Singer-Guitarist Steve Hackett Defies the Odds and Gets Better with Age

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click to enlarge Steve Hackett performing at Hard Rock Live last year. - Scott Sandberg
Scott Sandberg
Steve Hackett performing at Hard Rock Live last year.
A year ago, former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett made his long awaited return to the Cleveland area for a show at the Hard Rock Live after a prolonged absence. At the time, he was already several years into touring behind Genesis Revisited II, an impressive effort that found Hackett putting an updated spin on more than two and a half hours of music from his former group. 

The touring production of Genesis Revisited was something that was similarly irresistible to promoters and when Hackett spoke with Scene last fall, he made it clear that the offers were continuing to flow in for more and more tour dates. But he had his sights firmly set on continuing his solo career and had a new album ready to go.

“It’s basically a rock album,” he told us at that time. “But on the other hand, there are lots of orchestral salvos that come along, ambushing the rock band. There’s also campfire stuff, folk music and quite a lot of Eastern influence on it as well. You know, really at my age, people shouldn’t be getting better, should they? They should be winding down. But I seem to be getting better. I seem to be getting more adept at not just playing the guitar, but writing songs that people want to hear as well and I’ve finally done an album where I’ve done most of the vocals myself. I’ve finally found a style that works for me. It’s a very powerful album. I can’t sing its praises enough — I think it’s exactly what everyone’s looking for right now.”

Wolflight, the new album he references, was released earlier this year; it’s been warmly received by both critics and fans. Hackett is also celebrating a double disc reissue of GTR, his 1986 collaboration with Yes guitarist Steve Howe.

“It proved that it was possible to cross over and change people’s ideas of what the guitar could do,” he says, looking back on GTR. “Keyboard was reigning supreme at the time and we were part of the guitar fight back. I think we started something. We showed that guitars were viable again.”

The GTR album spawned a hit single with “When the Heart Rules the Mind,” which charted inside the Top 15 of the Billboard singles chart, but the album itself faced some harsh criticism, including one famous review from J.D. Considine, who summarized his thoughts on the record in Musician magazine with three letters: “SHT.”

Hackett doesn’t recall the review and says, “I think that people tend to remember negative criticisms, but I think that when you’re in the thick of it, you have to be very focused if you want to have a hit. I think at that point in time, I’d proved whatever I felt I had to prove with Genesis. And then I thought, “If I could prove it with GTR again, then people would think, ‘Well, it’s not just a coincidence.’”

Nearly 30 years later, he has fond memories of the experience of making the album and touring behind it, even though it ended up being a brief entry in his career. He admits that the current reissue was one that caught him by surprise as he was already in the midst of touring with a crowded setlist agenda. He says that he’ll look to “honor” the album on a future tour when time permits. For now, Hackett is heading back to Cleveland for a second round at the Hard Rock. Fans can look forward to nearly three hours of music from the guitar legend, neatly split into two distinct sets, one that will cover his solo work over the years followed by a second set of additional Genesis favorites that Hackett is bringing out on tour for the first time. We caught up with the guitarist via phone on the eve of the U.S. tour to get a preview of the show.

We’re looking forward to the From Acolyte to Wolflight tour, which is just about to kick off here in the States. How have the initial shows been going overseas?

Very well indeed. It’s been really, really good. The tour was set up so that I would do some Genesis stuff. I mean, I had been touring Genesis Revisited for two or three years, doing exclusively Genesis stuff. And then I had a hit record over here and by then the dates were already set and advertised as From Acolyte to Wolflight, my first and last [most recent solo] album. And then they wanted it to be billed as a part-Genesis show. So I said, “Okay, we’ll do that, but of course we’ve got the other stuff. We’ve got to honor all of the gods here.”

We’ve got to honor the fact that the latest album is a hit and I’m quite happy to still carry the torch for the early Genesis stuff, the era where we were all involved with Peter Gabriel when we were all writing together as a five man team. I fought hard for that in the early days too. I’m still proud of it, so I’m happy to do stuff from all of these eras. What I hadn’t banked on was the fact that the GTR album was going to be released as well and all of the interest that there is in that. So eventually I’ll try and honor that too. I won’t be able to do it with these shows, but I’d like to think that live at some point, I’ll try and honor that again as well.

Fans are getting the best of both worlds with these shows, one set of solo material and one set of Genesis material. For the Genesis material, I know you really made an effort to pick out a different set of songs this time around. How did you go about selecting that material?

