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Steve Hackett on Staying Creative During the Pandemic

Steve Hackett - Under a Mediterranean Sky Steve Hackett - Under a Mediterranean Sky

Steve Hackett found himself with some unexpected down time when live performances were scuttled by COVID-19, including a planned anniversary tour built around the Genesis album Seconds Out. So he did what any self-respecting guitar hero would do: Hackett busied himself in the studio.

He put the final touches on his latest recording, ‘Selling England By the Pound’ & ‘Spectral Mornings’ Live at Hammersmith. Along the way, he also penned his autobiography, A Genesis In My Bed. Then he got to work on his upcoming acoustic album, Under a Mediterranean Sky.

In short, Steve Hackett did what he always does: create challenging, fulfilling music for himself and his fans, while telling some stories along the way. "Music without prejudice, that’s what I’m after," he said in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown. "I was billed … to do Seconds Out, then the world closed down. I caught the last flight home from Philadelphia."

Instead, he started writing and recording music. Given that Hackett was at home, he opted against the big, bold sound of his electric-rock projects, instead going for something quieter yet just as expansive. "At home, I play lots of nylon," Hackett said. That’s how Under a Mediterranean Sky became a return to the acoustic guitar. "I did it in lockdown amongst other projects."

The title references his journeys, both as a touring artist and on other trips with his wife Jo. Unable to travel due to the coronavirus, he revisited some of his favorite places musically. Steve Hackett plays nylon, steel-string and 12-string guitars, as well as Iraqui oud and charango from Peru. He’s accompanied at various points by stalwarts Roger King (keyboards) and Rob Townshend (flute and sax), his brother John on flute, Christine Townsend (no relation to Rob) on violin and viola, with Franck Avril on oboe, Arsen Petrosyan on duduk, and Malik Mansurov on tar.

"I had a lot of fun doing it," Hackett said. He extended special praise to King, a longtime aide de camp who is also credited with programming and orchestration: "That worked out really, really well. He had the orchestra ready to go and did it on a shoestring. It’s the best sound."

If it’s his rock side you prefer, check out ‘Selling England By the Pound’ & ‘Spectral Mornings’ Live at Hammersmith, released Sept. 25. Like many of Hackett’s recent live albums, it includes both recreations of Genesis classics and in-concert interpretations of his extensive solo catalog. His three dozen-plus recordings range from acoustic showcases to electric outings, from progressive rock to classical; two of his studio efforts document presentations of songs by his former band, hence the Genesis Revisited sobriquet.

The original studio Genesis recreations led to the addition of vocalist Nad Sylvan to Steve Hackett’s touring band, featuring King, Townsend (woodwinds, additional keyboards and percussion), Gary O’Toole (drums and vocals, who left in 2019 and was replaced by Craig Blundell), and a revolving cast of bassists doubling on 12-string: Lee Pomeroy, Roine Stolt, Nick Beggs, and currently Jonas Reingold. The assemblage grew adept at interpreting both Hackett’s material as well as that of Genesis.

The Live at Hammersmith release features performances of the entirety of 1973’s Selling England By the Pound, perhaps the best-loved Genesis album of all time, as well as the bulk of 1979’s Spectral Mornings, Hackett’s third solo release. The band is tight and engaging, and Hackett is simply one of the finest guitarists around.

While he loves to play acoustic, the vast output of Steve Hackett’s recordings are based on electric rock guitars. The same is true of his tours, and even after the pandemic is under better control and live shows once again become possible, he’s doubtful he’ll be doing an acoustic tour to promote Under a Mediterranean Sky. Hackett said crowds, including most of his fan base, like to attend concerts that promise a spectacle. That makes a delicate acoustic show a challenge, both artistically and financially.

He puts the difference succinctly: "I want to draw people in," Hackett said of acoustic shows – not, "Are you ready to rock, Tokyo!"

Hackett’s increasing popularity also militates against the possibility of an intimate show at a smaller theater: "I’ve been playing larger and larger venues like Albert Hall. Appearing on stage with just an acoustic guitar (in a big hall) is asking for it. As much as I’d love the delivery of Under a Mediterranean Sky, I don’t think it’s fair to ask people not to fidget." In addition, there’s the vast catalog of progressive-rock tunes he’s written, plus material from the six Genesis albums he contributed to.

Hackett is rightfully proud of the music the band made during his tenure. "Genesis went its own sweet way. It was not designed to please the gods of MTV. I like to think it was groundbreaking. I’m going with something that caught John Lennon’s attention," he said, referencing Lennon’s praise for Selling England back in the day during a radio interview.

He’s also quick to cite his own band’s musicality, both present and past members. That extends beyond King to Townsend, his sister-in-law and occasional guest Amanda Lehman on guitar and vocals, his brother John, and the members of his rhythm section, Blundell and Reingold. "Craig has been just incredible. The rhythm section alone has been great to listen to. It’s like cannons meeting iron girders.

"Gary [O’Toole] has a wonderful voice," Hackett said of his former drummer. "He’s a great musician. I think he did the definitive version of ‘Blood On the Rooftops.’" He quickly followed that up by noting he loves the original version from Wind and Wuthering sung by Phil Collins, as well.

Reminded that he’s also recorded with former Spock’s Beard drummer and vocalist Nick D’Virgilio, a current member of Big Big Train who was also on the last Genesis studio effort, Calling All Stations, Hackett mused about the prowess of those three: "What is it about singing drummers?" he asked, with a laugh.

Of course, it’s not all about the drummers. In his autobiography, Steve Hackett noted some of the guitarists who impressed and inspired him, like Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop with the Butterfield Blues Band, Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Jeff Beck. He talks about the impact of Butterfield on his then-nascent harmonica playing, too.

The book also discusses in detail other musical heroes, from fellow proggers like King Crimson to Bob Dylan. He credits them as well as old mate Peter Gabriel’s "Biko" in part with inspiring his own recent songs like "Behind the Smoke" from 2017’s The Night Siren and "Beasts In Our Time" from 2019’s At the Edge of Light which address global issues.

As one might expect from the title, much of the book discusses Hackett’s time in Genesis, the way he related to his bandmates and the music they produced. It’s obvious he still enjoys performing epics like "Watcher of the Skies" and "Supper’s Ready."

Meanwhile, this year promises to find Steve Hackett once again inspiring and influencing others. Under a Mediterranean Sky is due to be released Jan. 22. While he won’t be touring behind the album, Hackett is looking forward to a return to the concert stage: "As soon as the world is open for business, post-vaccine."

© Something Else, by Ross Boissoneau

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