Steve Hillage Band + The Utopia Strong
Saturday 1st April + Sunday 2nd April 2023
The Forum, London + Concorde 2, Brighton
Legendary Psychedelic rocker Steve Hillage is back on the road with his band for a twelve date UK tour dubbed ‘The Golden Vibe’ tour, their first live dates since 2019, and if current rumours are to be true, their last! Steve and his partner, and musical collaborator, Miquette Giraudy will, of course, continue to record and tour with their dance music project System 7. The lineup for the current tour was essentially the same as for the 2019 tour in that Steve and Miquette (keyboards) were backed by the current Gong lineup of Kavus Torabi (guitar and vocals), Fabio Golfetti (guitar and vocals), Dave Sturt (bass and vocals), Cheb Nettles (drums) and Ian East (Flute and Saxophone). The support band on all dates were ambient soundscape explorers The Utopia Strong, which also features Kavis Torabi (guitars/harmonium), along with Michael J. York (modular synth/flute/bagpipes/theremin) and none-other than legendary six times world snooker champion Steve Davis on modular synth!
The Utopia Strong first came together in 2019 and have so far released two studio albums ‘The Utopia Strong’ and ‘International Treasure’, as well as four vinyl only live improvised albums ‘Gyre’, ‘Ninth Art’, ‘Dreamsweeper’ and ‘Alphabet of the Magi’. After his retirement from professional snooker, Steve Davis became a regular DJ on Brentwood FM radio station where he would air obscure esoteric Prog tracks from his vast vinyl collection! It was through a mutual interest in the music of French Proggers Magma that Steve formed a long-lasting friendship with Gong guitarist and vocalist Kavis Torabi. They subsequently went on to write a book together called ‘Medical Grade Music’ and started to DJ at music festivals. With a shared obsession in the workings of modular synths, they then teamed up with Kavis’s musician friend Michael J. York and The Utopia Strong were born.
Steve Hillage’s musical career kick started in Canterbury, England in 1968 with his first professional band Uriel, featuring Dave Stewart, Mont Campbell and Clive Brooks. They released one album in 1969 called ‘Arzachel’ before the band soon split, with the other members going on to form the Progressive Rock band Egg. In early 1971, Hillage formed Khan with bassist/vocalist Nick Greenwood, formerly of Crazy World of Arthur Brown, organist Dick Heninghem and drummer Eric Peachey. They recorded one album ‘Space Shanty’ in 1972 before splitting.
Hillage then joined Kevin Ayers' live band ‘Decadence’ and featured on Ayers' 1973 album ‘Bananamour’. It was during a tour of France with Ayers that Hillage met Daevid Allen, who asked him to join Gong. It was through Allen that Hillage also met his longtime partner and collaborator Miquette Giraudy. Hillage was with Gong from 1973 - 1976 and recorded four albums with them including ‘Flying Teapot’ (1973), ‘Angels Egg’ (1973), ‘You’ (1974) and ‘Shamal’ (1976). Prior to leaving Gong, Hillage recorded his first Steve Hillage Band album ‘Fish Rising’ in 1975 featuring the 1974 lineup of Gong and Dave Stewart (Egg). The Steve Hillage Band debut gig was supporting Queen in Hyde Park London in September 1976.
Between 1975 - 1982 Hillage released a further eight studio albums including ‘L’ (1976), ‘Motivation Radio’ (1977), ‘Green’ (1978), ‘Rainbow Dome Musick’ (1979), ‘Open’ (1979), ‘Aura’ (1980), ‘For To Next’, (1982), ‘And Not Or’ (1982), before disbanding. For the rest of the 80s, Hillage worked as a successful and much in demand record producer, before becoming enamoured with the underground electronic ambient dance music scene in the 90s, subsequently going on to form the electronic dance outfit System 7 with Giraudy. To date they have released around fourteen studio albums, and a further three with their chilled-out ambient side project ‘Mirror System’.
It wasn’t until November 2006 that Hillage returned to his Rock routes, making a surprise appearance with the ‘classic era’ lineup of Gong at the Gong ‘Unconvention’ at the Melkweg in Amsterdam. Not only did he appear with Gong, but he also played a full set of classic 70s material with the revamped Steve Hillage Band, which featured Giraudy on keyboards, Mike Howlett on bass and Chris Taylor on drums. In June 2008, both Hillage and Giraudy joined Gong for two special concerts in London, one at the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank (as part of Massive Attack's Meltdown festival) and the other at The Forum in Kentish Town. The lineup consisted of Daevid Allen, Gilli Smyth, Mike Howlett, Hillage, Giraudy, Theo Travis and Chris Taylor. The concerts proved to be a triumph and with a new sense of vigour and enthusiasm this lineup went on to record a new album ‘2032’ in 2009, which was also produced by Hillage. The band then headed out on a hugely successful and enjoyable UK tour to promote the album. The re-united Steve Hillage Band even supported them at The Forum, Kentish Town, London, on 27th November 2009. A further short four-date UK tour took place in September 2010, before Hillage and Giraudy left, citing musical differences!
Over the intervening years Hillage’s contributions to Prog Rock has been gaining increasing recognition, most notably going on to win the "Visionary" award at the 2013 Progressive Music Awards. A comprehensive limited edition 22 CD deluxe box set ‘Searching for The Spark 1969 -1991’ was released through Madfish Music in 2016 and contains all of Steve’s recorded work from his studio debut (1969's ‘Arzachel’) to the first System 7 album in 1991. It went on to win 'Reissue of the year' at the 2017 Progressive Music Awards.
