layer to the band’s sound, sometimes echoing keys lines, at others, enabling short new sections to songs. The ‘newcomers’ here are Blundell (who has worked with Steve Wilson) and Flower Kings' Jonas Reingold at the second guitar/bass side of the stage. Each one is as honed as Hackett himself in their roles.
Selling England by the Pound never loses its power to thrill. With so many fans probably wearing out versions of this album over the decades, a 2020 version with Blu-ray/DVD options and upgraded sound is a welcome alternative option.