Hawkwind – Live Review – Leeds Town Hall
By David Schuster, October 2018
The vaulted roof of Leeds Town Hall arches above red marble pillars, running in pairs down the length of the auditorium. These lead to the multi-tiered stage flanked by brass rails, behind which a projection screen has been hung for tonight’s performance. Above this, higher still, towers the vast array of organ pipes, from amongst which Gothic angels stare down at us. It’s like being inside a huge steam-punk spacecraft; the perfect place to see Hawkwind.
I’ve seen them many times over the years, but never like this. The stage is packed; the four members of the band arranged across the front, and behind them a 25-piece orchestra conducted by the great Mike Batt. As well as conducting both the Royal and London Philharmonic Orchestras, Batt also wrote ‘Bright Eyes’ for Art Garfunkel, discovered Katie Melua and, not least, gave us the music of The Wombles. For this tour Batt has orchestrated many of the group’s songs, mostly from the 1970s.
“Fantastic but surreal”
As the 30 musicians thump out ‘Assault and Battery’ it’s an awesome onslaught on the senses; looped images flash on the screen behind them and multi-coloured lasers fan out across the dry ice-filled room. They follow this with ‘Shot Down in the Night’ and ‘Paradox’. The latter is an old favourite of mine from the 1974 album Hall of the Mountain Grill, and it’s fantastic but surreal to hear it performed this way. Familiar but different, like falling into a parallel symphonic universe.
When it works, it works really well. Niall Hone is a superlative bass player, able to crank out ultra-fast riffs seemingly without effort, and behind this swell the sounds of the strings and the thumping of kettle drums. I wonder briefly why more rock groups don’t use kettle drums. Not everything works though; one of the joys of vintage Hawkwind is that that there was very rarely silence, tracks tended to drift and merge together. You can’t do this with an orchestra working from a score, so there are awkward hiatuses between some of the songs whilst everyone ensures that band, laptops and orchestra all start again at the same time.
“New sonic landscapes”
In one such break, the figure of the Grand Wizard makes an entrance. Resplendent in black frock coat, red cummerbund and black top hat crowned with peacock feathers, he speaks the words to the classic ‘Space is Deep’. Under the black and white face paint it takes me a few moments to realise that this is Arthur Brown, most often remembered for his 1968 single ‘Fire’ and especially the video where he wore a burning crown (real fire, no computer effects in those days). It’s one of three appearances made by Brown through the gig, each time in a different costume.
Late in the concert, when ‘Zarozinia’ plays, Dave Brock takes over lead vocals. He’s the only remaining founder member of the band to have been with them through all the years since 1969. For all this time he’s captained the star ship Hawkwind on its decades-long mission to explore strange musical worlds and new sonic landscapes. Tonight though he has been, quite literally, in the shadows to the right of the stage. His role has been one of coordination, both musicians and conductor looking to him for cues, but not as front-man.
‘Down Through the Night’ is one of the greatest of the group’s vast back catalogue. Hearing it played by the band and orchestra, across a kaleidoscopic backdrop is the crowning moment of a memorable night. They then play ‘Have You Seen Them’, before finishing with ‘Arrival in Utopia’, a very apt culmination for the Road to Utopia tour. If Brock is now ready to pass the metaphorical helm to a new captain, this would be an epic swansong.