18 November 2022
I suspect the idea for this tour has been brewing for a while since Gong toured with Ozric Tentacles’ main man Ed Wynne as support a few years back. Two heavyweights of the psychedelic genre, whose paths have run in parallel, occasionally intertwining, since the early 1990s when the Ozrics reached their critical and commercial peak at a time when Gong were just reinventing themselves for the umpteenth time on Daevid Allen’s return to the UK. Both bands have undergone significant changes since: the Ozrics jettisoning many of their original members to focus around a core ‘family’ group, whilst still maintaining a prolific output; Gong ploughing on through the Steffe/Howlett, Theo Travis, and 2032 eras and latterly carving out a convincing new identity in the post-Daevid era, based around probably their most stable ever lineup.
This whistletop criss-crossing of the country is knowingly labelled as a ‘Joint’ tour, complete with ripped-off roach poster and retro artwork. The band share equal billing in a nightly 3 hour assault on the senses: Gong open up for the first part of the tour, they will ‘headline’ later on…. It’s difficult to assess which band most of the audience are here for: the crowd are colourful, often wizened, possibly a more straightened-out version of themselves from 30 years ago (or perhaps not), but the fan-base I suspect is broadly similar. Familiar faces are everywhere, not least from the Kozfest diaspora – we chat to Snake, co-organiser of that fine festival, and it turns out he’s from the neighbouring town to where I grew up, I should have spotted the Derbyshire drawl…
The tour is largely using the ‘O2’ franchise of ‘Academies’, and we ummed and aahed deciding which venue to attend: across the next couple of weekends the Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester gigs are all within 90 minutes drive; none are within an hour. We plumped for Sheffield: Leeds was sold out long ago, we’d caught Gong and the Steve Hillage band in Liverpool and Manchester’s Academy, based on a recent trip to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor remains a sticky, muffly, impersonal barn. In fact most of these complexes have multiple stages and given the relatively small numbers here tonight (in the low hundreds), there’s a good chance that, as with tonight’s gig, you will get to see the bands in a slightly more intimate setting, which in the case of Manchester will help enormously. Tonight’s venue was a curiously arranged but not entirely unappealing room: on arrival the audience area almost seemed like a corridor between door and seated bar area, merchandise store off to left of stage next to the toilets, low ceilings adding to a sense of confinement. It did mean that everyone could get relatively close to the stage, but the band later expressed disappointment that there was too little room to set up their (normally mindblowing) light show. Overall sound was decent enough although the Gong mix was somewhat lopsided, more of which later…
Gong are in the process of putting down tracks for the eagerly awaited third studio album from this formation, it feels like it’s been a long, COVID-induced break in transmission since the last, although there have been plenty of gigs in the meantime, honing the set and confirming the band’s self-confidence in the very strong material they have written since 2016. If you’d just emerged from a 1990s or 1970s fug, you’d certainly recognize the Gong vibe even if you weren’t conversant with the material. Familiar recent paths are trodden: three quarters of ‘The Universal Also Collapses’, with the reflective opus of ‘Forever Reoccuring’ as its opener, the snappy ‘If Never I’m and Ever You’ to follow, and best of all the manic, tribal ‘My Sawtooth Wake’, where in amongst a tightly curated rhythmic romp, Fabio Golfetti’s glissando seemed to be woollier and slightly more sinister than normal, whilst Ian East added wild, Windo-esque saxophone to add to a sense of nihilism. The previous album, ‘Rejoice I’m Dead’ was well represented too: Daevid’s legacy track ‘Kapital’ receiving its customary rousing outing, alongside ‘Rejoice!’ itself, from its spiky call and response intro all the way through to the exultant guitar centrepieces. I might bore myself somewhat in continuously raving about the Kavus Torabi guitar solo on this track, but if I could bottle up all the different versions of it, I’d happily spend an hour or two comparing their merits: it’s a breakneck but tortured exploration of the fretboard, like a Phil Miller on speed, where every note is fleetingly considered for its gut-wrenching impact before flying off elsewhere.
