YOU MIGHT IMAGINE Steve Hackett settling comfortably into the role of elder statesman, a master at the top of the mountain dispensing wisdom to a group of new disciples. Yet more than 40 years after his first solo album, 1975's Voyage of the Acolyte—and more than 45 since he joined the ranks of Genesis—the English guitarist and songwriter is still brimming with wanderlust, both actual and musical.
Hackett's latest album, Wolflight, is as ambitious a work as he's ever done. It incorporates a globe's worth of influences, from the expected progressive-rock components to Tchaikovsky-esque orchestrations, from American blues tropes to exotic sounds from non-Western countries. "When I'm looking for musical influences, I cast a very wide net," Hackett says on the phone from London. "Over the widest possible catchment area, really."
Hackett's twin interests in travel and history informed the making of the album. Several songs, including Wolflight's title track, were co-written with his wife, historian/writer Jo Hackett. "We were kicking around lyrical ideas that had to do with wolves and the fact that the early people—the tribes that got to make up Europe and other places—often used the wolf as totems," he says. "Much of the lyrical orientation had to do with journeying backward, really, looking back at... the wild, so-called 'undisciplined' hordes, the ones that had great militaristic skills and survival skills. Maybe I've been reading too many books about this kind of stuff, but I ended up going off on a whole Boys' Own kind of adventure with this.
"Jo and I are travelers," Hackett continues. "We get to go to a whole ton of places via touring, and we often tack on visits to places at the end of tours. And inevitably we come back with songs and influences from those places. Jo researches places—she's quite extraordinary in that way. There's not a place that we visit that she hasn't found the contradiction at the heart of it."
It shouldn't be a surprise to find Hackett turning over new stones—inventiveness has been the fulcrum of his career since day one. He was the first rock guitarist to commit to record the now-commonplace tapping technique (via several tracks on his debut with Genesis, 1971's Nursery Cryme), and his emotive lead guitar on epics like "Firth of Fifth" remain as beloved as his classically influenced acoustic playing on "Horizons" and "Blood on the Rooftops." His role in Genesis, a band that was no stranger to bombast, was characterized by his use of texture and subtlety, reining in technical firepower in favor of flowing, sustained notes and unconventional sounds.
When he became a solo artist and bandleader following his departure from Genesis in 1977, Hackett's songwriting and playing, perhaps by necessity, grew even more versatile. Acolyte served as an effective dry run for a string of wildly varied albums that kicked off with 1978's Please Don't Touch—a delightful hodgepodge of an album that included a candlelit soul ballad ("Hoping Love Will Last") juxtaposed with nasty prog (the title track), and a carnivalesque Agatha Christie mystery with chipmunk vocals ("Carry on up the Vicarage") nestled alongside wonderfully emotive singing from Richie Havens ("Icarus Ascending," "How Can I?"). Hackett followed it with some excellent prog-rock efforts (1979's Spectral Mornings and 1980's Defector), several acoustic albums, forays into Brazilian music, a straightforward blues record, and even reinterpretations of vintage Genesis songs from their prog-rock heyday.
Hackett's revisiting all of this ground with his current tour; the first half of the show will cover his solo career (with particular emphasis on its bookends of Voyage of the Acolyte and Wolflight), while the second half tackles fan favorites from his tenure with Genesis. "It's an attempt to do everything, of course, and give people an idea of where I came from and where I am now—in as much as you can shoehorn that into one show," Hackett says.
Although he has a larger and more diverse solo catalog than many of his ex-bandmates, Hackett's comfortable with the role he's somewhat accidentally fallen into, as the keeper of Genesis' live legacy. Despite credible tribute acts like Montreal's the Musical Box—and apart from Genesis' Hackett-less reunion tour in 2007, which largely focused on their mainstream hits from the '80s—the guitarist's "Genesis Revisited" shows are now the closest fans can get to seeing the group's most challenging and rewarding material performed live. Hackett's time with Genesis coincided with their most ambitious and respected period, and his work with them has grown greatly in esteem over the years, even as it's been overshadowed by the band's subsequent, massive success in the pop market.
"I'm still a fan of a lot of what we wrote together," Hackett says. "[Last year] I played 'The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway' in Iceland with a 70-piece orchestra and choir, and I'm thinking, 'Actually, you know, this isn't a bad song.' It's funny, that, isn't it?—capitulating to your subject matter as artists do. It's been a great joy to revisit those tunes. I no longer think of it as I did in the day, as, 'Oh this is a strong moment, this is a weak moment, this bit meanders...' I think because it's all been held in such great affection by fans, it's taken on a far greater significance than it did in the day when it was current. It does something else—it goes into the heart and it matures, both for me and for the listener."