10 things I learnt from the Gong tour – thoughts from Manchester and Allendale, November 2016

1. Steve Davis is an unexpectedly diverse DJ

Or maybe it’s not so unexpected so when you start to scratch the surface. He was taking as much adulation up in his podium above the stage prior to Gong’s set in Manchester as when the main act themselves played. For those of us who grew up in the Eighties when he was at his height of fame as a snooker player it was hard to shake off a sense of surreality grooving along to his tunes in a grimy Manchester venue, which included a particularly fine and obscure track from Magma offshoot Weidorje, reviewed years ago back in Facelift. But if you check out the various videos he’s done to help promote ‘Rejoice’ he clearly knows his stuff and combines knowledge with a matey risqué bonhomie : “Tim Blake’s strapping one on”, anyone?

2. The guitar solo on the track ‘Rejoice!’ is not just the work of Kavus Torabi.

When I reviewed the new Gong album in this blog, the highlight of the entire album for me was the guttural, heart-wrenching solo eked out early on in the 10 minute title track. I had this down as Gong’s new lead singer alone crafting out a theme, pausing, then going again. In fact, live the equally fine second part is played live by Fabio Golfetti, and an interview here (with Steve Davis) reveals that this part is played on the album by Steve Hillage, which becomes blindingly obvious on second hearing.

3. The new Gong signature sound is four part vocal harmonies!

Or at least whilst Kavus Torabi sings all the lead lines, backing vocals can come from any angle, often simultaneously. Even Ian East occasionally hangs down his sax to join in.

4. The sound at a Gong gig varies enormously from venue to venue.

I remember practically writing off the Steve Hillage lineup in the Noughties after seeing them both in London and at Manchester Academy, only to be totally blown away days later in Edinburgh – same line-up, same tunes, I suspect equally good performances but worlds apart in terms of what you could hear. This time around, a muddy Manchester sound at the Gorilla where Kavus Torabi’s guitar was practically inaudible, was replaced by glorious clarity, warts and all, at Allendale, a provincial village hall so far into Cumbria it’s actually in Northumbria. This despite the fact that presumably there was a much smaller budget for a decent sound system.

5. Gong sets are long long long….!

The band came on at 9pm at both venues, disappeared off briefly around 10.30pm then reappeared for a 2 set encore. They played practically all of Camembert Electrique, 6 songs from the new album, and one each from ‘Angel’s Egg’ and ‘You’. Not just that, but versions of ‘Master Builder’, ‘Selene’ and the new classic ‘The Unspeakable…’ clock in individually as probably their longest ever versions.

6. Kavus Torabi is a strikingly charismatic frontman.

It’s a big ask replacing Daevid Allen as a visual presence, but it’s difficult to take your eyes off him, even when others are doing their thing.

7. It might be time to drop ‘I’ve Been Stoned Before’

I’ve always thought this was a bit of a one-joke song, even when performed by Daevid. Whilst it’s great to hear great swathes of ‘Camembert Electrique’ and no complaints in particular about hearing ‘Selene’ and ‘You Can’t Kill Me’ ad nauseam, surely ‘Dynamite’ would suit this band much more?

8. Fabio Golfetti is a very humble bloke

I’ve been writing to him since the early days of Facelift in the 90s, ended up providing the sleevenotes for the CD release of ‘Glissando Spirit’ from the Brazilian version of the Invisible Opera Company of Tibet, and finally got to meet him during the summer. He’s a fantastic glissando guitar player, an admirable foil for the more zany antics of Kavus Torabi and along with Dave Sturt is currently the glue which binds…

9. Cheb Nettles might be the most innovative singer of the lot

Not only an extraordinary drummer, but the wild falsetto scat singing at the end of ‘Insert Your Prophecy’ in unison with the other instrument lines could well be the vocal highlight of the album.

10. Maybe Ian East and Fabio Golfetti would like to jazz out a little.

The current set is dominated by thrashy guitar numbers (understandably given the guitar-heavy lineup) but there was a palpable sense of release on ‘The Unspeakable Stands’ and ‘Eat That Phone Book’ for the sax in particular when given the chance to noodle…

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Andy Bole

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Andy Bole photo: Hairy Collision

I was sitting down earlier on today to write up my thoughts on the recent UK Gong tour, and got a bit side-tracked by a bandcamp release https://andybole.bandcamp.com/track/blind-cat-live which I didn’t think I could move on from without passing comment on.

A bit of context: amongst many notable performances at Kozfest 2016, including the new Gong dispensation as well as projects (Sentient, PsiGong) from a few current emigrees (Steffe Sharpstrings, Graham Clark, Mark Robson, Mike Howlett), was a quite extraordinary performance from a guitarist/bouzouki player called Andy Bole. Familiar with the name only from the Planet Gong Bazaar http://www.planetgong.co.uk/bazaar/releases/recent.shtml, this turned out to be probably the highlight of the festival for me, low-key as it undoubtedly was.

Kozfest is such an intimate gathering that it should be no surprise that not only are you likely to bump into musicians around the festival, but that you might be actually camped next to them! And so it proved in this case, as gentle violin strains from Sally Minchin, Andy’s partner, drifted across the morning breeze on the Saturday morning over breakfast. Like us, they had a young family on site, and as the kids played together I put a name to a face and vowed to check out the live performance on the Saturday afternoon.

Andy Bole on this occasion was backed not only by Sally, but also the drones of Mark Robson (Kangaroo Moon)’s didg. From memory there were a couple of bouzouki-led shorter pieces, before Andy, to some amusement, checked how much time his set had left to run (it was about forty minutes) and then debated as to whether they could ‘squeeze’ the next track in – this was most certainly the Kozfest equivalent of the 25 minute bandcamp track above. Bouzouki and later guitar sounds are sampled, fed back into the mix and slowly build up layers upon layer of sound which virtuoso electric violin, lead guitar and glissando then use as their base for some really uplifting soloing.

On the bandcamp version (recorded at the Blind Cat festival, Kozfest’s sister gathering, 2 weeks or so later) a synthesiser is added, creating a slightly different but equally mesmerising vibe. Fabulous stuff – you can check out the sounds via the link above or download for a measly couple of quid (proceeds to the Warchild charity). Andy’s website is at http://www.andybole.co.uk/