March 31, 2023

The show tonight is less about the individual tracks and more about the overall vibe of the evening, with heavy passages and ambient interludes changing places like the interlocking of the tectonic plates

PHOTOS: CHRIS WALKDEN

This is one that I’ve been eagerly anticipating ever since Steve Hillage last trod the UK boards in late 2019, touring on that occasion with Gong both as support and his own backing band, pulling an exhausting double duty! That show was an astonishing spectacle (reviewed on this very site), but the advent of a certain global pandemic made it seem unlikely for a while whether there would ever be a repeat performance. Happily we have come through the other side and the return of normality also (live) heralds the return of Mr Hillage. We don’t have Gong in support this time out, though they are still doing sterling service as the Steve Hillage Band themselves, backing him up, so there is a pleasing consistency there. However, the support duties this time out come from the ambient experimentalist trio Utopia Strong, featuring another acquaintance of Hillage – none other than former world snooker champion Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis (as he will forever be known thanks to his inimitable Spitting Image puppet in the ’80s). Davis has long been a proponent of left-field and often challenging prog rock music, hosting his own Interesting Alternative Show on the radio for some years, and back in his snooker heyday even bankrolling a trip to the UK for the frankly insane French outfit Magma. That didn’t get too much fanfare on the BBC snooker TV coverage, safe to say…

In addition to the ‘various wind’ and sundry other contributions of Michael York, the Utopian trio are rounded out by Kavus Torabi, current main man of Gong, which ensures that at least one man is pulling that double shift again! Indeed, as the band amble onto the stage, Torabi has changed so much from his last appearance with Gong last year that it took me a few moments to recognise him. Gone is the sort of ‘cosmic Jonathan Creek’ look that he had for years, as he has grown his hair out in long and straggly fashion and paired it with a partially-grey beard, so that he is now far less ‘quirky TV detective’ and far more ‘haunted necromancer’. It’s a look which is very fitting to the performance we are about to receive, as Davis – seated studiously at his synth/sequencer like your old geography teacher after far too many mushrooms – opens proceedings in a slowly growing wash of sound evoking the spirit of prime 1970s Tangerine Dream. He never leaves his table, though the other two switch between instruments and stand (and in Kavus’ case even walk around) as the 45-minute audio spell envelops us. An odd box played by Kavus by opening and closing a door on the side of it proves to be a harmonium, while he also spends a good proportion of the show playing liquidly unobtrusive yet perfectly placed guitar lines. On occasion he advances to the front of the stage to deliver wordless vocals as if engulfed in a trance, and it’s hard to take one’s attention away from him. Well, at least until York steals the visual thunder by brandishing a set of bagpipes, in one of the most surprising instrumental departures since Ian Gillan began playing inaudible bongos with Deep Purple. That’s a first for me by the way, as in 47 years of concert-going I don’t believe I have ever observed the bagpipes. They don’t sound much like the conventional sound of the pipes, and are not emblazoned in tartan, but they add a surprisingly effective drone to proceedings.

The performance as a whole falls between the two possible reactions from the listener of either dull or spellbinding – the degree of which would fall almost entirely on the mood of the listener. If in the mood to ‘rock’, and hyped up for a show, this meticulously crafted yet paradoxically largely improvised performance would quite likely lead to frustration, but for those willing and able to suspend the world outside and the passing of time, it’s a potentially revelatory experience. Certain sections do meander just a little beyond their own good, but when everything comes together, such as the transcendent moment when Torabi holds his guitar aloft in a triumphal celebration of controlled feedback and the healing power of music, it truly is as if the wider world, and indeed conventional music and song structure, has ceased to exist in a shimmering miasma of shared blissed out consciousness. Going by the reaction of the crowd, most of them are firmly in this latter camp. Those at the other end of the scale would most likely be at the bar…

