When Steve Hillage made the surprise announcement that he was getting his old band back together to perform at the Gong Unconvention, he hadn't performed in this particular configuration since December 1979. In the interviews that follow the DVD's concert program, Hillage confesses that he and his mates had to relearn all their old parts. "Do you remember how to finger that bit?" They had to listen to their old recordings slowed down and over and over again to learn to play their own songs.
Dude! Cool. Proof, once again, of what the Hawai'ian red dirt shirts claim: Old Guys Rock.
The concert is marvelous, in part because, as Hillage says in the interview, he had decided to play the Unconvention a year or so before announcing the fact and spent that time practicing the 25-year-old songs. The hardest part, and alas, the weakest bit of the 2006 Gong Family Unconvention performance, was the vocals. Then again, Hillage's voice was never more than a utilitarian herald's tool. You could hear him loud and clear at his peak in the late 1970s, and you can hear him just fine in 2006.
But a bit of backing and filling is no doubt needed for the uninitiated. Hillage, born in 1951, was a key player in the British acid and progressive rock scene, starting in the late 1960s. (I say "key" with the understanding that those of us who read liner notes in the 1970s are now writing reviews in the 21st century.) He's closely associated with prog-rock favorite Camel, though he never actually played with the band on any recording that I know of (it's a friends-of-friends thing leading to friends in action). And, as he insists in the interviews on this DVD, he's not a prog rocker, not now, not never. Roight you are, mate.
Rather, Hillage is a pioneer of space music; he was, as he points out in the DVD's interviews, performing trance-dance music avant le letter. The first album I know him from is called Space Shanty, circa early 1970s. As a guitarist, he's original still, playing a style called "gliss" (think "bliss" and punning on the run-happy "glissando"; over the years, I've tried to copy him in my own playing, and this new DVD really helps because there's not so much damn hair in the way of the fingerboard - that said, I could only wish I were so dexterous after so many, um, experiences). His style is neither Steve Howe of Yes nor Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane, and he definitely outsmarts Jimmy Page of the utterly forgettable and derivative Led Zeppelin, yet it would be hard to miss the tongue-tingling cross-influences those guitarists and others (Jay Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service comes to mind) must have had on each other (either that, or it was the cultural milieu that led all the above to work out roughly parallel, high-flying themes).
Perhaps, more pertinently, looming behind all the acidified musicians of that era are the riffs and techniques of Ravi Shankar, the musician who, with a demure smile, yanked the stick out of the ass of white-boy rock´n´roll and taught us all to gliss. The beauty of music, in the 1960s and ´70s as ever, is that it´s incestuous, cutthroat, communitarian, and forever utterly in debt to the ecstasy of influence.
By the mid-1970s, Hillage had his own eponymously named band and an album called Fish Rising. That's about when I discovered the music, first listening to that first album swimming on sugar cubes copped from a stranger in a public park in southern California - an experience, both musical and otherwise, I've kept with me all these years: innocently stupid and unearnedly lucky, the very definition, I believe, of serendipity.
There followed a tumult of albums and live shows, culminating in December 1979 with a final performance and a heartfelt goodbye. Amid all that activity (and before, truth be known - the past is both busy and complicated), Hillage hooked up with Gong, a seminal jazz-prog-acid combo that's harbored a multitude of players over the years and that deserves an essay of their own. (There's a DVD being released of the 2006 Gong performance at their own Unconvention as well.) Soon after the final Hillage Band show, Hillage and longtime companion and musical partner Miquette discovered techno; they've been DJing, in various trend- and root-setting maneuvers, ever since. Notably, Hillage has performed as a guest guitarist with The Orb and, using his computer skills, remixed Algerian singers to dance floor cries of gliss and glee (see also Cheb i Sabbah).
This recording of the Steve Hillage Band's 2006 show reprises their shows of the 1970s, sometimes note for note. It's a job well done, if not entirely made new (there is a new piece, "These Undiscovered Lands," that caps the performance). The sound is immaculate (that's important, and gets the DVD 3.5 stars from me - Hillage did the mix), the camera work certainly adequate, and the editing descending to cliché... Well, let's not pay to close attention to the editing, ey? Hillage remains a masterful guitar player with a unique style and his band, bass player Mike Howlett white-haired now, are rock-steady and note-perfect throughout.
Missing from this show are "Electric Gypsies," the new-age anthem Hillage penned in time for a 1976 BBC performance (and for sure not to be confused with the L.A. Guns tune of close to the same name), as well as his perhaps best-known cover, Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" (see 1976's L for the definitive versions of both; for a band clearly influenced by L and Hillage, don't miss the music of Jai Utal and his Pagan Love Orchestra; Mondo Rama, in particular, will float your boat).
I've still got "Electric Gypsies" in heavy rotation in my car (if a song on an iPod with roughly 500 others can be called one in heavy rotation), so it was a bit of disappointment not to truck with that tune and so many other Hillage classics on the DVD, but hearing the now short-haired and clean-shaven gnome of clearly extraterrestrial origin sing again of my beloved Pacific Northwest salmon was a pleasure worth the splash of refreshment. The fish rises again indeed, and this DVD is highly recommended for all lovers of new age, acid, prog, of the well-tempered gliss guitar and those in search of a musically heady good time.
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