Peter Hammill at Cafe Oto, London - live review

Van der Graaf Generator's frontman brings the treats to this intimate show

Peter Hammill performing a solo set on guitar
(Image: © Will Ireland)

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Peter Hammill sends us off into the night with his closing song, the 1976 Van der Graaf Generator number Still Life, which ponders the pros and cons – mostly cons – of both immortality and death. ‘The toothless haggard features of eternity now welcome me between the sheets,’ he sings, curved and focused over the piano.

A Hammill show is possibly not for lightweights. But if you’re a convert to his unique vocal delivery, profound themes and musical nonconformism – which, obviously, everyone here is – it’s an unforgettably challenging evening of earnest emotional catharsis.

The second of a three-night residency in this intimate venue sees selections from his extensive oeuvre, plus a couple of new compositions for a mooted next album. Slim and tall in a white shirt, the 68-year-old sits at the piano for the first six songs, moves across to guitar for the next seven, and back to piano for the final five.

He’s not one for between-song patter – some moods are not meant to be broken – but he does make a jovial aside when neglecting to transfer his setlist from piano to guitar, and mentions that he won’t be indulging in the ritual of exiting before an encore. It’s heads down and, like the audience, total immersion.

Whether with Van der Graaf or his solo work, Hammill’s song structures and arrangements have always been as perverse as his voice is astonishing, which still ranges operatically, but rarely in the direction you’d anticipate. Yes, it’s an acquired taste, but like Syd Barrett or latter-day Scott Walker, it forces or persuades our ears to stay open. If it once sounded very English, it now sounds other‑worldly. And with that device, he probes his eternal themes of love, life, dislocation and decay. Like we said, it’s not a night for small talk.

Opening with Easy To Slip Away (1973) and Don’t Tell Me (1982), Hammill makes it clear right away that we’re being treated to a true lucky dip from his catalogue. Curtains, from 1992’s Fireships, is the first peak moment, as the story of an ailing relationship spits out sad, sorrowful but astute observations.

Anagnorisis is the first of tonight’s debuts, but it’s not the first time this most literate of musicians has shown an interest in Greek tragedy.

When Hammill moves into the guitar phase, his songs seem more confessional, even if Been Alone So Long (from 1975’s Nadir’s Big Chance) is a Judge Smith composition. Charm Alone, another new song, feels comparatively sprightly, but rest assured, the words are about as flippant as Stendhal.

Seated at the piano for the home stretch, including ’97’s Nothing Comes and 2009’s The Mercy, Hammill has his rapt fans transfixed and spellbound. There is, as he’s always intended, nobody else like him.

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.