As opening acts go, it ranks as one of the most unusual I have witnessed – and I have seen Hawkwind supported by Tubilah Dog, a band so unhinged that they considered a name spelling Halibut God backwards to be essential. However, in this company it works so perfectly that, outside of Gong doing the honours again, it’s hard to think of a better fit. Certainly more so than the first time I myself saw a Hillage show back in the ’70s, when he was supported by a female-fronted French hard rock band called Telephone (they were rather good as it happens, but chalk and cheese come inexorably to mind). All attention is soon focused on the imminent return of the Conquering Hippy Hero, as the stage is hastily set up for the arrival of the Hillage Band. And they don’t disappoint, with all except drummer Cheb Nettles lined up dramatically stage-front, and the three man guitar line-up of Hillage, Torabi and Fabio Golfetti contributing to an impressively uncompromising wall of sound. Steve’s long-time musical and personal partner Miquette Giraudy is also front and just off-centre, in engagingly upbeat mood throughout.

It’s a confident and crowd-pleasing start, as It’s All Too Much and a flawless Salmon Song are quickly rolled out to the delight of the crowd, who remain absolutely in step with the band throughout the impressively spacey and nebulous set. There are plenty of favourites noted – Sea Nature from the Green album is superbly done, while both Solar Musick Suite and its mirror twin Lunar Musick Suite put in an appearance, but the show tonight is less about the individual tracks and more about the overall vibe of the evening, with heavy passages and ambient interludes changing places like the interlocking of the tectonic plates. Hillage himself appears totally immersed and enthused throughout – apart from his System 7 T-shirt, one could be forgiven for forgetting that he had ever been away from this particular style of music. One of the most impressive attributes of the band is the slick and almost flawless interplay of the three guitars – meticulously arranged to combine lead lines, chordal rhythm and much in the way of the familiar ‘glissando guitar’, it is frequently hard to put a figurative cigarette paper between the musicians, so tight and synchronised are they. It isn’t all about Hillage’s own material either, as there are nods to his Canterbury heritage throughout – Gong, of course, but also notably in the shape of a cracking rendition of the late Kevin Ayers song It Begins With A Blessing which to these ears outstrips the original. Unfortunately the somewhat low mixing of Hillage’s voice means that his between-song announcements are often all but inaudible, but the in-song vocals are reinforced by excellent harmony and backing voices, so any imbalance is not so noticeable on that front. A storming Hurdy Gurdy Man (the Donovan song which Hillage has utterly made his own over the years, as he also has with George Harrison’s It’s All Too Much) brings the main set to a cracking conclusion, and the audience are baying for more.

An encore is duly delivered, which once again has the crowd with them every step of the way, though for me if there is a minor gripe with the show it would be at this point. The much-anticipated The Glorious Om Riff sits in the middle of this encore sequence, in between an unexpected yet very effective cover of I Can Hear The Grass Grow by The Move and the slightly puzzling closer of Hendrix’s Are You Experienced, but whereas the Om Riff provided an all-consuming showstopper last time out, on this occasion it is shorter, played a little faster, and fails to build to the incredible peak of intensity that it can do. A fine piece of hypnotic space-rock for sure, but just lacking a little. The covers are well performed, but it seems unlikely that most of those in attendance would not have preferred the strangely omitted Electric Gypsies or even Palm Trees (Love Guitar), another beautiful highlight of the 2019 tour.

Still, such complaints are something of a quibble, and indeed could have partly been coloured by my own recollection of the profoundly intense close to the 2019 show – had I not been a victim of my own high expectation I may well have had no qualms at all. The fact remains that this is great, triumphant and utterly original space-psych-progressive rock music, and it is a thing of unfettered joy to see the estimable Mr Hillage still treading the boards performing it, looking in peak condition and with years yet to delight us. Whether, and for how long, he elects to continue touring this music is a question that only he can answer, but one thing is absolutely beyond question: he has already given us enough great music and memories to last a lifetime, and even if this show does not come around again in the same form, we are still privileged to have been able to witness it one more time. A national – or indeed, astral – treasure: the Planet Gong and all of its many satellites remain as yet in defiant orbit…