It’s entirely determined by the fans. The songs that the fans wanted to hear that I did not do in the past two or three years were [songs like] “The Cinema Show,” I think was top of the list, they wanted to hear, “Get ‘Em Out By Friday,” “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway,” “Can-Utility And The Coastliners,” off of Foxtrot and several others. And of course, we still include “The Musical Box” and “Firth of Fifth,” because they bring the house down each time. There’s also the addition of “After The Ordeal” and stuff from the [Voyage Of The Acolyte] album, “Shadow Of The Hierophant,” which also brings the house down. The tour de force factor is there with those and the live versions of the Wolflight things work terribly well live too.

Different singers do these different things at different points and I’ve got Roine Stolt of the Flower Kings and Transatlantic — he’s the perfect lead guitarist, but he’s also brilliant on bass and 12-string, so we try and play to everyone’s strengths. We have Nad Sylvan, the fellow Swede, along with Roine Stolt, singing the Genesis stuff and I sing the solo stuff and there’s the harmonies too, so most of the guys in the band sing. It’s a terrific show — it’s nearly three hours long with a break in the middle. We do two sets. At least that’s the way we’ve done it in Europe. Whether or not American venues will want us to do it with an intermission, I don’t know. Some places are set up for that, other places like to close their bars and forget it. We’ll see about that. It certainly works very well taking a break in the middle and then we become another band!

Are there songs in this set overall, whether they’re solo or Genesis that you haven’t played prior to this touring?

Certainly, yes. I have not played all of the Wolflight stuff, of course. I’ve only played “Can-Utility And The Coastliners” from Foxtrot. It was only played about two or three times in Italy, way back in 1972 in front of three men and a dog, literally. We decided that wasn’t going to work live. But it became a classic. It’s part of that top selling album. And so that’s been wonderful — doing that live has been brilliant. It’s worked out really, really well. “The Cinema Show,” I haven’t played since 1973. “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway,” I have not played since 1975. You know, it feels great to go back to those thing and to have them revalidated, as it were. To celebrate them, is part of their continuing commerciality, I think.

“Can-Utility And The Coastliners,” as you mentioned, is one that you haven’t played since ‘72. What do you think it was that made it possible to get an arrangement that works this time around?

Part of it is the fact that you’ve got the willingness of the band to play it, because they love it and they grew up listening to it. The other thing is that beyond that, we have a band that are great players, who are able to do that. Plus, I do it all on six-string electric and use a chorusing effect to make it sound like 12-string and Roine Stolt uses [something] that does a very good impression of 12-string as well. Roger King also plays keyboards with 12-string in there, so we all tinker away together and it creates that Genesis sound, that sort of mass arpeggio thing that works so well.

And of course now, you’ve got pipe organ at the push of a button and we don’t just use Mellotron for the orchestral sound in it, we use Mellotron plus [other things], so it’s multi-samples of these things to [create the overall sound]. And we do it in surround sound as well, which is the other thing that I’m often forgetting to mention. You get Genesis in surround, plus you get my original stuff in a sense, to a level of audio that you’ve never really heard before. It’s all part of the fight back of audio — I refuse to believe that you’ve got to have a show full of visuals to the extent to where the audio is only part of it. I mean, I’m an audiophile — that’s what I do — I like to make albums. So I adore surround sound and I love radio — that’s what I do and that’s what I grew up listening to, falling in love with music.

I’m an albums animal and I love doing shows. I like doing that and I don’t think I would be prepared to make the compromises to make hit singles these days. I can’t quite see that, unless it’s something that is natural and it’s part of a film soundtrack. If they take on board what you’ve got and you’ve tailored it to it, then it will be the same discipline as GTR, of course, and that’s fine.

What’s next after you finish touring for this record?

Well, I’ve moved into a new house and by the time I finish touring, it will be three or four months on the road. I’ve got to build a new studio in the garden and then I’ll start work on new stuff. But I’m writing all of the time. I work on paper, I work with the guitar and I have some things already recorded. I think I will continue the kind of style of Wolflight, which is a kind of pan-genre approach, all inclusive of many different styles of music. I’d like to think I’ll be working with people from all over the world to make the kind of music that is as adventurous perhaps as some of the psychedelic [music] meeting orchestras that I think people did so well way back in the day. It showed it was possible to be extremely esoteric, but also be extremely commercial at the same time. That’s the challenge for all of us.

Steve Hackett North American Tour 2015, 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4, Hard Rock Live, 10777 Northfield Rd., Northfield, 330-908-7625. Tickets: $37.50-$75,
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