The bar at a Hawkwind gig always sets the tone. At the tender ages of 45 and 46 we are, apart from a couple of Carnaby Street dandies, the youngest in the place by quite some way. And with our sensible hair and middle-aged man-from-M&S attire we are the straightest too. Queuing at the bar we’re surrounded by a sea of dreadlocks and pony tails, leather and denim, pierced noses eyebrows and lips, sequinned dresses and platform biker boots, male pattern baldness and blue rinses; all on people at least a decade older than us.
The first time I saw them was 1991. They were already ancient. By then they’d been going 22 years, and Dave Brock had turned 50 only a week or so before. But here we are, 27 years later, further from 1991 than 1991 was from ’69, the year they formed. Yet on stage it’s impossible to imagine that he’s rapidly approaching his 78th birthday. Like Jagger and Neil Young his energy hasn’t diminished; it’s the audience, not the performance, that reminds you exactly how old this band is.
It’s fair to say we approached this gig with some trepidation. The Road to Utopia album that came out a month or so ago is patchy to say the least. Reworking classics from the back catalogue it starts with a Mariachi band on Quark Strangeness and Charm and goes downhill from there. Knowing that the same orchestra is going to be on stage tonight is making us nervous. What if they just trot through the album? It’s a seated gig, after all. Maybe we’ve paid £40 a ticket to sit through a fey romp when what we – and all the faithful here tonight – want is a full on auditory assault.
Leeds Town Hall is not a standard venue for a rock gig – its cavernous ceiling and threadbare temporary seating give it the feel of a local am-dram theatre, not a crucible of sound. But Hawkwind aren’t standard, even after all this time. Is this the moment they feel they’ve got to try something new? Has Dave Brock, age 77 and 3/4, decided that he really isn’t feeling the riffs any more?
We take our seats. The lights go down. The smoke starts billowing across the back of the stage, curling towards us and up into the gods. The lasers come on, carving shapes in the smoke above. The orchestra take their seats to a polite ripple of applause. The Fifties pulp sci-fi movie starts rolling, vast behind the stage, warning us of imminent sonic attack. The music begins; a gentle swell of high strings that builds and builds until the band take their places on the stage, silhouetted by the battery of lights and lasers.
And then the guitars begin.
Fifteen minutes later and we’ve been treated to one of the best versions of Assault and Battery I’ve ever heard, the entire crowd whooping and cheering as the final chords die away. What the hell were we worried about?
The last time we’d seen them – early 2017 – it had been a straight rock gig delivered from a small stage at Leeds University. A tight 5 piece, two guitars, bass, keyboards and drums, powering out long heavy trance-like workouts. That night they’d been the forefathers of the current generation of drone rock bands, guiding the likes of Wooden Shjips to the blissed out heights that can only be achieved by the same three chords for 12 minutes. Tonight it’s completely different. Arthur Brown stalks the front of the stage, chanting and ranting the spoken word intros to Black Corridor and Sonic Attack, howling his lead vocals above the orchestra and guitars when the time comes. In full wizard regalia, staff in hand, he berates us, exhorts us, insists that we DO NOT PANIC and THINK ONLY OF OURSELVES.
This is psychedelic proto-punk alt-folk riffing madness. They turn the dusty old Town Hall into a cauldron of lights, lasers, pounding guitars and delicate strings. They demand that we pay them our full attention. They push and pull us from dystopia to utopia and back again. And all the while Dave Brock stands there grinning, wielding his guitar far more effectively than the conductor’s baton behind him. And he’s conducting the thousand strong crowd, not just a fourteen piece orchestra.
Last time I saw them I was grateful I’d had what I thought was one last chance. This time I can’t imagine not seeing them again. They truly are a band that has to be experienced, not heard.