On to the more unexpected, which as a Gongspotter is what I really came to see: three newbies (apparently there were even more unearthed on the summer European gigs): ‘Tiny Galaxies’, ‘My Guitar is a Spaceship’ and ‘O Arcturus’ . I’ll fully reserve judgement until I hear in their full sonic glory on release but all sounded strong: I recall some Magick Brotherish early Gong vibes (with flute), some anthemic multi-vocal parts, plenty of gear shifts, some unexpected time changes, lots of crashing guitar chords, grins all round… normal service maintained, really.
And then finally, the oldies: ‘Selene’ was briefly hinted at as the intro to ‘O Arcturus’ whilst the requisite ‘Master Builder’, was as transformative as ever, aided on its long build by the unexpected appearance on stage of Saskia Maxwell (she of Silas and Saskia, who we saw as support to Ozrics Electronica a few months back). Although aware she is a talented multi-instrumentalist (keyboards, guitar, flute, and possessing a fine voice), her main impact here was as a dancer positioned somewhere centre stage, a somewhat evocative moment as, I think, the first female presence with the band since Gilli Smyth’s passing.
‘Master Builder’ with Saskia Maxwell
One slight gripe is that of a few of the recent times I’ve seen Gong, that the sound mix has been a bit askew. Perhaps I’m greedy in wanting to hear equally all of Ian East’s sax breaks, Dave Sturt’s thundering bass, Cheb Nettles’ razor sharp drumming, Fabio’s glissando washes and Kavus’s incisive guitar work but it appears a struggle to find that perfect mix. Lead guitar was low in the mix tonight whereas on other occasions sax has been practically inaudible. The set concluded, as it often does, with the euphoric ‘Insert Yr Own Prophecy’. I would have been happy to slink off home, somewhat exhausted at this stage, but of course, we were only half way into proceedings.
Ozric Tentacles: Ed, Brandi and Silas Wynne
Gong’s band members (except of course their elusive drummer) emerged during the second half of the gig in dribs and drabs to watch the Ozrics from the vantage point of the merchandise stall, itself festooned with a range of new products: some fabulous new Flying Teapot T-shirts, the ‘Joint Tour’ merchandise, Ozrics T’s, badges, albums including the Steve Hillage Glastonbury 1979 CD, vinyl, all the fun of the fayre in fact. What came through from the recent Ozric Tentacles Electronics tour was Ed Wynne’s desire to move back to the halcyon days of output from the mid-Eighties onwards, albeit stripped down to a two piece with limited ‘live’ additions. But tonight here Ed (predominantly on guitar) and son Silas were joined by the familiar face of Brandi (on bass), intermittently by Saskia on keyboards and flute, and throughout by an energetic young Swedish drummer whose name I missed. Whilst I am probably parlant with every track the Ozrics have ever released, the names of them blur, particularly as the catalogue extended through the Nineties and Noughties. However what I can tell you is that the band tonight aired many of the classics from ‘Pungent Effulgent’ and ‘Erpland’: ‘0-1’, ‘Kick Muck’, ‘The Eternal Wheel’, ‘White Rhino Tea’ et al, as well as choice cuts from the wonderful early cassettes which preceeded them: ‘Sliding Gliding Worlds’, ‘Sniffing Dog’ etc. If later, more recent Ozrics material, although worthy enough, often morphed into a multi-layered, slightly indistinct blend of electronica, with Ed’s guitar breaks disappearing reedily into the general overall sound, this outfit not only provides definition between its various live components but crucially provides the platform for the band’s most valuable asset: Ed’s glorious guitar work. Kavus confided on stage and afterwards that Ozrics music was his way into spacerock at the end of the Eighties, and that mirrors my own listening experience after the long dark of the previous decade. …After 3 hours of music of pulversing and pulsating music, good company and a fair bit of gyrating to the music, we were spat out in the Sheffield night in a heady state, whilst the bands were already packing up to head onwards to their next port of call or, as Dave Sturt put it earlier today, to ‘levitate Liverpool’…