Student’s Union, Newcastle University
Thursday, 23rd March 2023
I was surprised to realise that it had been 18 years since I’d last been in this building (Dio touring back in 2005), but even more surprised to find how much it had changed internally. The stage now moved much further forward in the room, positioned to the far left, and vastly smaller. Add to that the stage only being around two feet high due to the fairly low ceiling of this basement style venue, and suddenly this event took on a very different style of production than I was expecting. Yet I was still very much looking forward to watching Steve Hillage play a set made up of his classic ’70s material, from his most productive era when he was experiencing his peak popularity.
I arrived on time to catch the support act, only to be informed that they’d gone on 15 minutes early (oops!), so I hurriedly entered to find them already a third of the way through their scheduled set. But I don’t think that I really missed out on much, as I grasped exactly what they were all about during the thirty remaining minutes of their show. The Utopia Strong are definitely an ‘ambient’ music band, in the most extreme terms of that description. No percussion, no dance-beats, and certainly no groove whatsoever. Their music is based around a solitary droning bass note with keyboard chords and ever-so-slightly moving melodies structured around that note. Concentrating on sound textures as opposed to catchy hooks and the like. Starting off very softly, other elements are introduced, building up in layers and incredibly slowly increasing in volume and density to take the listener on a cosmic musical journey.
The Utopia Strong were represented on stage as a three-piece ensemble, with two of them manipulating keyboards, samples and sound generators placed on either side of the stage, and a guitarist/vocalist centre-stage. Visually there’s not a lot to watch. Two of the band members stood while they performed, while the other one was sat down throughout – and on the two-foot high stage was basically hidden from sight for the vast majority of the audience during the entire performance. And he just happened to be former world snooker champion Steve Davis. I don’t think they played many songs, I recall them only stopping for brief applause on a couple of occasions during the part of the show I caught. The crowd enjoyed it, a nice aperitif before the main course, but I personally didn’t really get it. For me it wasn’t really a ‘live’ experience, as I could quite as easily just listened to the music at home. What they did, they did well. Perhaps I’m just the wrong guy to truly appreciate it.
Kavus Torabi – Guitar, Electronics, Harmonium, Vocals
Michael York – Electronics, Synthesisers, Recorder
Steve Davis – Electronics, Synthesisers
When I was in my mid-teens, Steve Hillage was a true British ‘hippy’ icon. Coming out of the Canterbury scene of the late ’60s and early ’70s, a member of Gong before striding out to produce music under his own name. He’s since become synonymous with the mid to late ’70s era, when he issued several solo albums and toured extensively. In the ’80s his time was more focused on production work for other acts, and he seemed to disappear from public consciousness (apart from that classic name-check during an episode of The Young Ones). Yet it’s truly fabulous that he’s finally back out there performing live once again, playing a selection of songs from the era when most of his fan-base felt he was at his creative best. And also incredibly cool that he’s still working alongside long-time musical partner Miquette Giraudy, and using the current line-up of Gong as his backing band for this tour.
Now straight away I’m not going to claim to be any kind of big fan of Hillage. My sole experiences are seeing him perform on TV’s Rock Goes to College, and spending a misspent post-school youth getting stoned in my mate’s bedroom listening to the Live Herald record. But I really liked that album, so that is the reason why I wanted to see this particular tour. And he did not disappoint. Great tunes, great band playing alongside him, good sound quality in this sub-level venue, and a reasonable turnout of around 350 people here to hear those tunes from their own youth too. Opening with his trademark cover of George Harrison’s It’s All Too Much, you could feel the nostalgic vibe permeating throughout the room. Third song in and it’s The Salmon Song, which I’d been looking forward to the most. Brilliantly played, it sounded so good, the band really cooking on the more up-tempo numbers, especially the young drummer who I personally would award man of the match. He was that good.
Hillage played superbly. Gone are his trademark beard and tea-cosy woollen hat, yet his musical essence remains just as strong. Gorgeous playing with some beautiful tones and delays coming from his guitar. Vocally, he did fairly well, his singing getting a bit lost in the mix at times when not also being re-enforced by his fellow musicians. But he is 71 years old now, so I’m certainly going to cut him some slack here, as it would be ludicrous to expect him to vocally sound just how he did 45 year ago. Yet his signature guitar sound is as awesome as ever, and he looked like he was having such a good time up there recreating these songs live once again. Miquette took up most of the left hand side of the front of the stage with her keyboards work-station, with Hillage and his fellow two guitarists (Fabio Golfetti and Kavus Torabi, who we saw playing earlier with The Utopia Strong), taking up the right-hand side. Bassist Dave Sturt floated around in the back, flautist/saxophonist Ian East too, and the drummer, Cheb Nettles, unfortunately completely hidden from sight. Absolutely gutted as I would have loved to see him play, but that was never to be in this venue with its limited stage size and very low actual stage height.
We were treated to several songs from that amazing period of Fish Rising through to Motivation Radio, many of them instrumentals (or with long instrumental/jam passages included). Steve’s music took the audience on a proper journey of drifting trippyness through to grooving melodies and beautiful layers of keyboards and guitars. Not so out-there that it lost me, as it always kept me interested and enchanted. Basically, he’s got some damn fine tunes, and happens to have a really great band playing them too. The crowd were mostly aged 60-plus – you just had to follow the flow of people with greying long hair to know you were heading in the right direction when looking for the entrance. Yet this IS the core audience for this music, which dates from more than four decades ago. There was a good atmosphere in the crowd, who gave an excellent response as they got to hear these tunes played once again. For me, I’m just not a fan of the venue, and that was my only real downside on the night.
The band finished off the main set with Hurdy Gurdy Man (what else?), before coming back for another cover as their last number, with a cracking version of the Move’s I Can Hear the Grass Grow. By that time I’d moved my way from near the front of the stage to have a listen and watch from the back of the room. I should have stuck where I was close to the PA stack, as the sound was much clearer there, and now I was at the back struggling to look over the heads of tall people. Never mind, I really enjoyed the show. Marvellous to catch the band playing these fantastic tunes. Hillage is still a hippy God to many, and his crown has not slipped one iota. I now need to reconnect with the Live Herald album, and go on Youtube to watch that classic Rock Goes to College gig.
Thank you Steve for the brilliant nostalgic musical embrace. I enjoyed that.
It’s All Too Much
The Golden Vibe
Hurdy Gurdy Glissando
The Fire Inside
Hurdy Gurdy Man
I Can Hear The Grass Grow
Are You Experienced?
Steve Hillage – Guitar, Vocal
Miquette Giraudy – Synthesisers, Vocals
Kavus Torabi – Guitar, Vocals
Fabio Golfetti – Guitar, Vocals
Ian East – Saxophone, Flute
Dave Sturt – Bass, Vocals
Cheb Nettles – Drums, Vocals