Solsbury Hill

The barbershop quartet of “Excuse Me” performs and the set proceeds into “Solsbury Hill.” During the time between the release of the album and that night at Winterland, the song has become more deeply associated with my own experience of letting go of my pipe dreams—especially the two lines in the second verse, “to keep in silence I resigned / my friends would think I was a nut.” In the evenings, sequestered in the silence of the canyon, I sometimes wonder if I am a fool to live out in the middle of nowhere with just my books and music to keep me company.

As the audience claps in time to the bright meter of “Solsbury Hill” I feel as if I am shifting from one way of valuing music to another. The realization is not conscious. Winterland is altering and I’m changing along with it—no longer a Catholic kid wandering around a secure college campus, wearing borrowed jeans, smoking too much pot, and pretending to be a rebel. Ideas and clues are linking together in my head. I’m transcending my former life but including all the facets of what have come before, leaving none of them behind, anticipating where I’ll go next. The change is so subtle that I can only see it in retrospect as I sift through all these memories on this final reel of tape. I don’t work it out when Peter sings “Solsbury Hill.” It’s not a flash of astonishment—not a sudden revelation. I’d walked “right out of the machinery”—another fortunate fluke. Living a contemplative life is what I require at the time. I have to learn what isolation is at its core.

The next song in the set is the Marvin Gaye hit “Ain’t that Peculiar.” Released in 1965, it sold in millions, and was his most popular hit before “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” in 1968. In Peter’s setlist it comes out of nowhere, as does the Kink’s 1964 single “All Day and All of the Night.” He drives home the point that he is no longer the front man of a progressive rock band and that his heart is deeply rooted in R&B.

In the second interlude to “Humdrum” there’s an instant where he pays homage to Genesis. The music soars symphonically atop Tony Levin’s thundering bass. Extended chords from synthesizer and organ emulate the iconic timbre of a mellotron. The interlude has the same authentic character as the coda to “Supper’s Ready,” and the lyric it introduces is like a lesson from a spiritual envoy—“Lost among echoes of things not there / Watching the sound forming shapes in the air.” The resonant bass tones vibrate the building and move up through my feet to my head. When the interlude passes and the song ends in a swirling cascade of arpeggiated notes from Fripp’s guitar, I think that the set has reached its climax, but immediately the quiet is banished by the introductory lead guitar declarations of “Slowburn.”

From that point on it’s all loud and effective expressions of sheer energy. A reprise of “Here Comes the Flood” is a torrent of sound rushing through the air and into our ears. Then a colossal version of “Modern Love” follows without a break or introduction. The set moves at a breakneck pace to a final lingering look at Genesis and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway when “Back in NYC” is performed. For a few moments the pre-solo Peter arrives—“I’ve seen places and traces of home back in New York City.” It’s not the restrained performance of the song that I witnessed two years earlier in Berkeley. This is strident—Peter plays the character of Rael to an extreme.

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