May 6, 2024

This can easily stand as an official Hillage live release, and it’s really a shame these recordings weren’t discovered and released back in 1980, in the wake of this show and tour. Still, better late than never for sure, and a timely reminder that Steve Hillage never seemed to put on a disappointing show. He was, and remains, one of a kind.

A recently discovered recording this one, from the famous Bataclan venue (the source of previous live releases by Gong, Metallica, Sting, John Cale and Jeff Buckley among others), captured when Hillage was touring his recently released Open album towards the end of 1979. There have been other vintage live Hillage shows released in recent times of course, but this one is of particular note as it contains so much of the Open material, including the only recorded version of the track Earthrise – not to mention the exceptionally good sound quality. Of course, any live Hillage from his golden age period will be compared to his classic Live Herald album, the only one released at the time and consequently having a head start of 45 years for us to get to know it, but there is certainly a valid case to be made for this one to sit alongside it rather than to go head to head, owing to the relative lack of overlapping material.

Over the previous couple of albums especially there had been an increasing funk influence creeping into Hillage’s trademark hippy-chic cosmic rock – Green, for example, might have had an ecological focus, song titles like Unidentified (Flying Being), Leylines To Glassdom and Ether Ships, as well as a heroic use of the word ‘cauliflowers’ in the lyrics to Sea Nature, but this was counterbalanced by a real feeling of a spring in the music’s step. Some embraced this more than others, of course, but a surprising number of what might be expected to be a tie-dyed-in-the-wool crowd went with him without a second’s doubt. This is testament to the quality that Hillage brought to his playing and songwriting, whatever genre it might borrow from. 1988 Aktivator, included here, was even a breathlessly enjoyable punk pastiche/appreciative nod (however you like to put it) – and he got away with it purely because it sounded utterly convincing and genuinely done.

It’s clear from the clever nod in the album artwork design that this was at the time of the Open album, with six of that album’s seven tracks included, but although it may not be many people’s pick as their favourite Hillage album, it is a stronger effort than you might remember it being, and most of the versions here are to these ears superior. Green and Motivation Radio are also well represented, with four and three tracks from each (if you count his take on Not Fade Away being included in Open, which I could do without if I’m honest!), while interestingly three of the four oft-forgotten tracks on the studio side of the Live Herald vinyl are included – even the languidly ambient Healing Feeling – with only Talking To The Sun sadly omitted. Looking at the earliest albums – Fish Rising and L – they only supply one track apiece, in the set closing It’s All Too Much and encore Salmon Song, but that of course adds to the way the album dovetails with Live Herald, as if you want live renditions of the likes of Hurdy Gurdy Man, Lunar Musick Suite or Electrick Gypsies, you can get them there.

What this set does emphasise is that, despite the big shift in material, and the move to incorporate more funk elements, the general feel of the show remains the same as it always did (and still does, since Hillage’s brilliant return to his classic material in live shows), being more of an overall sonic experience than individual tracks. Having said that, there are clear highlights to be taken from this – the very welcome Glorious Om Riff, though a little shorter than the studio version, is a storming performance, while Searching For The Spark retains all of its old spacey power and momentum. Earthrise and Day After Day are perhaps the pick of the Open material, with Hillage’s highly underrated lead guitar work as good as it has ever been. It’s All Too Much is still ridiculously, infectiously euphoric, while Palm Trees is as gorgeous as ever and New Age Synthesis (Unzipping The Zype) gets its funky claws in you before merging a classic hippy vibe into it. Steve even allows himself a few words of justified pride in the notes for the album, commenting that ‘The level of musical performance is pretty astonishing, and my lead guitar performance is definitely at a peak – totally scorching in places’. True words, indeed.

Of course, this isn’t an album which is going to shift millions to new Hillage listeners, and nor will it have been expected to – but to the converted this is really a set that cannot fail to delight. The sound quality is top drawer, and it’s far from the ‘official bootleg’ product that some may assume it to be – plus you get the pleasure of hearing Hillage address the audience entirely in French for the entire evening, with Miquette Giraudy perhaps surprisingly rarely speaking herself. This can easily stand as an official Hillage live release, and it’s really a shame these recordings weren’t discovered and released back in 1980, in the wake of this show and tour. Still, better late than never for sure, and a timely reminder that Steve Hillage never seemed to put on a disappointing show. He was, and remains, one of a kind.