Friday, December 12, 2008

Hawkwind (a new golden age?)

Monday 8th December, The Lemon Grove, Exeter University

If you were writing a social/cultural history of Hawkwind, the continuing existence of the band in 2008 would barely receive a footnote - it would all be about the Notting Hill scene, Michael Moorcock, Bob Calvert, the Space Ritual, Lemmy, Stacia, Stonehenge, the free festival scene, etc., etc. But from a strictly musical point of view, what's currently going on with Hawkwind is very much worth remarking on.

To my ears, on this occasion, they sounded as sharp as a well-honed blade, a blade Captain Brock's been sharpening for almost 40 years. The words 'organic machine' seem to sum it up best. It's quite machine-like in its precision, in a krautrock-sort-of-way, but with a greater organicity (partly to do with the interhuman interaction that goes into the music-making, and partly the way the squelchy analogue blurps and bleeps fuse into the heavy rock framework). The sound was immaculate. Absolutely no problems with the PA, everything sounded perfect, they sounded incredibly well-rehearsed and yet the whole thing had a real freshness about it. They encored with "Silver Machine", of all things (sung by the terminally enthusiastic and affable drummer-since-'86 Richard Chadwick) and it sounded like it could have been written last week.

This being Hawkwind, it's not surprising that there have been a couple of changes in line-up since I last saw them (squashed into The Phoenix a couple of years ago...the surprisingly small audience at the Lemon Grove - known to Exeter students as the 'Lemmy', rather appropriately - meant there was a lot more room to move): Tim Blake's back on keyboards and theremin (a great idea). Mr. Dibs, a roadie who I last saw take the stage to recite "7 x 7" (I think) is now the bass player, and like Alan Davy who he replaced, very much from the Lemmy School of Bass Playing. His vocals haven't quite got the necessary growl and authority yet, but it seems very apparent that he's going to grow perfectly into the role. A sheepish looking young man off to the side fiddled with a laptop and played a bit of supplementary guitar and bass - if Brock's the captain of the good ship Hawkwind, and Chadwick his first mate, then this would be the new cabin boy - he turns out to be Niall Hone from Tribe of Cro. Because of the particular wall-of-sound style spacerock they play, it's not always clear who's making any given sound, so it was hard to tell what was him and what was Tim Blake. But that's kind of the whole point of the Hawkwind sound. [This review of the modern Hawkwind gets that point across perfectly - and I love the "Don't get in the way of a Dave Brock guitar solo" caption.]

The sound was a bit more metallic than in recent times - "Angels of Death" and "Who's Gonna Win the War?" in particular had that NWOBHM thing going on. I read somewhere recently that Judas Priest had the distinction within the world of heavy metal of severing the connection with the blues. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not (they were very white, somehow, and I always sensed a mildly fascistic aesthetic). Hawkwind have got their blues roots ("Hurry on Sundown", Willie Dixon songs, etc.), but this incarnation didn't really show it - again, it was more 'Germanic' (in the Krautrock sense). Not a lot of Africa in there. Does this in any way explain the roughly 10:1 male:female audience ratio? Anyway, although I'm not too into the metal thing, in this case it worked for me because of the way it was perfectly offset by the squelchy analogue electronics. "Angels of Death" had the most fantastic jam section wedged inside it - thunderously hypnotic. "Hassan-i-Sabbagh", on other hand, had a kind of ambient trance midsection (is this the "Space is Their (Palestine)" track from that recent album I never heard?). It was quite long and seemed largely pre-programmed - hard to tell who was playing what - but when the drums kicked back in, it just dovetailed beautifully back into the familiar song. I'm impressed by the way the nearly-Septuagenarian Dave Brock manages to integrate any interesting new genres that come along (punk, NWOBHM, dub, techno, drum'n'bass) into the sonic soup that is Hawkwind.

We got a load of classics, as you'd expect. They opened with "Master of the Universe" -> "Time We Left this World Today", followed by "Orgone Accumulator" -> "You Know You're Only Dreaming" -> "Orgone Accumulator" (OA was a bit too far on the 'boogie' side of things - had me in mind of ZZ Top, but I still enjoyed it). There were also a couple of new ones: "Ray", which rocked out properly in the best possible post-80's Hawkwind kind of way, and "Sentinel", a sci-fi themed (duh!) Dibs song which was a bit duff, but it's still good to hear them trying out new stuff. Also from relatively recent times (damn, 1992 isn't that recent - that's aging for you...) was the populist singalong "Right to Decide" with old black and white footage of the proletariat rioting and fighting the police integrated into the light show.

The light show was perfectly adequate, but not really up to Hawkwind standard - like anything a moderately successful band with a data projector might chuck up on a screen. In fact, in stark contrast to the stunning sonic output, the whole visual aspect of this particular Hawkwind tour was rather embarrasing, in a 1980's Dr. Who-sort-of-way. Tim Blake looked utterly ridiculous flailing about like a rockstar (but looking like a withered, long-haired Warhol) with his wearable keyboard - I'm guessing that he realises this, and there's a strong element of irony here. I hope so, anyway! Dibs looked formidable in his cowl/cassock thing - like a nordic heavy metal monk with forked beard. The interpretative dance/mime artists didn't work for me at all - in the past, they've drawn most successfully on a kind of dayglo/camp/pixie/punk/circus/festival vibe, but this just seemed a bit po-faced and pretentious. But the live Hawkwind thing has always been a bit of a mad carnival. I get the feeling that Brock is into just letting everyone do their thing and just finds it all rather amusing. Certainly no James Brown-style fascistic dress code and uniform inspections here!

The audience tho'...I mentioned the worrying gender ratio, but it wasn't just that... it felt like a bit of a comic book/sci-fi convention or something. No scary bikers, no voluminous beards or skanky dreads flying (in fact very little movement at all). Was there anyone in attendance on mind-altering drugs, or was it all just pints of Carlsberg? This is HAWKWIND - where have all the freaks gone, man?


Post a Comment

<< Home