March 15, 2022

[You Can’t Kill Me is] a brilliant rendition, so tightly played that all of the tricky time changes and false starts and ends are executed with the precision of a Swiss watch-maker, while the familiar propulsive riff and defiant chorus are flung out in a way that leaves no doubt that this particular Gong can rock like a veritable beast when they want to.

PHOTOS: Steve Pilkington

Anyone the least bit familiar with the lengthy and unique history of Gong will of course be aware that the current band is a very different proposition to that which existed a few years ago. The band’s founder and spiritual leader, Daevid Allen, sadly passed away after a battle with cancer in 2015. However, Allen left specific instructions that he wished the band to continue without him, and gave his approval to guitarist / vocalist Kavus Torabi (Knifeworld, Cardiacs) to take over the reins from him as de facto band leader. In fact, Torabi is the most recent recruit to the band, along with drummer Cheb Nettles, both having joined in 2014 (guitarist Fabio Golfetti arrived in 2012, sax player Ian East in 2010, and ex-Jade Warrior bassist Dave Sturt back in 2009). Nevertheless, Torabi shows himself to have been an inspired choice as the band’s focal point, as his charisma and stagecraft is absolutely tailor-made for the role. In fact, it is hard now to even envisage the band without him, which is true testament to his impact, and the way he has grasped the task handed to him by Daevid. Of course, it isn’t as if Gong have not existed and flourished without Daevid Allen in the past, as they continued for some years after his original departure in 1975, evolving into a jazz fusion band under the leadership of drummer Pierre Moerlen (Allen had memorably departed the band after refusing to go onstage at a show, claiming he was being prevented from doing so ‘by an invisible barrier of force’, and promptly leaving the venue immediately). Such is the way of things on the Planet Gong, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The difference this time compared to Moerlen’s era in the late ’70s is that the musical spiritual heart and soul of the band has this time remained entirely unchanged, with no attempts to wrest the musical direction into any other form. Gong at their purest always combined elements of space-rock, prog rock, psychedelia, jazz and a huge amount of quirky and surrealistic humour, and all of those elements are as front and centre as you would wish them to be still – plus they are, it must be said, a tightly rehearsed and powerful band in the live environment, as tonight’s show attests to. Before this tour, the band had promised, on their own Facebook page, that audiences would be treated to ‘an orgy of light, and the sound of eternity – or your money back!’. Elsewhere they had also vowed ‘to affect the complete dissolution of ego and sense of self, at the very least‘ – which is quite some billing to live up to! With any other band, this would seem like mere hyperbole, but well, this is Gong, so all bets are off…

In typically chaotic Gong fashion, 35 minutes before stage time, and just before the doors opened, people outside were still milling around unsure which was the correct entrance for the place (the Old Courts was, as you might imagine, previously the court building, and so doesn’t immediately look like a music venue). It was suggested at one point that perhaps you were required to simply draw an entrance on the wall and it would magically admit you – which is the most ‘Gong’ thing I have ever heard in my life, it must be said – but soon enough the actual doors opened to admit the eager, and marvellously eclectic, audience. As always, a Gong crowd is probably the only collection of people to make a Hawkwind audience look as if they are heading to see Michael Buble, and as always the atmosphere is immediately a jovial and extremely chilled one. It’s already a great way to spend an evening before the band even play.

Shortly after 8pm, however, play they do, taking to the stage and launching straight into the 20-minute monster Forever Recurring, from 2019’s The Universe Also Collapses – an uncompromising yet perfect start to proceedings, as the slow-build of the piece gets everyone wound up and ready to ‘party like it’s 1969’, before the big, heavy and positively ‘mystick rhythms’ kick in. It may be a challenging epic to open with, but this isn’t a casual audience, and there is clearly hardly a soul in the room not caught up entirely in the unique spell this band are capable of imparting. From this up-to-the-minute and highly contemporary slice of epic Gong, however, we are immediately flung back half a century to 1971 and the anthem You Can’t Kill Me from 1971’s Camembert Electrique album. Introduced by Kavus Torabi as becoming ‘more relevant all the time’, to sage nods of approval all round, it’s a brilliant rendition, so tightly played that all of the tricky time changes and false starts and ends are executed with the precision of a Swiss watch-maker, while the familiar propulsive riff and defiant chorus are flung out in a way that leaves no doubt that this particular Gong can rock like a veritable beast when they want to. As an opening half hour, this has been hard to beat.

