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Gong / Psigong / Andy Bole (live at The Garage)

28 November 2014

Gong live November 2014A few years ago, Daevid Allen unexpectedly reconstituted Gong with a new and (relatively) youthful line-up, and long term fans were initially rather flummoxed (no doubt this was part of the idea — the Alien having long delighted in wrongfooting his audience). But after a series of barnstorming live performances and a fine new album, I See You – the best Gong album since the early ’70s classics on which their legend rests – the revamped line-up had proved its mettle, and the announcement of a new set of tour dates promised more delights to come.

Then came the bad news – Allen had been diagnosed with lymphoma, he was undergoing treatment in Australia and would be unable to tour, his son (and Gong drummer) Orlando was also staying in Oz to look after his mother and Gong co-founder Gilli Smyth, the gigs were off, and Gong was, quite possibly, no more. Against the odds, however, the band rescheduled a few dates – billed as album launch parties for I See You – and went on the road without their main man, but with his full blessing. But what would this entail? Gong without Daevid – how on Earth, or any other planet, was that going to work?

On arrival at The Garage it quickly becomes apparent that there’s been a lot of rallying round by the extended Gong family – we’re promised guest appearances from old hands Mike Howlett and Steve Hillage, and there are two support sets from a selection of old friends and cohorts of the Divided Alien. First up is guitarist Andy Bole, who played with Allen in the Glissando Guitar Orchestra. He plays a set of gradually building solo electric guitar pieces, using real-time sampling and looping to add layer upon layer. It’s meditative, slow-burning stuff, reminiscent at times of Manuel Gottsching’s guitar excursions, and partway through he’s joined by current Gong sax and flute man Ian East who does a similar loop-based thing on flute: the overall effect is really rather beautiful and the crowd (it’s already pretty full) are suitably appreciative.

Next up we have something called Psigong, which turns out to be a foursome of Mike Howlett and three other musicians connected to Gong: drummer Steve Cassady (formerly of Here And Now), guitarist Jerry Bewley (Kangaroo Moon) and synth wizard Basil Brooks (Zorch). They brew up a set of drifting space-funk improvisations in the vein of Gong’s classic track “Isle Of Everywhere” – nothing particularly unexpected happens but it’s all quite enjoyable, and Mike Howlett takes some time to talk about Daevid and mull over the fact that “Once you’ve been a Gong person, you’re always a Gong person… there’s no cure!Gong live November 2014

While it may seem trite to say that the absent Alien is here in spirit, the fact that he’s so clearly uppermost in everyone’s minds makes it a legitimate truth – underlined a few minutes later when Gong finally take the stage and start their set with a video of Daevid reciting “This Revolution”, from the new album. There’s a remarkable surge of emotion in the room, a collective sense that this actually means something. The band seize the moment – none more so than recent recruit, guitarist and man of many bands Kavus Torabi, formerly of Cardiacs and currently of Guapo and Knifeworld. It’s he who has the unenviable task of taking on the frontman role in the absence of Daevid Allen, and he does a sterling job – at no stage does Kavus give the impression he’s trying to be Daevid; if anything he seems more like a fan who’s lucked out and joined one of his favourite bands – yet, remarkably, he has the charisma, warm good humour and musical chops to hold it all together and channel the Gong current in a way that feels completely uncontrived.

With the band’s guru thousands of miles away and stricken by serious illness, the words to “You Can’t Kill Me” take on extra resonance – Kavus knows it, the audience know it, and the whole room belts out the chorus. He even manages to orchestrate a heartfelt mass singalong to “I’ve Bin Stoned Before,” and he does this with great aplomb. The house lights go up briefly to allow Kavus to snap a pic of the audience which he emails to Daevid Allen in Australia. Later on he will read us Daevid’s reply: “..on a cold night in London it might sound like hippy bullshit, but I love you – whether you like it or not.” And written down like that, it might read like hippy bullshit, too. But I was there, and it wasn’t.

Gong live November 2014

It’s already apparent that any lingering concerns over ‘authenticity’ and suchlike are simply irrelevant to tonight’s proceedings – the particular circumstances of tonight’s gig, and the strength of feeling in the venue, make this a darned sight more real than your average rock pantomime – but it nevertheless helps that this line-up have some terrific new material from I See You to show off, and the best of the new songs is “When God and the Devil Shake Hands” which is built around a sinuous guitar line that recalls Kavus’ time with Cardiacs. It also helps that a couple of the old Gong guard are on hand to participate – Mike Howlett reappears, and there’s loud cheering as Steve Hillage walks on stage, guitar in hand.

With three guitarists and two bassists (let’s just namecheck them all: Fabio Golfetti on guitar, Dave Sturt on bass, powerhouse new drummer Cheb Nettles, plus the aforementioned Messrs East, Torabi, Howlett and Hillage) the sound expands to a thick psychedelic stew and we’re blessed with a quite astonishing rendition of “Master Builder,” the ensemble cranking out the glorious Om riff as if their lives depended on it. Hillage absolutely lets fly on the solo – I’m not normally one for all that guitar hero bollocks, but the sight of this greying, unassuming figure playing such glorious blistering lead guitar is something to treasure. At the end of it, the crowd go justifiably nuts, and a flushed, exalted Kavus exclaims “I just wanna thank Steve for writing the BEST FUCKING RIFF OF ALL TIME!” And everyone agrees.

Gong live November 2014

They close the main set with “Tropical Fish” and “Selene,” and when they come back for the encore there’s yet another musician in the ranks: former Gong sax man Theo Travis, who pairs up with Ian East at stage left. I’m expecting a jolly run-through of “Pot Head Pixies”, but instead we get something far more meaty: the depth-charge space-warp groove of “Fohat Digs Holes in Space” followed by a delirious, breakneck rendition of “Dynamite.” That appears to be it, but the icing on the cake is that rarity, a genuinely spontaneous extra encore: “It seems apt to play this again for Daevid,” says Kavus, and they reprise “You Can’t Kill Me”. With everyone on stage, it goes off into weird glissando-funk territory in the middle section – the massed guitars have rather overwhelmed the sax by now, and the vocals (mostly handled by Kavus, although Golfetti and Sturt take turns too) are getting a little frayed, but it really doesn’t matter. By this point, it’s all about testifying, and this they do righteously.

Whether there is a future for Gong beyond this handful of gigs seems uncertain, although Allen has always claimed that his approach is “to steer a boat for a while and then jump off and do something else, let someone else steer it” and, by extension, that Gong can continue without him – whether that could really work in the long term, whether it would feel right to keep using the Gong name, remains to be seen. But tonight, the motley crew assembled under the sign of the flying teapot have pulled off a remarkable, emotional triumph, and if this turns out to be it, then it’s one hell of a swansong.

-Words and pictures: Haunted Shoreline-
-Pictures: David Bainbridge-

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