Symphony Hall, Birmingham – November 25 2018
I’ll say this for the Blackheart Orchestra: for a relatively unknown band who bring out their albums on their own label and rely largely on direct band-to-fan contact for subsidy, they sure do get around. Earlier this year, they were supporting Fischer Z at Academy 3: having been knocked out by their performance there, I’ve since attended their intimate headline show at the Robin (which was even more amazing) and now they’re back again, touring with the Mighty ‘Wind. Not only that, but performing in front of possibly the biggest audiences they’ve known to date: a not at all bad achievement in this uncertain climate.
What’s more, though their textured, acoustic-meets-electronic wash of sound (think Cocteau Twins and Slowdive meet Kate Bush, Judie Tzuke and Curved Air in Steve Reich’s basement) may seem on the surface an unusual match for the space rock overlords, the repetitive trance-like grooves of Hypnotize, Sebastian and Drown Me Out, coupled with the wordless vocalese of You And I and Hey Pluto, do actually inhabit the selfsame lunar landscapes traversed by Captain Brock and his colleagues. In short, sounds from another dimension: music seemingly played by aliens, although alternatively, that might just be because vocalist/guitarist Chrissy Mostyn is so beautiful she can’t possibly be from anywhere on Earth (let alone Greater Manchester). That, however, is a whole different matter, not to say one of some conjecture: much like the current status and formation of Hawkwind, the truth remains shrouded in mystery. Business as usual then…
Shortly before this much-vaunted (and, most notably, orchestrated) tour kicked off, you see, vocalist/bassist Alan ‘Mr Dibs’ Derbyshire found himself suddenly and unceremoniously ousted from the ranks: in the following six weeks his replacement (returning longtime collaborator Arthur Brown) has seemingly also gone AWOL, leaving only a core lineup of Brock, drummer Richard Chadwick (at 30 years’ service, currently the band’s second longest continuous member) keyboardist/lead guitarist/vocalist Magnus Martin and bassist Niall Hone (augmented, of course, by about twenty string and horn players and conductor/arranger Mike Batt) to complete the remaining run of dates. Yes, that Mike Batt, the very same man behind such ambitious enterprises as the Hunting Of The Snark, Zero Zero and The Planets (all great) as well as soft-rock hits like Summertime City, Railway Hoteland Art Garfunkel’s Bright Eyes; he’s also the architect behind the masterful mid-Seventies prog concept pieces Schizophoniaand Tarot Suite(both well deserving of wider acclaim) the career of Katie Melua (let’s gloss over that one for now) and, lest we forget, a certain bunch of cuddly, furry, pointy-nosed hitmakers from Wimbledon Common, the latter having led certain factions within the band’s online fanbase to dub this lineup “The Hawkwombles”.
Whether or not one views this as unnecessarily derogatory depends, naturally, on their individual point of view (or possession of a sense of humour) but the fact remains, Batt has revitalised the band: sure, new album Road To Utopia features predominantly laid-back reworkings of old material, with two tracks also bearing the unmistakable stamp of another rockin’ right-winger, Eric Clapton, but tonight, set to the thumping, driving power of the stripped-down quartet, his arrangements provide the vital missing part of an already fascinating, colourful jigsaw. Assault & Battery, The Golden Void and Paradox now sound charged with freshly added drama, gravitas and even romanticism, the ginger stringer’s arrangements bringing to them what Angela Morley (aka Wally Stott)’s writing once brought to the Walker Brothers or Andrew Powell to Cockney Rebel: yes, that good.
And if orchestral rock isn’t your bag, then don’t worry – the strings are far from present on every song, leaving the four-piece to thrash and batter their way through Shot Down In The Night (re-established as a regular fixture in the set for some six years now), a Born To Go that’s quite possibly the heaviest version I’ve ever seen any incarnation of the band play, and a death-defying, harmonies-intact 75-mile-an-hour Damnation Alley. On the latter, Martin handles the late Bob Calvert’s potentially tongue-tripping lyric with consummate ease, whilst the great conductor leaps, shimmies and frugs centre-stage battering his tambourine like a madman: in all honesty, I’m amazed the Captain allows him so much prominence, although maybe, at almost 77, he is finally mellowing after all (regardless of however many recent social media reports would suggest the direct opposite).
Indeed, the current camaraderie betwixt Brock, Martin, Hone and Chadwick is quite remarkable: not only do the four repeatedly joke among one another between songs (the recurrent theme being that of a teacher reprimanding errant pupils, read into that whatever one will) but there’s far more place-swapping, buffoonery and general daftness going on tonight than I’ve witnessed from any latterday incarnation, the polar opposite of the now-infamously sterile Edinburgh and Glasgow shows of 2009 and 2010. Moreover, the departure of Dibs has seen Chadwick brought to the fore in a manner not enjoyed since Business Trip days: taking both his erstwhile bandmate’s lead vocals on Have You Seen Them and Lemmy’s old part on Silver Machine, as well as asserting himself greatly on new composition Hymn To The Sun, he’s now almost a third frontman, and though he may still drop the occasional fill – what the fuck though, every drummer that’s ever been in this band, with the obvious exception of Ginger Baker, has done that – he now does it with the carefree abandon of one who’s clearly having the time of his life.
The best of all recent developments, however, has been the shaking up of the setlist: though this isn’t the first time I’ve seen The Watcher or Utopia (both reworked on the new LP) make appearances, I never thought either Zarozinia or We Took The Wrong Step Years Ago – both representative, in many ways, of the group’s still largely-unexplored ‘balladic’ tendencies – would rear their heads in the set again, and the fact that they now have borders on heartwarming. It’s almost as if, following years of denial, the Wind have finally realised just how great several neglected selections of their back catalogue are: conversely, there’s never been any doubt as to the classic status of Spirit Of The Age, but tonight, it fires on even more cylinders than usual, the audience jumping out of their seats and into the aisles to serenade its prophetic message. Bob would undoubtedly have been proud, although the sight of so much adulation might also have brought on another bi-polar anxiety attack…
In almost 2019, with their 50th anniversary less than a year away, Hawkwind undoubtedly hover at a crossroads: while their recent works have all been of a consistently high standard, Dave Brock can’t go on indefinitely, and though his health is currently A1, rumours already abound of a binding legal document swearing that in the event of his sudden passing, the remaining members will make no more than one final album before changing their name to TOSH (Technicians Of Spaceship Hawkwind) Maybe it’s true, maybe it isn’t: but right at this moment, this is the best lineup I’ve seen since the Tree/Richards/Bainbridge-fronted Yule Ritual aggregation, and a reminder of why I got into them in the first place. And, though Hone wryly jokes at one point that “this may well be the last time you get to see us”, I genuinely hope it isn’t.
Apart from anything else, the Hawkwind of 2018 is far more than just a great psych, prog, space rock, heavy rock or proto-punk outfit: it’s a superb pop group, and while for intimacy’s sake I’d probably prefer to go watch either of the ‘other lots’ in a smaller venue, one can’t deny this is a band at the top of their game, riding the post-atomic radioactive trash with a verve and fire I thought they’d lost long ago (not to mention the trippiest laser show this venue’s ever seen) All they need to do is put Hurry On Sundown and Motorway City back into the set, and they’ll be perfect: in the meantime, do not panic, and think only of yourselves.