Curious fact: last time these two bands played here ten years ago, the bill was reversed. Steve Hillage, who’d just produced Gong’s 2032 album, was the support act, performing a selection of his solo material before joining the Gongsters for their headline show. Tonight, the current incarnation of Gong are on warm-up duties before returning with Mr. Hillage and his partner Miquette Giraudy as their backing band.
A few overheard conversations in the queue suggest there are people here who expect Gong to still trade in propeller hat flying teapot whimsy. That stuff died with the late Daevid Allen, whose anointed successor Kavus Torabi has very wisely chosen to plough his own furrow, while remaining true to the spirit of Gong. They’re in no mood to compromise tonight, showcasing both the epics from excellent current album The Universe Also Collapses, opening with all 20 minutes of Forever Reoccuring.
A psychedelic slowburner kicking off with Fabio Golfetti’s gentle glissando guitar, it permits Ian East to blow up a storm on sax, cementing his role as the spiritual successor to Didier Malherbe. Still sporting Syd Barrett’s old hairdo, Torabi brings to the party plenty of leftfield influences from his other bands (Knifeworld, The Cardiacs) and is also an engaging and funny frontman. Hell, he even makes a half-hearted attempt to levitate the Academy using audience vibes. You’ll notice that I’ve failed to mention a couple of members of the band. We’ll get to them in a minute.
Allen’s You Can’t Kill Me is a treat for old-school Gong fans, and is amusingly followed by his self-penned epitaph, Rejoice! – surely the jolliest song ever written on the subject of death (“Rejoice, I’m dead!/At last I’m free…“).
“Oh no . . . Steve Hillage!” For years – decades, even – Hillage pronounced himself unamused by his namecheck in The Young Ones. Tonight, he uses it as his intro, raising a huge cheer. In fact, everyone’s in celebratory mood tonight as we’ve all waited a very long time to hear a full set drawn from those canonical Hillage albums Fish Rising, L, Motivation Radio and Green. And he doesn’t disappoint, with a two hour set comprising just about everything on our wish lists, including his covers of the Fabs’ It’s All Too Much and Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man (currently enjoying a new lease of life as the theme to the second series of Britannia).
In truth, it’s not really necessary to have three guitarists on stage in the Steve Hillage Band – especially as Hillage himself is on such glorious, soaring form – but nobody overplays and there’s no sonic bloat here. While the albums were not exactly burdened with brass instrumentation, East pitches in with agreeable embellishments to the likes of The Salmon Song, while Torabi helps Om Nama Shivaya achieve euphoric twin guitar lift-off.
We may not all share Hillage’s enthusiasm for the electronic dance music scene in which he spent much of the latter half of his career before reuniting with Gong. But it’s easy to see where this came from, since he was always able to get the hippies jigging about. As a spotty teenager, this reviewer first saw him with the powerhouse funk rhythm section of drummer Andy Anderson and bassist John McKenzie. It has to be said that the current ebullient Gong rhythm section of bassist Dave Sturt and drummer Cheb Nettles are every bit their equal. Sturt, in particular, doesn’t even seem to break sweat as he lays down the heavy grooves. That’s even more impressive given that these guys are currently playing for three hours every night.
The first of two encores kicks off with Light in the Sky, showcasing Miquette Giraudy – who’s clearly been having a ball all evening – on synths and vocals, before the teasing intro to the thunderous Glorious Om Riff, which sees those psychedelic projections accelerate to epileptic’s nightmare proportions. Called back again, they give us Hello Dawn (cue: Stonehenge sunrise imagery) and, as a special parting treat for veteran Gongheads, I Never Glid Before, with animated pothead pixies.
This was a truly wonderful feast of nostalgia, but the real question is whether Hillage will now feel inspired to follow Gong in composing new band material for the 21st century. Let’s hope so.
Read more: Metal & Prog Picks: November 2019