Progressive Rock Guitarist Steve Hackett and the Art of Moving Forward from Genesis Onward

“That was an apex for the band,” says guitarist Steve Hackett, of the 1971-1973 Genesis music. Hackett performs Genesis' 1972 album 'Foxtrot' at the Florida Theatre On Friday, March 1 | Lee Millward, courtesy of the artist

Steve Hackett is many things: a pioneering progressive rock and jazz-fusion guitarist, an eager collaborator and tireless touring musician, and a classic-rock music survivor who remains refreshingly indifferent to pop-audience trends or attention. But one thing the 74-year-old Hackett certainly is not is idle.

Whether it’s a matter of nervous energy or manic inspiration, along with being a core member of the 1971-1977 era of Genesis, the London-born guitarist-composer has just released his 30th solo album, The Circus and the Nightwhale, and he and his band are preparing to kick off a global tour to perform the 1972 Genesis album Foxtrot in its entirety. Hackett and his group—vocalist Nad Sylvan; Roger King (keyboards, programming and orchestral arrangements); Rob Townsend (saxophone, flute, keyboards and percussion); bassist Jonas Reingold and drummer Craig Blundell—open the tour with their upcoming March 1 appearance at The Florida Theatre, where they will perform Foxtrot along with a selection of other Hackett songs that span his half-century career. More than fifty concerts have been slated for 2024, and Hackett concerts can last upwards of two hours plus. At press time, right at the crest of this wave of commitments, Hackett was also gearing up to play the Norwegian jazz festival Bodø Jazz Open with the jazz fusion band Djabe. 

Credit: Lee Millward, courtesy of the artist

“Well, I’ve been jumping in the deep end with a lot of things now, for many years and I think I just don’t like feeling restricted,” Hackett tells the Jacksonville Music Experience of the flurry of activity that is the trademark of his career. “I’ve had a kind of pan-genre thing where I get involved with lots of different styles of music. But I like so many different kinds of music and the two divisions are electric and acoustic music. I like playing electric guitar. But I equally love playing acoustic guitar, particularly nylon string, where I get to show classical influences and more recently, some flamenco influences as well. So I love to mix it all up and I thrive by staying active.” 

When Hackett joined Genesis in 1971, he was key in mixing up that band’s already-experimental sound, particularly with the addition of his edgy, prominent guitar style and the then-insistence that Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks buy King Crimson’s MK II Mellotron, a protean-synthesizer popularized by The Beatles on “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Hackett, along with new band drummer-vocalist Phil Collins, first appeared on the Genesis album Nursery Cryme. Along with Banks, Collins, multi-instrumentalist Mike Rutherford and vocalist Peter Gabriel, Hackett helped Genesis become an emblematic prog-art-rock group that blended esoteric lyricism with complex musical arrangements, culminating in the band’s increasingly theatrical concerts, featuring Gabriel wearing a series of outlandish costumes. While fans and critics were either galvanized or baffled, subsequent musicians including Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of Rush and Eddie Van Halen were in awe of the band, and specifically, Hackett’s innovative guitar style, which pioneered the use of double-hand tapping and sweep-picking—two techniques that radicalized later guitar styles.

Written from jam sessions following the Nursery Cryme tour, in both complexity and actual listenability, Foxtrot was an early high point for the band, including the Hackett instrumental “Horizons” and culminating in the 23-minute opus, “Supper’s Ready.” Remarkably, Genesis would exceed their own standard with their following album, 1973’s Selling England by the Pound.

“That was an apex for the band,” says Hackett, of the 1971-1973 Genesis music. “It’s from an era when John Lennon gave an interview and said that he considered us to be ‘true sons of the Beatles.’ He gave a series of interviews and kept giving us name checks, which was really wonderful. Unfortunately, at the time, we couldn’t use any of that we just heard about it, word of mouth. (Laughs). There wasn’t any social media where we could say, ‘Well, thank you, Mr. Lennon!’ But there’s something about that era, a young band experimenting with no real international success at the time of Foxtrot. So we had nothing to lose and everything to gain from risking everything with this pan-genre approach, which is still a calling card for me. Foxtrot contains references to science fiction, social commentary, humor, fusion elements…we were really young players and musicians and it was a time in music when the album reigned supreme, in the pre-video era, so the music itself had to conjure pictures. And I think all of those stories and narratives found their mark and I think that’s why younger listeners are still drawn to that era.”

In performance, Hackett and the core players of his backing band render the Genesis catalog with reverence, yet Hackett is a keen and fluid improvisor who invariably pushes the band into unknown areas, another inherently anti-careerist move from a musician who boasts a vast and eclectic discography.

“Well, it’s a funny thing: I love the idea of improvisation but I’m viewed as this progressive-music person. In the main, most progressive acts do tend to tighten things up so that there’s not that much improvisation with it, but I find particularly now, in later years, I try and turn it back to improvisations whenever I can. And I guess that instinctive approach has left me in good stead, as I like to think that my sound is improving all the time as the relay between my brain to the guitar becomes more responsive, and it means I can skip around and do more things at one time.” 

The Circus and the Nightwhale follows in the wake of Hackett’s two previous albums (both from 2021): the all-acoustic Under a Mediterranean Sky (which landed at #2 on the UK Classical charts) and its counterpoint, the full-metalloid-crunch of Surrender of Silence. In conjunction with this pair of releases, during the Covid lockdown the hyper-prolific Hackett also released his highly-readable memoir, A Genesis in My Bed. The 13 tracks of The Circus are a rite-of-passage story, Hackett’s most personal album to date. Fittingly, the narrative is contained within a surrealist framework. The songs allude to experiences including Hackett’s growing up in the rubble of postwar London, his earliest love and heartbreak, the foray into the circus-like life of becoming a professional musician, all culminating in his longtime marriage to his wife and creative partner Jo, filtered through archetypes of Jonah and Whale, the Iliad and the Odyssey, even Pinocchio. Musically, the album runs the gamut from ballads and jazzy arrangements to Hackett’s signature whole-tone-scale metal excursions. Hackett sees the album as being akin to musical form of Jungian shadow work. 

“I always sought autonomy and felt claustrophobic even when I was in this internationally famous band, which happened to be Genesis. Much of this album is about truly facing your darkest fears and coming through it all stronger, with faith, really. And the album really closes as a kind of love song to Jo, as being with her and having her as my co-writer and partner is a result of us being challenged together in this life and coming through to the other side. That might be my greatest success.”

Steve Hackett Genesis Revisited: Foxtrot at 50 + Hackett Highlights is featured at 8 p.m. Friday, March 1 at The Florida Theatre tickets are available here.

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