So, the new musical year starts exactly as the last one ended- on a freezing cold evening in equatorial Bilston. I might have told you that would happen…
Tonight, the spiritual home of all West Midlands rock’n’roll plays host to the wonderful world of psychedelic space punk, courtesy of one of the genre’s true originators: with a back catalogue taking in at least ten different bands and over 50 years’ worth of revolutionary mindbending sounds, ex-Hawkwind sax man Nik Turner (for ‘tis he) is a cast-iron legend, and though the venue is only half-full, the fact that he can still pull even this many punters on the first Sunday of the year (traditionally ‘zombie season’ for venues everywhere) speaks immense volumes.
It’s also heartwarming to see that, in a week when we’ve already lost one reed-playing god of the hippie zeitgeist (former Moody Blues flautist Ray Thomas, in case you wondered) Turner is, at 77, still kicking serious arse with both his zest for life and his unique vocal timbre seemingly undiminished. OK, he occasionally forgets or fluffs the lyrics, particularly on Brainstorm – but who gives a fuck? Because of their ever-changing and fluid lineup, the band members often forget the key even or the song itself, and they still manage to pull it back together- and if they almost know what they’re doing, then that means their leader remains in complete control. Rest assured.
Granted, this still results in the occasional ‘ouch’ moment- an otherwise sublime rendition of Bob Calvert’s Steppenwolf peters out without warning, and during an energetic Fungus Among Us, the new guitarist (name escapes me, though I think it might be Gary) seems to be playing a completely different song altogether. Plus there’s no denying that at several junctures throughout, the great man’s own tenor playing seems to embody the, ahem, ‘atonal freedom’ of Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders regardless of whether or not he actually means it to. Yet on the other hand, this is not, nor will it ever be, the super-polished click-track widdly-fusion-psych of Ozric Tentacles and their ilk: though the two have shared many a bill in the past, what Turner delivers is still very much a rock’n’roll show, and often, such things are at their most enjoyable when spontaneous and under-rehearsed. As the saxophonist himself might put it, it’s a journey into ‘divine chaos’ for both the crew and the passengers of his spaceship: you want virtuoso perfection, wait a fortnight for the Lifesigns gig.
Though a few mellower selections from recent albums like Otherworld, Life In Space and Space Gypsy receive warm receptions, it’s inevitably the ‘classics’ people want to hear: if he didn’t play Orgone Accumulator, D-Rider, Master Of The Universe, Children Of The Sun or pulsing opener Watching The Grass Grow, they’d all be a pit peeved, and he knows this only too well. However, while other artists of Turner’s vintage often seem frustrated by such dichotomies, a healthy trade in CD and DVD sales at the merch stall seems to suggest that even if the newer material isn’t getting aired as much as he’d like, it’s at least getting heard. Meanwhile, for those who prefer the post-punk stuff, there’s a welcome sojourn into Inner City Unit territory via a marching, thrudding Bones Of Elvis: probably the closest thing in his repertoire to an audience participation number, it never fails to incite loon-dancing of the kind so much missed in these days of sterile mainstream rock.
Yet conversely, almost as if to prove his ceaseless disdain for predictability (or perhaps more prosaically because the new members haven’t yet learnt them) several other stalwarts, such as Reefer Madness and Ejection, are jettisoned in favour of a ten-minute jazz-funk exploration, a touch of dub reggae, and, by way of an encore, a 15-minute high-speed thrash through Glenn Miller’s In The Mood: with umpteen trick endings, rising and falling tempos, some serious audio generator work from Nigel Alien (luckiest sod in rock, gets to travel the world in the company of a pioneer whilst possessing little or no musical expertise beyond ‘sonic instinct’) and extreme honkings that practically rape the ghost of Tex Benecke before one’s eyes and ears, this has to be one of the most entertaining finales I’ve witnessed in ages. If it wasn’t for the fact of the last tram leaving at 11 20 and the latest bus at 11 40, he’d probably play all night: having promoted him myself in 2004, memories of being forced to physically pull him off (ooer missus, nay, nay and thrice nay, look, now, don’t etc) during an impromptu, not to mention long, cover of Stranger On The Shore remain vivid, and it’s a joy to see that 14 years later, very little has changed.
As he follows the customary “thankyous” with his by-now-even-more-customary announcement that the outfit are “looking for gigs, so get in touch”, the thought suddenly occurs that the only thing that’ll ever stop Nik Turner is the lid being nailed down (which, hopefully, won’t be any time soon) Somehow, I get the feeling that long after all his contemporaries, including a certain chap whose name rhymes with ‘Cave Jock’, have either passed or retired, this particular wizard will still be blowing his horn, entertaining new generations of Hawknutters and spacerockers, and looking like the first and last psychedelic punk on Earth: if he can knock this combo (all more than passable musicians, but, if we’re honest, in need of learning the set just that little bit better) into shape via some at-least-semi-regular rehearsal, he’ll also have a lineup capable of matching, if not surpassing, their now-sadly-retired predecessors . And wouldn’t that be the greatest victory any space warrior could win?
May the wind of time forever blow through him.