Steve Hillage Band
Saturday 8th June 2019
Shepherd's Bush Empire, London
Steve Hillage is an English guitarist, producer and songwriter, best known for his stint as guitarist and writer in the classic line-up of the Psychedelic Progressive Rock band Gong from 1973 – 1976, and his own Steve Hillage Band from 1975 – 1982. Hillage’s musical career kick started in Canterbury, England, around 1968 with his first professional band Uriel, which featured 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. Hillage guested on their 1974 album ‘The Civil Surface’. 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. The classic line-up of Gong featured Hillage on guitar, Daevid Allen on vocals and guitar, Gilli Smyth on space whispers, Didier Malherbe on saxophone and flute, Tim Blake on keyboards, Mike Howlett on bass and Pierre Moerlen on drums. They went on to record the classic ‘Radio Gnome Invisible’ trilogy albums ‘Flying Teapot’ in May 1973, ‘Angels Egg’ in December 1973, and ‘You’ in October 1974. Incidentally Gong were one of the first acts to sign to Richard Branson's fledgling Virgin Records label. On the 25th June 1973 Hillage participated in the debut live performance of Mike Oldfield's ‘Tubular Bells’ at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, also taking part in a live-in-studio performance filmed for the BBC's Second House series, filmed in November of 1973.
Without any notice, Allen abruptly left Gong in 1975, stating that ‘a wall of force’ was preventing him getting up on stage with the band anymore! Hillage stayed on to front the band for a few more months, featuring on the 1976 album ‘Shamal’, before jumping ship soon after to form the Steve Hillage Band. Their excellent debut album ‘Fish Rising’ was released in 1975, an absolute classic which features most of the 1974 line-up of Gong, as well as former band mate in Khan, Dave Stewart. The album reached number thirty three in the British album charts. The Steve Hillage Band debut gig was supporting Queen in Hyde Park London in September 1976.
For the rest of the 70’s Hillage went on to release a string of quality albums including ‘L’ in 1976, which was recorded using musicians from Todd Rundgren's Utopia and reached number ten in the British album charts. The funk influenced ‘Motivation Radio’ was released in 1977 and reached number twenty eight, before a return to form with ‘Green’ in 1978, which was co-produced by Pink Floyd's Nick Mason and reached number thirty. 1979’s ‘Rainbow Dome Musick’ was a slight departure from the sound of his previous work, with the direction heading towards a more chilled-out ambient vibe spread over two tracks of around twenty minutes long. This is a direction Hillage revisited in the 90’s, adding dance beats and heading straight into the underground dance music scene.
Hillage released a few more less successful albums in the late 70’s and early 80’s including ‘Open’ (1979), ‘Aura’ (1980), ‘For To Next’ (1982), ‘And Not Or’ (1982), before disbanding. For the rest of the 80’s, Hillage worked as a successful and much in demand record producer, working for artists such as Simple Minds, It Bites, Tony Banks, Robyn Hitchcock and The Charlatans to name but a few. In the 90’s Hillage became enamored with the underground electronic ambient dance music scene and went on to form System 7 with his partner Miquette 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 70’s material with the revamped Steve Hillage Band, which featured Miquette 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, Steve Hillage, Miquette Giraudy, Theo Travis and Chris Taylor. The concerts proved to be a triumph and with a new sense of vigor and enthusiasm this line-up 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 toke place in September 2010, before Hillage and Giraudy left, citing musical differences! Support for these few shows was provided by the Hawkwind founder and Space Rock legend Nik Turner and his very own ‘Space Ritual’ band. Hillage guested on Nik Turner’s Sphynx 1978 album ‘Xitintoday’, which he also produced. He also appears on Turner's 2013 'Space Gypsy' album and his 2015 'Space Fusion Odyssey' album.
Sadly Daevid Allen died on 13th March 2015 from neck cancer, with Gilli Smyth passing away on 22nd August 2016 from pneumonia. Despite the death of their founder and leader, Gong continue on with a new line-up consisting of no original members! It was Allen’s dying wish that the band continue to make music without him and that Kavus Torabi should be the front man. They having just released a magnificent new album called ‘The Universe Also Collapses’, which is being lauded as a return to form and is receiving rave reviews on-line and in the music press.
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. In the last nine years Hillage has not only returned to his dance music projects, System 7 and Mirror System, but he has also been keeping his toes dipping into the Prog Rock world with various guest appearances with the likes of Hawkwind in 2015 and 2018, current Gong in 2018 and also various other Prog festivals around Europe.
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.
