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We Are Not There

Van Der Graf Generator brings its prog-rock sounds to Beachland Ballroom
by John Petkovic/Plain Dealer Reporter
Tuesday June 23, 2009, 2:36 PM

Van Der Graf Generator never made big.

But, hey, they never became bombastic, either.

Unlike contemporaries such as Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer, the British prog-rock band remains an underground band. Their only run-in with stardom was in 1971, when they topped the charts -- in Italy.

But that hasn't stopped the cult band from regrouping more than 40 years after forming in Manchester, England. Thursday, the band will hit the Beachland Ballroom, as part of their first U.S. tour. Ever.

"People lumped us in with the prog-rock bands of the day, but we never really fit in," says VDGG leader Peter Hammill, via phone from Boston. "Actually, we've always been musical misfits.

So much so that the band continues to attract an unlikely coalition of fans.

You see, prog-rock -- short for "progressive-rock" -- was mocked by punk rockers, who saw it as an overblown rock production wallowing pomp pretension and never-ending drum solos.

Yet, Van Der Graf escaped such scorn.

"The bigger prog bands were trying to expand rock music into romantic classical," Hammill says. "We tried to mix R&B, and blues and soul -- all that aggressive music -- with modern classical music."

In other words, instead of majestic pomposity, VDGG bridged the gritty underpinnings of rock with 20th century experimental composers such as Stravinsky, Stockhausen and Ligeti.

Such musical ambitions made VDGG a hard sell, commercially. But it makes them one of rock's most unique and influential bands, says Cleveland musician-writer Dave Swanson.

"They spent their entire career going against the grain," says Swanson, who plays in the Rainy Day Saints. "Instead of Yes or Genesis, they weren't entrenched in melody -- they were violent sounding and with the energy of punk way before punk."

The violence went beyond the music at times. The band's shows in Italy in the early 1970s were often plagued by riots, led by communists and fascists alike.

The band members -- Hammill, who plays keyboards, is joined by keyboardist Hugh Banton and drummer Guy Evans -- never rioted themselves. But they bickered and broke up a number of times.

"We've been broken up more than we've been together," says Hammill. "But there's something about volatile personalities that makes for volatile music."

Hammill doesn't see that changing, even at age 60.

"We're still volatile and we might be the most volatile sounding band going, even though we sit down when we play," says Hammill. "We're sitting because we're playing keyboards and drums -- not because we're old."