Newly released on Gonzo, this album captures the Steve Hillage Band live at London’s Rainbow Theatre in November 1977, and as such invites immediate comparison with the established classic Live Herald, which dates from the same period, and indeed one track, “Electrick Gypsies,” is actually taken from the same gig as the one presented here. Aside from that single overlap, however, there’s much less similarity between the two releases than one might expect, largely because of the line-up.Unlike the expanded musical formations on some of the Live Herald tracks, the Steve Hillage Band documented here is a stripped-down four-piece, comprising Hillage himself on guitar and vocals, his long-term partner Miquette Giraudy on keyboards, and an all-American rhythm section of Curtis Robertson (bass) and Joe Blocker (drums). The lack of extra musicians means that the baroque extended instrumental blow-outs that characterised Hillage’s earlier solo albums are conspicuously absent (“Salmon Song,” for example, is condensed into just three minutes) and there’s also a different emphasis in terms of material, with more selections from Motivation Radio, Hillage’s third solo album, and rather fewer from his better known first two albums, Fish Rising (recorded in 1975 while he was still a member of Gong) and L. Indeed on first scanning the track listing I felt a little disappointed by this – Motivation Radio being, for me, the weakest of these releases – but here the versions of songs from that album comfortably better their studio incarnations, largely thanks to the aforementioned rhythm section, who bring a funky groove to the material and infuse it with oomph and life.
Unlike his erstwhile bandmate Daevid Allen, who spent the late ’70s enthusiastically embracing punk and New Wave, seeing them as the latest manifestations of the eternal rebel yell, Hillage remained unrepentantly hippy-dippy, peppering his songs with wide-eyed references to crystals, ley lines, UFOs, and energy fields – the whole panoply of the burgeoning New Age movement, for which he was pretty much the house musician at this time. Even his most indulgent fans have probably found themselves cringing at some of this over the years, although here the clunkiest lyrics of all are those of “Motivation,” which comes off as a queasy meeting of Glastonbury-style “alternative spirituality” and twenty-first century management-speak ( I suppose you could argue he was ahead of some curve). Then there’s his singing voice, which was never the best, although vocally he’s in pretty good shape here – certainly better than the only time I saw the SHB live, which was decades later in 2009, a performance that featured Steve playing sublime guitar but singing like a walrus with toothache.But none of that’s really important since nobody, I assume, listens to Steve Hillage primarily for vocals or lyrics, but rather for his extraordinary guitar playing. And on that count this album scores very highly indeed. On most of the tunes as played here the actual song is dispensed with fairly quickly so that the band can get on with the main business of soaring into the stratosphere, the engines powered by that aforementioned fat funky groove, while Hillage plays gorgeous, swooping liquid lead lines. He’s a technical virtuoso, but never lapses into sterile muso chops, combining his dexterity with warmth, soul, and a unique style which seems to owe as much to Arabic or Indian scales and modes as it does to conventional rock guitar. Around him, the rest of the band mesh quite beautifully at times, and the best parts of this album capture that indefinable, undeniable magic of musicians locking together to produce a whole several orders of magnitude greater than the sum of its parts. It’s also intriguing to note the combination of Miquette Giraudy’s spacey electronics and the danceable rhythms and realise that this is probably the seed of Hillage and Giraudy’s psychedelic techno excursions as System 7 over a decade later.
The sound quality is excellent – thankfully this isn’t one of those archive live releases that turns out to be a shoddy bootleg – and there’s a booklet with some contemporary pictures of the band and what appears to be a miniaturised scan of the 1977 Steve Hillage Band tour programme, though sadly the magnifying glass required to read this isn’t included. It’s a quality release, unlikely to win any new fans perhaps; but for existing devotees, this is a must.