Hillage returned to touring with The Steve Hillage Band in 2019, marking forty years since the last full-length Steve Hillage Band headline tour in 1979! The current 2023 tour is the band’s first in four years and there was a definite buzz of anticipation and intrigue resonating from the attentive crowds of Psychedelic Prog aficionados!
Surprisingly, the two thousand three hundred capacity Forum was not even half full, in fact the entire circle and balcony were closed off! Despite that the front stalls were buzzing with old school hippies, festival veterans and more than a few baldy rockers such as myself! In contrast the following night at the more intimate six hundred capacity Concorde 2 in Brighton was rammed!
Opening the evening’s musical proceedings were ambient explorers The Utopia Strong. Their set consisted of one continuous piece of mainly improvised sounds that weaved and undulated over forty-five glorious minutes! No vocals except for some intermittent chanting from Kavis. A hypnotically relaxing and warmly soothing musical experience. Wonderful stuff indeed! They set the vibe and atmosphere perfectly before The Steve Hillage Band went on to deconstruct our minds with their Psychedelic sonic onslaught!
With his trusty Steinberger GL2T guitar strapped on Hillage and band kicked off their set in a suitably spacey Jazz fusion style with the rather short but elegant ‘Fish’ from the 1975 ‘Fish Rising’ album before seamlessly segueing into the sublime ‘It's All Too Much’ from the 1976 ‘L’ album. A Beatles track written by George Harrison, originally on the 1969 'Yellow Submarine' album, but given the full-on Hillage makeover, with swirly echo/delay drenched guitar. A tantalising light show peppered the room with a kaleidoscope of colours, hypnotising and stimulating our senses, taking us on a mind-blowing visual trip beyond the galaxy and onwards through endless space! The time had come to levitate with 'The Golden Vibe', the title track of the 2019 album release of recordings made in 1973 during Gong writing sessions for the 'Flying Teapot' album. A spiraling vortex of sound that ascended layer upon layer, penetrating deep into our souls!
The time came to come down from the sky and go 'swimming with the salmon', enter the sumptuous 'The Salmon Song' from the superb 1975 'Fish Rising' album. An intensely spiraling circular repeating riff drives this radiantly luminous track, with multiple swooshes and swirls that rotate and glide through the ether creating a smorgasbord of sensual sound collages to tingle the senses - a formidable performance from Hillage and band. The sonorously reverberating ‘Octave Doctors’ from the 1977 ‘Motivation Radio’ album continued the aural euphoria!
Onto pastures greener with two tracks from the brilliant 1978 'Green' album. First up was the stirringly luminiferous 'Sea Nature', with lusciously blissed out keyboards from Giraudy and gleefully atmospheric glissando guitar from Golfetti adding other worldly trippy textures, before setting sail and journeying further outwards with the equally enthralling 'Ether Ships'. It’s hypnotically tingling repeated guitar phrase orbiting around the song like a well-oiled wheel.
A surprise inclusion to the set was a spirited rendition of The Soft Machine's 1968 song ‘Why Are We Sleeping?’ The band seemed well up for it and gave a zealously scintillating performance of this 60s Psychedelic masterpiece which Steve dedicated to the writer of the track, the late great Kevin Ayers who passed away in 2013. It was then time to set sail through the cosmos once more and gaze up at the moon with wide-eyed wonderment! In came the shimmeringly majestic 'Lunar Musick Suite' to transport us away beyond the universe where anything is possible! A transcendentally ethereal multi-layered soundscape from the 1976 'L' album that was quite simply spectacularly stunning! Coming down from this epic we were then exposed to the radiant glow of 'The Fire Inside' from the 1979 'Open' album. A slight deviation in mood and tempo, that saw the band head in a more commercial direction at the time. A jaunty little number that elegantly danced like a yellow flame over burning coals!
The time was right to set the controls for the heart of the sun with the dazzlingly effulgent 'Solar Musick Suite' from the 1975 'Fish Rising' album. Another extraordinarily astounding piece of music that ebbed and flowed with varied twists and turns lifting the spirit and raising the mood. Mind-blowing stuff! In keeping with the gleaming intensity came the hypnotically driven ‘The Dervish Riff’ from the 1979 ‘Live Herald’ album, with its insistent repeated riff building in ferocity over a bed of bewitching glissando guitar swishes and swooshes! The main set drew to a triumphant close with the fervently spiritual vibes of 'Hurdy Gurdy Man', from the 1976 'L' album. A great hippie dippy song written by Donovan in 1968, but given the full-on Hillage treatment here, in other words, lashings of Psychedelic guitar action that resonated with hallucinatory sentiments. Spellbinding!
Going into the encore we were greeted by another surprise cover in the form of The Moves awesome 1967 single ‘I Can Hear the Grass Grow’. The band certainly attacked these cover songs with notable vigour, pulling off noteworthy performances. Back to 1978s ‘Green’ album for the glitteringly intoxicating ‘Crystal City’, which fizzed, sparkled, bubbled and pinged with esoterically mystical energy!
Keeping the blissful atmosphere levels elevated the time had come for another dynamically trippy Psychedelic work out in the form of the 'Glorious Om Riff' from the 1978 'Green' album - ‘Om’ being the sacred sound of the universal mantra, the essence of the supreme consciousness and sonic representation of the divine. The ensuing tsunami of rapturously buoyant sound washed over us like a tidal wave of gloriously jubilant vibrational energy! Hillage and band were on fire and had the entire audience transfixed.
To round proceedings off we were treated to another interesting cover song choice with an interpretation of Jimi Hendrix's 1967 ‘Are You Experienced’. This proved a great vehicle for some tasty improvisation and extended guitar noodling! Indeed, a spectacular climax to a fantastic show.
Steven C Gilbert