Steve Hackett’s day job

The legendary prog guitarist dishes about staying sharp and the hardest classical piece ever

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Steve Hackett brings his 24th solo album on the road and to the Boulder Theater on April 4.
Tina Korhonen

Even among its most ardently faithful adherents, there’s little dispute that the glory days of progressive rock — at least relative to its commercial cachet — have long since disappeared below the receding horizon line. The recent sad demise of keyboardist Keith Emerson — reportedly despairing over the nerve-disease-induced loss of dexterity in his fingers — has most recently placed another punctuation mark on the first generation prog pioneers.

Within that context, though, guitarist Steve Hackett remains a fond and faithful icon for first gen’ers. As guitarist for Genesis during their progressive rock era, roughly 1970 through 1977, Hackett balanced Tony Banks’ ghostly mellotron and Mike Rutherford’s latticed 12-string figures with tortured and agro electric melodies, employing then-unheard of tapping and sweep picking technique, dosing the band’s buoyant folk-based sound with urgency.
Genesis, of course, went on toward arena-prog superstardom, and subsequent pop-rock popularity as singer Phil Collins helped turn the band into a singles machine in the 1980s. But Hackett, initially trading gently against his Genesis pedigree, stayed much closer to the band’s prog stylings, crafting a series of soaring, provocative solo albums that gave him the latitude to incorporate his classical acoustic playing and songwriting that his former band never fully exploited.

Hackett brings his current band to Boulder on the second leg of a tour that started last year in support of Wolflight, his 24th solo album, and an unmistakable response to the cynics who still believe that prog rockers all eventually grow out of their fevered fantastical voyages and either toss in the towel or release endless live albums of glory-day retreads. From the sweeping orchestral flourishes shrouding Hackett’s low-register thematic melodies on the title track, the ELO-ish reveries of “The Wheel’s Turning” and the gut-kicking riffing of “Black Thunder,” Hackett manages unapologetic, big-sweep prestidigitation on a grand scale here; go full prog or go home.
Old school, we suggested to Hackett, when we caught up with him a month ago.

“Yeah, deliberately old-school experimentation,” he countered, “but experimentation nonetheless.”

Not necessarily the easiest music to stage.

“Well, you’re right. The two sets that I’ve been doing during the nightly shows are some of the most demanding stuff I’ve ever done. And much of that is due to the fact that solo stuff keeps changing, it keeps genre-hopping, and no matter how many times I’ve played the stuff, I’ve always got to be on my toes. …

“Although it’s been very demanding, it’s been hugely enjoyable when we come to the end of the show. (And I’m able to say, ‘Hey, I got through that alright.’) I marvel, for example, when I see some violist sailing through extraordinarily difficult stuff. But I think it’s a case of them practicing this subject matter since they were 6 and they know this stuff standing on their head in a bucket. Whereas, with your latest album, it has to get better over time.

“It’s like back in the day with Genesis. There were certain things that were very difficult to play early on, and then you hone it down and everyone knows what they’re doing. It’s about what you get right and the satisfaction you get from it, and the response you get from it from the audience.”
Hackett has never been daunted by a technical challenge. He points to an album he did a few years ago called Tribute, a series of classical pieces performed on nylon string guitar, and one piece in particular.

“The most difficult piece on that album was ‘Chaconne,’ which was written for violin. That was sort of my Everest. I started out with the most difficult track, I thought if I could crack that perhaps I could do the rest. Christopher Parkening was quoted in an interview once as saying about the ‘Chaconne,’ ‘All technique is there. All classical guitar technique is there.’ So if you can crack that.

“I’ve always tried to run before I could walk, I’m a bit naughty in that way. I’ve always tried to play way outside my capabilities.”

One of the standout tracks on Wolflight is “Corycian Fire,” a brooding meditation on ancient ritual textured with Middle Eastern strings and Moroccan percussion, climaxing in sampled choirs exulting in ancient Greek, inspired by a trip Hackett took with his film director wife Jo Lehmann to Greece. And a grueling hike.

“Yeah, the Corycian Cave. We were literally hiking for an hour and half, uphill, and getting very tired. I just thought, ‘Keep going… ’ because I knew my wife Jo was desperate to find this place and I didn’t want to let her down and be a party pooper. We eventually found the place; it was extraordinary. One of the spookiest places on Earth. It’s the place where divinations first took place, before the Oracle was moved to Delphi.

“Jo wrote most of the lyrics, and in a way, really directed the piece a little bit like a film. When I first met her, we were going to work in film together. The film we were going to do didn’t come off, but in a sense this was a second chance for us to do something together.”

Elsewhere on the CD, Hackett is joined by (recently deceased) Yes bassist Chris Squire, a longtime friend and erstwhile collaborator, on the poised and sprawling “Love Song to a Vampire.”

“Chris and I, although we grew up separately, were in like-minded bands, with great players and great keyboard players,” Hackett says. “And with an appreciation of classical music and jazz. I think that was common to both bands.

“We were like brothers, really. Of course he was the driving force behind Yes, which was his band and his baby from the word go. … Although he was bass player, he was really a lead player. Great singer and writer. I was very sorry when he passed on. But the last thing he recorded was ‘Love Song to a Vampire.’”

And as for the Genesis material, which Hackett embraced fully a few years back with an entire touring show of old Genesis songs, he still affectionately devotes much of his live show nowadays to the “canon,” as he refers to it.
“You’re quite right, I do do it with love, and I’m proud of it. I love doing it; the songs are what’s alive.”

On the Bill: Steve Hackett. 7 p.m. Monday, April 4, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St, Boulder, 303-786-7030.