Live Reviews

Steve Hillage Band, The Utopia Strong – The O2 Ritz, Manchester: Live Review

Steve Hillage Band, The Utopia Strong – The O2 Ritz, Manchester – 25th March 2023

The Golden Vibe Tour. Built on music from the classic Seventies period of Steven Simpson Hillage – Fish Rising, Motivation Radio, L and Green. Put simply, it’s a pure nostalgia fest. There are even a few teapot beanie hats in evidence at The Ritz for an early start as the Saturday club night awaits the end of the Hillage gig. The early arrivals get the treat of a 45-minute set from The Utopia Strong too, more of which later…

We hear this tour will be the last chance to hear this music played for some time – opportunities are grabbed. We’re in good company as Hawkwind, Hillage and Marillioooooon celebrity fan, Neil from The Young Ones, appears in the opening slideshow taking the chance to go unzipping the zype, solar musicking, lunar this and cosmic that, glorious Dervish and Om riffs and meditations galore. All topped by Fabio Golfetti’s terrific Gliss guitar. It’s all too much – literally. Acting as the opening number, the Beatles number he’s made his own makes for a bouncing and affirming introduction and once the snaking lines of Salmon Song begin we know where we are headed.

The glut of live material that’s emerged from this period is testament to the fact. Live Herald – yeah, we all have it, and then the pick from Dusseldorf ’79, the recent Glasto also from ’79 and the LA gig from ’77 supporting ELO.

Lines are blurred where the current Gong and the Steve Hillage Band coexist. If Steve’s in there, it’s his name on the ticket. Along with Steve’s partner Miquette and her table full of gadgetry, the accompanying quintet have done a splendid job in carrying the name and Steve is clearly confident and comfortable enough to trust in them to do his bidding. In Kavus Torabi he has not only a right-hand man who’s willing and able to mirror the lead lines of his boss, but someone whose presence and aura means he can take the centre spot on stage without taking the limelight from Steve.

The band – Dave Sturt, Ian East, Kavus Torabi and partner Miquette – all line up across the front of the stage while Kavus keeps drummer Cheb Nettles in the loop. As he is in Gong, East is ensconced to our far left – almost unnoticed yet delivering some squealing brass and wind parts that cut through the density. Hillage himself is decked out in his System 7 shirt and the by now familiar Steinberger guitar – as iconic as his 70’s Fender – eyes behind the glasses closed as he spirits out those guitar leads in front of the backdrops of swirling graphics.

Amidst the Dervish riffing, we can close our eyes and imagine being in the UFO Underground of the experimental 60s. The Pink Floyd could be waiting in the wings, minds not already altered are getting a little nudge, the retinas being imprinted by the kaleidoscopic projections that run through the show, enhancing the psychedelic soundtrack. You may even be able to hear the grass grow… Great fun!

We’ve encountered The Utopia Strong in live guise several times of late, as well as on their recent International Treasure album that attempts to capture some of the excitement of the unplanned and the unexpected. In fact, that element of the unexpected is the thrill ride for not only the audience but the Kavus Torabi/Michael York/Steve Davis combo who set off, possibly with some seating plan, and see where it takes them. Tonight is as good an outcome as I’ve heard from the intrepid trio. The first excursion takes us on a fifteen-minute trip where Kavus flits between the harmonium, a rather special-looking new guitar and vocal passages that see him casting the enchantment across the gathering. In a little nod o the main man, I decided to give it the title of ‘music from beneath the rainbow dome. ‘

Despite their experience having become seasoned giggers, there’s still a sense of sitting in on an open rehearsal. Of the trio Steve sits in deadly serious concentration; Michael allows himself the occasional little grin to himself as he hits an uncharted seam while Kavus is busy gaining a foothold in another dimension. There’s little communication between the three as they zone in on what’s occurring and add their own part as the second piece gets into heavier (louder) and darker territory as a set of bells come into play, inspiring a series of sonic depth charges, sirens and a Space Rock assault that sees the guitar held aloft in recognition. Verging on apocalyptic, it’s both rousing and terrifying in anticipation of where we’re being transported.

Never anything less than intriguing, perhaps the best outcomes I’ve seen from the Utopians. Just hope someone recorded it for one of their bespoke releases…

Steve Hillage online: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

The Utopia Strong online: Facebook / Twitter / Bandcamp / Instagram

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