Fri 23rd December 2005
Support from Man, Spacehead
There are some things that are synonymous with the festive season. Turkey and crackers. Hearing Slade on the radio again. Lots of decent films on the telly. And perhaps best of all, Hawkwind's annual Xmas show in London.
In recent years it's been held at the Astoria, and it's no different tonight. Personally I've always liked the Astoria, with its simple layout, good sound and central location in London. Despite the numbers of people that go on about the Hammersmith Apollo being the ultimate rock venue, for me the Astoria will probably always be one of the best places for a band to play London dates.
Or it would be if they didn't insist on putting a security barrier up that results in a 4ft gap between it and the stage... OK, for most bands that play here, such a barrier is necessary. For Hawkwind, whose crowd are mainly a decade older than me at least, and are more likely to be found rolling a joint than crowdsurfing, it's a detraction from the experience. I went to the 2003 and 2004 Xmas shows here and while the 2003 one had no barrier and therefore a fantastic intimacy, last year the barrier was there and the resulting distance put between the band and the crowd meant that the atmosphere of the gig was reduced somewhat.
Thankfully, because me and my mates got in early, we're able to take up prime positions on the barrier itself, where we stick like glue for the rest of the evening. It isn't too long before the first support band, Spacehead, lead by one of Hawkwind's roadies Mr. Dibs [as he's affectionally known] come on and play a relatively short, five song set. Their material sounds much like contemporary Hawkwind stuff, only slightly heavier and more straightforward. It's adequate at least, and their performance doesn't drag, unlike the last support Hawkwind had when I saw them, an old guy called Dumpy who just soloed spacily over a drum machine for aaaaggggggeeeeeeesssss....
Onto Man. People seem to know who they are as there's several requests flying out from behind me. I don't, although their leader is an old guy in a suit so I guess they're pretty long-lasting, although the rest of the band don't look nearly as old. By this time the place is filling up fast. Man are generally well-recieved, playing several long bluesy rock jams with Floyd-esque bits in the middle. They're odd, in that I can't pin them down, but they're not too bad. One of the guitarists has his amp turned up really loud however, it's quite trebly and it's right next to my sore ear. Consequently I'm half-deaf by the time the band leave the stage.
After another half hour wait, my feet are pretty sore and my mate needs a piss. But then the lights dim... and the Hawkwind mothership docks, to a great reception. The lighting is better than last year, and so is the crowd, this should be decent...
They start off with their cover of 'The Right Stuff' and then follow that with 'Sword of the East', which has been in their set for a while now and gets better every time they play it. The band are obviously on form, the projections behind are predictably entrancing, but everything's TOO DARN QUIET. Maybe the deafness Man induced on me hasn't quite left... Hawkwind are playing mostly straight through the PA by the looks of it and their sound isn't quite so penetrating. But still, TURN IT UP!
New one 'Greenback Massacre' follows, and though I don't mind it, I wouldn't say it's a classic or anything.... The next song, however is... YES! SEVEN BY SEVEN! Never heard 'em do this before, this is a blast from the past and it just kicks arse, Alan Davey squeezing out that awesome bassline, Dave Brock's vocals as ethereal as they were 30 years ago [almost]... oooh that was good. The band also seem to have acquired an extra keyboardist and saxophone player-sadly not the long-absent Nik Turner, but another guy who's pretty good anyway-and this seems to give the old songs a slightly newer, almost lounge-jazzy feel to them. Which takes some getting used to, but it's all good... I rather like the way Hawkwind tailor their songs differently every so often, it adds variety.
More new songs... an ambient synthy piece called 'Out Here We Are' and then 'Angela Android', during which some extravagantly painted and brightly-clothed dancers come on and do a routine all around the stage. I must say that the dancers at Hawkwind shows are always a highlight... no other band I've seen has them, and they do their routines so convincingly it's rather unnerving.
The setlist order gets a bit hazy from now on. 'Love in Space'. Oooooh. I'd heard that the setlist was going to be different tonight... this song I haven't heard, but it's nice and melancholy, quite good actually... and then they just blast into 'Lord of Light'. Wasn't really expecting that either! And damn this gig is really cooking now after a slow start... the band have got louder [or maybe my ear recovered] and the lightshow is amazing, definitely the best I've seen it. Strobes flash and twirl from under the drumkit and the stage is backlit at times, leaving just silhouettes... very effective. 'Paradox' next, one of my favourite songs by them. I could do without the piano replacing the guitar in the intro, but then the bass rumbles into activity and it's all go again. Brock's solos in this are excellent, proving why he's one of the most underrated guitarists ever... this gig just gets better and better. The crowd are singing along, and the atmosphere is really building.
'Psi Power' follows, pleasing the audience again... bet that hasn't been played in a long time... then 'Spirit of the Age' and 'Assassins of Allah' back to back. They're flying. Can you say the words "fucking massive grin"? That's what's spread on my face at the moment. 'Brainstorm' follows and this just fucking CANES, loud, heavy and fast... and best of all instead of puttiing a boring techno section in the middle, they instead play 'Upside Down'. OH FUCK ME. I love this little, two minute song, and I really thought the band had forgotten it. To have it dug out again, even with a slightly altered tempo, is such a treat. I'm fairly sure this hasn't been played live in about thirty years or so, and just to have it... it's pretty special. Then back into 'Brainstorm' and they finish it like they began. Crowd reaction: great. Me: grinning even more and properly headbanging.
After a thanks/record sales presentation ceremony thing or something, the band now come back for the encore, this time with an extra guitarist and vocalist. So there's two guitarists, a bassist, an extra vocalist, a drummer, a keyboardist and a sax player onstage. Oh, and some dancers squirting bubbles everywhere. That's about nine people onstage at once, and to this reviewer, used to seeing Hawkwind play with maybe four or five onstage at the most, it gives a bit of a hint of what seeing them live back in the 1970s must have been like, when there were a similar number of people present.
'Psychedelic Warlords', heavy, spacey and this just keeps getting better and better every time they play it. Ditto for the last song of the night, 'Brainbox Pollution'. The crowd is really into it by now, and if only they'd just play an extra song... 'Assault and Battery/Golden Void' or 'Master of the Universe', just to round the night off nicely... But it isn't the case, sadly, and we're left to wander off homewards. I'm deaf in my right ear again. But I'm not complaining. Definitely an improvement on last year's show, although still not quite able to top the awesomeness of the 2003 one, but with with a great setlist, a band on form and a spectacular lightshow, this is a good way to round off an excellent year for gigs. Great stuff, and one of my gigs of the year.