Who wants to be an Electrick Gypsy? Steve Hillage Live in 1977

hst198cd2Musical history recalls late 1977 as the age of punk rock.  But, if you were (as the locals liked to put it) young and broke and on the dole in the UK as the year ran out of steam, it was also the age of power outages, labor disputes and the kind of cultural darkness that sometimes felt like it would never end.

Enter Steve Hillage with “Light in the Sky,” a song of such illuminatory hope that even he acknowledged that the electricity company was not going to be shutting it down. And in the bowels of London’s Rainbow Theatre, that November night, some 2,000 watching souls actually forgot the misery that marched on the streets outside and not only thanked Hillage for his optimism.  They shared it with him for a while, as well.

For there we were – and here it is, Rainbow 1977 (Gonzo Multimedia), a first ever release for a 75-or-so minute recounting of a show that remains poised in the memory as one of those Great ‘Uns; Hillage, three solo albums old but oddly not on the post-punk hit list… there was something about the affable old beardie that raised him beyond the blanket condemnation that most folk of his era received, and listening back it’s still hard to say what it was.

Fish Rising, Hillage’s debut disc, had already gone where no Gong member had dared  go before, and soared into the UK Top 40; L, its Todd Rundgren produced successor, soared into the Top 10; and Motivation Radio, his latest, maintained a commercial and critical sensibility that must have left many of his own contemporaries reeling.  An even more delicious irony was proffered by Hillage’s continued presence on Virgin Records  – the currently silent Mike Oldfield aside, no more incongruous label-mate to the Sex Pistols could be imagined!

But from the signature punch of the opening “It’s All Too Much,” a Beatles song beaten into psychedelic psubmission by glissando guitar and asteroid percussion; through the deep space echoes of “Radio” and “Solar Musick Suite”; and onto an evening ending “Hurdy Gurdy Man” that seriously had the entire venue on its feet, Hillage stripped away all the petty divisions and daft diversions that had kept Babylon burning all year long.  Stripped them, then strapped them to a thousand points of sonic light and sent them, and us, soaring into the night.

The sound quality is not what it could be.  No actual flaws or coarseness; no distortion or dirt.  Just a sense that it has somehow been compressed a little more than it needed to be, so there’s no highs or lows to the listening experience, just a plateau that you do get used to, but you wish you didn’t have to.  You will find that raising the volume helps.

“Motivation” is funk-whipped, “Saucer Surfing” (“a new sport,” reveals Hillage in his brief between-songs intro) is ricochet and atmosphere; “Searching for the Spark” is as endless on disc as it felt on the night, and oddly just as glorious too.  It’s horrifying rare how seldom a live album actually sounds like your memories of the show itself, and with almost forty years dividing evening from reprise, it’s usually impossible too.

But Rainbow 1977 is as good as it ought to be, and probably better than you’re expecting.  There again, though, you weren’t there.  And you didn’t go home to a darkened apartment either, because it was time for another power outage.  Oh, where were those “Lights in the Sky” when we needed them?

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