This short three date UK tour in June 2019 marks forty years since the last full-length Steve Hillage Band headline tour in 1979! Due to the phenomenal demand for tickets, a further ten UK dates have been announced for November 2019. The current touring band consists of Hillage and Giraudy joined by all the members of the current Gong lineup which includes Kavus Torabi (guitar and vocals), Fabio Golfetti (guitar and vocals), Dave Sturt (bass and vocals), Cheb Nettles (drums) and Ian East (Flute and Saxophone).
This gig at the sold out Shepherds Bush Empire Theatre is the last of a run of only three UK dates. Steve Hillage is the master of Psychedelic guitar and his return to the Rock world is very welcome indeed. There was a definite buzz of excitement and anticipation resonating from the crammed in crowd of Prog Rock aficionados!
The evening’s proceedings kicked off in style with a track from the 1979 'Open' album, 'Talking To The Sun', a rather nifty little swirling ditty to warm us up! Then straight into 'It's All Too Much' from the 1976 'L' album. A Beatles track written by George Harrison, originally on the 1969 'Yellow Submarine' album, and given the full on Hillage make over here. A tantalising light show peppered the room with a kaleidoscope of colours, hypnotizing and stimulating our senses, taking us on a mind blowing trip beyond the galaxy and onwards through endless space! The time had come to fly with excerpts from the magnificent 'Aftaglid' (including 'The Golden vibe') from the 1975 'Fish Rising' album. A spiraling vortex of sound that ascended layer upon layer, penetrating deep into our souls!
Time to come down from the sky and go 'swimming with the salmon', enter 'The Salmon Song' from the 1975 'Fish Rising' album. A hypnotic circular repeating riff drives this exceptionally luminous track, with multiple swooshes and swirls that rotate and glide through the ether creating a smorgasbord of interesting sound collages to tingle the senses. If you close your eyes you can just picture a salmon swimming up a raging river and leaping over the falls to this soundtrack. Formidable performance from Hillage and band!
Onto pastures a bit greener with two tracks from the 1978 'Green' album. First up was the radiant and stirring 'Sea Nature', with luscious keyboards from Miquette Giraudy and atmospheric glissando guitar from Hillage, before journeying further outwards with the equally enthralling 'Ether Ships', with its hypnotic repeated guitar phrase orbiting around the song like a well-oiled wheel. It was then time to set sail for the sky once more and gaze at the moon with wide eyed wonderment! In came the majestic 'Lunar Musick Suite' to transport us away to a far off place where anything is possible! A transcendental multi-layered soundscape from the 1976 'L' album that was quite simply stunning!
Then it was back to a bit of 'Green' again with the delightful and soothing 'Palm Trees (love guitar)' from the 1978 'Green' album. After which we were treated to another dip into the 1979 'Open' album with 'The Fire Inside', a jumpy little number that radiated like a warm glow. Up next was 'Motivation' from the 1977 'Motivation Radio' album, a funky little number that bubbled and popped along with pulsating throbs!
Time for another epic monster of a track, time to set the controls for the heart of the sun! Time for the dazzling 'Solar Musick Suite' from the 1975 'Fish Rising' album. A colossal piece of music that lifts the spirit and raises the mood. Wonderful stuff! The main set drew to a close with 'Hurdy Gurdy Man', from the 1976 'L' album. A great hippie dippy song written by Donovan in 1968 and given the full-on Hillage treatment here - in other words - lashings of Psychedelic guitar that resonated with transcendental vibes and hallucinatory sentiments.
For the first encore we got the phenomenal 'Light In The Sky' from the 1977 'Motivation Radio' album. A thunderous Hard Rock riff drives this track along creating an intoxicating groove that elevates to a higher plane, with some nice delicate and calming space whispers from Giraudy adding to the ambience. Trippy stuff indeed! To keep the atmosphere levels elevated the time had come for another mammoth slice of Psychedelic masterwork in the form of the 'Glorious Om Riff', from the 1978 'Green' album. The ensuing tsunami of sound washed over us like a tidal wave of vibrational energy! Hillage was on fire and had the entire audience in the palm of his hand, we were simply mesmerised by his brilliance! Out of this world stuff!
For the second encore we got 'Not Fade Away', a cover of the 1957 Buddy Holly song from the 1977 'Motivation Radio' album. Once again this song was given the full on Hillage Psychedelic treatment! A great vehicle for some tasty improvisation and extended guitar noodling! We were also treated to some tantalising excerpts from the glorious and glittering Gong track 'I Never Glid Before', originally from the 1973 'Angel's Egg' album. What a spectacular climax to a fantastic show. It is fair to say Steve Hillage is back and firing on all cylinders!
Steven C. Gilbert