There was a buzz in the air on the long walk from South Kensington tube to the Royal Albert Hall. It didn’t take much to spot the Hawkwind fans thanks to the extraordinary variety of Hawkwind T-shirts proudly on show, and the excitement was palpable since this one-off gig was billed as ‘celebrating the rituals and odysseys of space on the 50th anniversary of the acclaimed Space Ritual album’. So, no ordinary gig, by any means, but a real special event at an iconic location, celebrating one of the most famous live albums of all time.
The first pleasant surprise on entering the Hall was to see that they hadn’t placed seating on the main floor but had left it as a standing area as it is in the Proms. That guaranteed more of a proper concert atmosphere with the hardcore fans allowed to get close up front. Some Hawkwind banners were already adorning the back of the stage, but what, I wondered, were the strangely dressed mannequin figures? Well, they were part of the stage set-up for the supporting act, which were no mere slot-fillers but the legendary Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. I confess that prior to this concert my knowledge of Arthur Brown didn’t stretch beyond the 1968 hit single Fire, so I didn’t have high expectations, but Brown surprised me. The forty-five-minute set included Fire of course but also the impressive gentle blues of Confusion, the heart-rending ballad Voice Of Love and the brilliant and very Hawkwind like Time Captives that closed the set. Along with this fine music, Brown’s charisma dominated the stage, aided perhaps by a weird but always interesting set of costumes, the most striking being the silver cape he wore during Time Captives. From initial indifference, the audience was gradually won over and gave a massive round of applause at the end of the set.
While Brown was all costumes and theatrics, Hawkwind nonchalantly strolled onto the stage. Brock said ‘Good evening, everybody, nice to see you here’ as if he’d just met his mates in the pub, and the band began with….no, not Earth Calling, the first track of Space Ritual, but Levitation. It was a brilliant way to start and as well as the trademark thunderous guitar riffing, relatively new keyboardist Timothy Lewis (who goes by the bizarre stage name of Thighpaulsandra) added some good touches too. Lewis was stage left, close to Brock who was wearing his usual baseball hat and T-shirt. Magnus Martin was stage right while the centre stage position was taken by the diminutive figure of bassist Doug MacKinnon who with his felt hat and long beard looked a dead ringer for Gandalf. MacKinnon and Brock wandered to the back of the stage occasionally to synch with Chadwick who was somewhat hidden amidst the monitors.
Levitation was followed by a pair from Hall Of The Mountain Grill, You’d Better Believe It and Psychedelic Warlords (Disappear in Smoke), both performed brilliantly. By now, those on the main floor were moving enthusiastically and singing along to the choruses. This energetic opening salvo was accompanied by the usual visual support of lasers, lights and video display for the total Hawkwind experience. Martin then introduced the guest musician, William Orbit, whose keyboards were set up stage right (behind Martin). Was this the cue for Space Ritual material, I wondered? After all, at the time of Space Ritual Hawkwind had both Dik Mik and Del Dettmar on keys. But no, the band launched into Arrival In Utopia which kept the energy level up even if it’s not amongst my favourite Hawkwind songs. The band were clearly relaxed on stage – when Brock recited the line ‘when nobody grows old’ he has time to clutch his chest, as if dying, and have a giggle with Lewis. I struggled to hear the contribution of Orbit, and it may have been lost in the slightly muddy sound. That may have been due to my location in the Hall though since it is well-known for its difficult acoustics that also vary considerably between different locations within the arena.
Any readers who saw Hawkwind at Prognosis 2023 or any of the other handful of gigs they played this spring/summer may have noticed a familiar pattern in the material – basically, this was the same set played elsewhere. I was hoping that this was a half-hour warm up before the main event, but the band continued with two tracks from the latest studio release The Future Never Waits. Rama (The Prophecy) is probably the best track on that album, and it rumbled along in typical Hawkwind fashion and fitted well into the set, even if you sensed the energy level in the audience drop. The second new song The Beginning is a decent enough piece but not an obvious one to get people bouncing around in the live environment, but luckily next up was the evergreen Spirit Of The Age and the audience responded gleefully to Brock’s exhortation to ‘sing it all for us’. Assault And Battery / The Golden Void were equally well-received, and Martin’s solo was particularly impressive. Right To Decide followed and at that point Orbit left the stage having completed his contribution. So much for my theory that they wanted two keyboard players to reproduce the Space Ritual material!
And then, with just one keyboard player, they did finally play some Space Ritual material and it started with a surprise as Arthur Brown came on stage and recited 10 Seconds Of Forever. Brown’s diction was compelling and poetic as he read almost painfully slowly. The audience seemed bewitched, and you could have heard a pin drop in the Hall. But the spell was then broken as Brock and Martin blasted into the riff of Born To Go and the audience had a chance to go wild during what was a very long version that also incorporated You Shouldn’t Do That. The band then took their leave but an encore was inevitable. Would it be Brainstorm or Master Of The Universe? We were lucky and got both! First up was Brainstorm, perhaps a little too fast and punky for my own tastes but still impressive. The two vocal sections of Brainstorm were divided not only by the usual instrumental jam but also by another appearance of Arthur Brown, this time for a chilling recital of The Black Corridor. Master Of The Universe wrapped things up brilliantly musically and the concert appropriately closed with Brock reciting Welcome To The Future.
After well over two hours of music, including most of Hawkwind’s classics, it’s perhaps petty to gripe about the set. However, personally I had assumed that the 50th anniversary of Space Ritual would include most, if not all of Space Ritual. I know that the band performed the three most representative tracks from that album, but I was left wondering what it might have sounded like if they’d played Space Ritual from start to finish, accompanied by Brown for all the spoken parts (and maybe one or two sung contributions too) and with a saxophonist to reproduce Turner’s parts. That would have made it a truly historic occasion and if they’d cared to record or film it then they could have sold the resulting product by the bucket load. Oh well, I guess we’ll just have to settle for buying Cherry Red’s newly remastered and remixed version of the original Space Ritual album!