I have to confess to a somewhat lopsided relationship with the music of Steve Hillage over the years. Introduced to his work through my love of Gong, I backtracked to his early days, was wowed by the brazen psychedelia of Arzachel, the melodic complexity of Khan and even his role as a sideman with Kevin Ayers. Then I purchased practically everything he did with both System 7 and the Orb as he made the progression from production work to embracing the more innovative end of the dance scene in the Nineties. The missing link? Steve’s solo work from the late Seventies, an era which brought him unparalleled adulation until the music press turned against him with the onset of punk.
Perhaps as a result of this, Steve Hillage has appeared to have favoured occasional flirtings with Gong over a resurrection of his solo era, and has even more overtly devoted his energies into the ongoing System 7 project over the last thirty years. The main exception was a brief moment a decade or so ago when he was back full time in the Gong fold for the ‘2032’ album. The Steve Hillage band performed a brief support slot incorporating him and Miquette Giraudy alongside then Gong members Mike Howlett and Chris Taylor.
The Steve Hillage band in 2019 is somewhat different. A 7 piece featuring himself and Miquette alongside all current members of Gong is a much grander project: assembled to generate a much more expansive sound and perform a much bigger repertoire. Three guitars, Steve’s voice backed by at times by the entire Gong frontline (and possibly Cheb Nettles too), keyboards and saxophone. Whilst by no means familiar with the entire Hillage back catalogue (and not able a couple of years ago to make that financial leap to get hold of the ‘Searching For the Spark’ mammoth box set) I did recognise practically everything performed.
Any doubts that Steve Hillage might not have still ‘got it’ in terms of guitar wizardry were quickly dispelled – his is a sound relying on wonderful fluidity, and that shone through all night. Solo after solo was reeled off joyously, familiar theme after familiar theme purveyed by a band having the time of their lives. Standout moments for me was the Police-like ‘The Fire Inside’ from ‘Open’ with the sound stripped right down, the uncharacteristic balladeering of ‘Palm Trees (Love Guitar)’ and the sharply rising anticipation of ‘Ether Ships’ (both from Green) but all topped by a distance by the ‘Dervish Riff’ from ‘Fish Rising’, a killer theme aired by Gong themselves on their last tour. I’m less enamoured of the covers which punctuated Steve’s halcyon days as a solo star, but even that should be taken with a positive spin: I simply enjoy his own material much more than his interpretation of that of the Beatles, the Stones and Donovan. There was a world premiere (apart from the previous night’s airing) of ‘Sea Nature’ (tonight called, I think ‘Submarine’). I also enjoyed Miquette’s punky singalong of the first encore ‘Light In the Sky’ but by this time I think most of us were waiting for ‘The Glorious Om Riff’, which emerged right on cue. If the original tunes aired were dominated by material from ‘Fish Rising’ and ‘Green’, then that suited me just fine: the latter is the most ‘You’-like of all his solo albums, whilst ‘Fish Rising’ has many Canterbury connections and compositions which reflect that.
It was the first time in years I’d been to a large venue, having been spoiled by the intimacy of lower key venues which have housed the gigs of Gong, Soft Machine, Caravan and others, and this certainly set the tone for an intense, all-encompassing experience. It was also my first visit in a couple of decades to the Ritz, a grandiose old venue on Whitworth Street, fabled for its bouncy floor. Whilst the atmosphere was electric (and the light show utterly stunning), the venue was far too tightly packed for anything other than a little light shifting around – this was, I would guess, a 2000 fan sell out preaching very much to the converted.
As for the band: they looked to be totally elevated by the experience: I’ve rarely seen Kavus Torabi grin so much, tempering his showmanship ever so slightly but still managing to sneak in a couple of astonishing solos of his own. It struck me that Dave Sturt could barely have been more in his element, given a wide stage to stroll around and the chance to funk it up a little; Fabio Golfetti was as ever the peerless glissando player stage left, providing much of the texture. Cheb Nettles, as befits his increasingly elusive reputation, appeared to be either hidden below his drums or strategically positioned out of the lights, but his sonic presence prevailed. Ian East meanwhile was probably even more prominent as a soloist than he currently is with Gong, particularly on tenor, and he even briefly wielded a flute for the ‘Om Riff’, which, as it turned out, was the ‘Master Builder’ version aired on Gong’s tour. If overall the voices were a bit muddied by the mix, the sheer joy of Miquette and Steve acting out their double act centre stage provided the enduring image of the night.
A word for the support act: there were different accompanying bands on each night of this 3 day tour (Cambridge, Manchester, London) and with this being Manchester it could only be local boys Graham Clark and Graham Massey, resurrecting a partnership which preceded both Clark’s involvement with Gong Maison and Masseys’s music with 808 State. One has to say that this was somewhat more diverse than the main event and not as immediately accessible (no complaints from me there), backed as I’d anticipated by electronica but not enough to obscure some genuine innovation: dipping into free jazz and folk in terms of the instrumentation which provided the overlay, not just from Clark’s peerless violin work (no guitar tonight) but also from Massey’s own excursions on guitar, and in particular soprano saxophone – this was surprisingly searching stuff of which I’d like to hear more.
Just before this short tour took place, a November tour was announced which will extend the Steve Hillage band experience, and this time not only will he be backed by the Gong band, but Gong themselves will perform a support slot in their own right. 2 good reasons to catch one of the dates listed here: