Picture the scene: it’s a very cold afternoon in Kent, the rain is absolutely lashing down, and a crowd covered in pac-a-macs has assembled in front of the Prog Stage at the first ever Ramblin’ Man Fair. Weird prog/fusion ensemble Knifeworld have already started to create a buzz online and for some hardened proggers, the band’s early set time has been reason enough to leave their hotel rooms before lunch and brave the near apocalyptic weather.
It isn’t going to be quite the experience they hoped for, however. Upon taking the stage, frontman Kavus Torabi yells “We’re going to go totally Old Testament on yo’ ass!”, presumably referencing the band’s debt to Soft Machine, appears to completely misjudge the mood, and the band launches into what could only be described as a cluttered jazz oddity. Within minutes, people start to leave. Once Kavus starts to sing, more people wander away, obviously bemused. Between the noise and the weather, the next half an hour is more than an endurance. It’s enough to be vary wary of Torabi going forward, but this day is not representative of his obvious talent. Over the next five years, he will become a much-loved and omnipresent figure on the prog scene, working with everyone from Mediaeval Babes to Matt Stevens, and eventually become an official member of the mighty Gong. In terms of the “new breed” of prog musicians, there are few people who are more important.
It’s a double shift for the amiable Kavus tonight. He’s not only a member of The Steve Hillage Band – an assembly of musicians featuring the current line up of Gong, plus the legendary guitarist and his wife Miquette Giraudy, both of whom have been part of the Gong family in the past – but also a vital part of the night’s supporting act, The Utopia Strong. By the time that support takes the stage, it’s great to see the venue rather full, especially since a huge amount of the crowd don’t necessarily come with any prior knowledge of the trio’s work. Throughout their allotted slot, The Utopia Strong entertain with minimal electronica, fused with elements of jazz and prog. From their slow opening jam where drone rock collides with a deep wordless vocal, through slight ambient electronica and into an almost danceable Future Sound of London inspired piece, everything sounds superb. Multi-instrumentalist Michael York is hugely busy on stage left, whilst over on stage right, Steve Davis – DJ and six times World Snooker Champion – appears mesmerised by a world of electronics. Despite creating a musical backdrop that wouldn’t for everyone, the assembled crowd are clearly really into the sound, evidenced by the lack of “gig natterers” who could’ve easy ruined the more ambient elements. With the set arranged so it comes with a series of peaks and troughs, there’s nothing here left to chance, and it really brings a sense of strange urgency to pieces found on their 2019 album. As the musicians leave the stage to a broad applause, a short man in a wide-brimmed hat sarcastically throws Kavus the “heavy metal devil horns” from the second row of the audience, and the crowd gets ready for the evening’s main event.
It’s now just before 9pm, and a second wave of people have filed in from the adjacent bar; the venue is now heaving, and there’s a feeling we’re about to witness something else rather special. As the house lights dim, the air is filled with a very male roar, and the intro tapes fill the venue with a selection of clattering noises and the unmistakable sound of Nigel Planer’s lovable comedy hippie Neil Pye, whose utterance of “Oh no, Steve Hillage!” is likely the musician’s biggest connection with genuine pop culture. It’s literally seconds before the band launches into a really sharp take on ‘Fish’ – a clanking, weird prog jam that sounds like an old Gong leftover. It’s certainly not the easiest track to approach without a warm-up, but the band are more than up to it. The drums are especially on point, ensuring the jazz fusion approach that’s taken here sounds really tight. Sliding into a cover of The Beatles’ ‘It’s All Too Much’ (a vastly underrated George Harrison composition), there’s a far more accessible mood that lifts everyone, and despite Hillage’s vocals sounding a bit rough, it shows how the present day Gong are really versatile, and this poppier tune allows for any tweaking of sound before the evening’s musical big guns are brought forth. And indeed, a really intense ‘Salmon Song’ provides an early highlight with its collision of prog grooves, exceptional lead guitar and eventual exploration of an unmistakeable riff that still sounds like a distant cousin of what became ‘The Glorious Om Riff’. Along with a mid section that pre-figures the core sound of Hillage’s ‘Green’ album, this is a brilliant fit for tonight’s set, especially since the current tour has been heavily reliant on ‘Green’ era material. As with prior shows, tonight’s ‘Green’ revisitations include a fine ‘Sea Nature’ and ‘Ether Ships’ double whammy, which works a delicate balance between proggy songcraft, melody, seventies grooves and a little new age, proto ambient atmosphere. In some ways, the more spaced out moments call back to The Utopia Strong’s opening set, and at this stage, tonight is already most definitely about the whole picture as opposed to any individual elements; with a combination of retro psychedelic video backdrops and an epilepsy baiting strobe – each used as and when appropriate to lift the music further – it all works.
For those who’ve always loved Hillage’s trippier vibes, there are pitch perfect renditions of ‘Hurdy Gurdy Glissando’, ‘Octave Doctors’ and the brilliant ‘Lunar Musick Suite’, all of which are a fantastic showcase for Steve’s unique guitar tone and playing style, and at the other end of this varied musical spectrum, the whole band really rocks on heavier outings ‘The Dervish Riff’ and ‘Why Are We Sleeping?’, the latter, a Soft Machine cover offering a massive nod to the past. Almost everything is superb during the second half of the set, but for a huge cross-section of the audience, the biggest highlight comes from an enthusiastic ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’, on which a perfect band makes up for some wayward vocals. It also – deliberately, or not – brings the main set full circle, since the Hillage arrangement of this Donovan tune reached a new audience in the mid 80s when Nigel Planer utilised it for a cover on “Neil’s Heavy Concept Album”, a release that’s far more important than its novelty sheen would have everyone believe.
The encore is every bit as good as the main set, too, with The Move’s ‘I Can Hear The Grass Grow’ flowing into ‘Crystal City’ (an underrated cut from ‘Green’), and the timeless (and expected) ‘Glorious Om Riff’, which on this night has taken on a particularly aggressive vibe, utilising the band’s talents in an especially direct way. Finishing with a tight but loose take on Hendrix’s ‘Are You Experienced’ suggests a musical unit with a desire to balance the tripped out jams with some solid rock and deep psych credentials, and familiar to most of the crowd, it provides a near perfect closer.
With almost every element of this show being tight and the arrangements sometimes coming with a fresh punch, there’s been more to this Hillage show than pure nostalgia. It isn’t about a tired muso wheeling out of the hits – aside from the fact there aren’t any in the genuine sense – or necessarily about making members of an ageing audience feel young again. This is about musicians who can genuinely add new life to some great tunes; it’s about the marriage of Hillage’s timeless tones and Torabi’s obvious enthusiasm for everyone and everything. It’s been about spending two hours in the presence of a legend and going home with the feeling that he still enjoys being surrounded by top level players and great friends. Sunday nights aren’t necessarily the best for gigs, but this one has been better than most Saturdays, and there’s a fair bet that in this more intimate setting – marking the last night of the Hillage Band’s 2023 tour – that the performance likely been superior to the previous night’s London show in almost every respect.
Words by Lee Realgone
Photo by Katy