The Daevid Allen co-write from the Rejoice! I’m Dead album, Kapital, leads us into another prime piece of Camembert in the shape of Longshanks / O Mother, before a trip back to the final album recorded with Allen, I See You, for that record’s centrepiece and highlight The Eternal Wheel Spins. It’s a masterful piece of esoteric space-rock, and possibly the high point of the show so far. After visits to the most recent two albums again for a coruscating My Sawtooth Wake and then Through Restless Seas, we get what is billed as an ‘interlude’ – although this isn’t an interlude in the way you would normally expect it, with a band saying ‘see you in 25 minutes’ and leaving as the house lights come up. No, in this case, the music gradually subsides to a low and peacefully relaxing level as Kavus announces they will be back ‘after a few words from our sponsor’, which is the cue for the lights and back projections to continue as we are reminded of the blissful possibilities of a world full of love and music. Gong’s manifesto, essentially. After a few minutes – just enough time for a change of clothes and a rather more earth-bound toilet break for our heroes – and they are back for Round Two. Did I mention the back projections? They are superbly done, ever-changing, suitably trippy and filled with little ‘Easter Eggs’ (or should that be ‘Angel’s Eggs’?), with images from old Gong albums, pot-head pixies, radio gnomes, witches and the odd (sometimes very odd) appearance of old Gong line-ups and Daevid Allen himself, giving the impression that he is here in spirit, and surely watching with approval. It’s perfectly judged, never distracting or overdone, but always entertaining and, well, Gong-like.

After another Rejoice! track, Visions, it’s back to the 1970s again, this time for a trip into the Flying Teapot trilogy, with Love Is How Y Make It from the Angels Egg album. Allen’s own personal ‘send-off’, the track Rejoice! itself, gets everyone right into the party mood, though only a Gong show could provide a party with the delighted revellers bellowing out ‘Rejoice! I’m Dead!’ – but once again, everyone knows and respects the implications of the piece, with Allen celebrating the continuation of his beloved band as he he himself leaves this world’s confines to be finally ‘free’. It’s spine-tingling in its own, very special way. Following this, however, we head right into the mouth of the beast with Master Builder – or, to refer to its later, Steve Hillage-modified incarnation, the Glorious Om Riff. However you choose to name it, this piece is, as always, the Mother Of All Riffs, simultaneously heavy, repetitive, psychedelically progressive and building up inexorably to mantra-like intensity. We’re absolutely adrift on the Planet Gong now, and it’s a Giant Leap for everyone in the building as the collective entity of the audience essentially become the riff. Kavus has suggested, in a way that suggests we really should believe him, that the collective force of love and energy from band, crowd and music can and will cause the building to levitate. Now, it’s hard to know when you’re inside it, but who is going to deny that passers-by might have rubbed their eyes as the building rose by six inches? Well, realistically we all are of course, but at that moment it really doesn’t feel all that fanciful.

It is at this point that the whole band must be praised for their extraordinary precision and musicianship. For sure, Kavus is deservedly and clearly the focal point – coming over, as always like a sort of cosmic Jonathan Creek – but Ian East’s sax creates a bedrock without which this sound could not exist in its current form, while co-guitarist Golfetti handles a lot of the subtle glissando guitar touches, and quietly produces some marvellously intricate work, as well as a big presence when required. The rhythm section of Dave Sturt and Cheb Nettles manage to anchor things while still going off at some delightful tangents at times, which is not an easy thing to do. Nettles bizarrely remains masked throughout the whole show, which must surely be difficult to do while getting enough breath to play like that for well over two hours. This is, in short, a great band, led by a charismatically watchable frontman and a natural showman. This is illustrated by a hilarious exchange Kavus has around this point with an unexpected audience member. Just as he is addressing the crowd about our love and energy, and all of that, a guy simply walks through the crowd, up to the stage and proffers a hand to the bemused frontman. ‘What is it you’re offering me?’ he asks, only to receive the reply ‘Mushrooms’. Taken aback somewhat, he says that he won’t right now, but thanks him for the offer. At this, our would-be supplier simply shrugs his shoulders, turns and walks away – and I’m not sure whether he even remained in the building. Kavus, clearly loving this if somewhat wrong-footed, concedes that ‘only in Wigan’ would he get offered mushrooms midway through a show, and wonders aloud how he can follow that. He does so by dedicating the evening, in a slightly amended way, to ‘love, music…and mushrooms!’ Proof positive that no two Gong gigs are ever quite the same…

It’s getting towards the sharp end of proceedings now, and after a quick trip to the latest album again for the oddly titled If Never I’m And Ever You, there is one more delightful visit to that long ago Camembert cheese-shop of electrique delights for the closing Tropical Fish / Selene, and they are gone. But not for long, as you knew they would be back – and sure enough they are, for an absolute blast through the Rejoice! closer Insert Yr Own Prophecy. It’s a track which is fast becoming a Gong show-closing staple, and for good reason as it ticks every box in their list of trademarks, and does it with a completely joyful lack of restraint. Following that, they’re gone, having completely and triumphantly owned the evening – with the audience, if not the mushrooms, in the palm of their collective hands.

If you ever thought that the spirit of Gong had died along with Daevid Allen, and that what we have now might be almost more of a tribute band – then do yourself a favour and get along to one of their shows. The Planet Gong has always existed in terms of whoever happens to be in its orbit at any given time, and that has never been as true as it is today. Over its existence Gong has had no less than 52 official band members, and that’s a long, long way from ZZ Top. Daevid singled out Kavus as his successor leading the ship, and let’s face it, if anyone knew what was best for Gong, it was him. And he was absolutely right. As a live album once had it, Gong Est Mort. Vive Gong! You couldn’t put it better than that if you tried.