When you go out to see a band that has existed for just over forty years, there's a high chance of it sounding past its prime. It is a testament to the boundless creativity of Daevid Allen and friends, as well as to the power of heavy, undiluted psychedelia, that Gong's set at Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall on Saturday beat the odds. Presented as part of Massive Attack's Meltdown 2008, psychedelic legends Gong performed an extended set with its classic line-up, including frontman Daevid Allen, Gilli Smyth, Mike Howlett, Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy. The chemistry between these musicians and their obvious love of far out sound brought us a clear glimpse of the future via the hazy musical past.
Against a backdrop of brain-meltingly bright colours, the seven piece band took the stage. Led by bassist Mike Howlett, whose hooded cloak positioned him as our low frequency shaman, Daevid Allen followed close behind in a stunning white suit and cap. Smiling and dancing, Allen appeared ecstatic to be playing for us and immediately launched into the swirling intensity for which the Gong family is known.
One of the initial highlights was the precision attack of "You Can't Kill Me" from 1971's Camembert Electrique, with its tight repetition propelled by the liberating chant of its central line, "You can do what you want!" Careful not to completely destroy us with too much force fresh out of the gate, Gong alternated the heavy jams with more gentle interludes. This balance can even be heard within single songs of theirs like "I'm Your Fantasy", which starts with a full rock charge before beautifully coasting down into underwater ambiance. Easily one of our favourite songs to feature Gilli Smyth's soft, lullaby vocals, her rendition of it on Saturday cast a warm calm across the entire hall.
Appearing whimsical and light-hearted throughout, Allen ascended to new pixie-like heights when the hour of the wardrobe change had finally arrived. Leaving the rest of the band on stage to continue, Allen ran off only to return moments later sporting nothing but the skimpiest of red sequenced flapper dresses. He pranced about the stage for a few moments before vanishing again, leaving roars of audience laughter behind him. He soon emerged in his final form of the evening, again clad in white, but now with CDs adorning the front of his costume and a giant fuzzy headdress where his hat once rested. This made it incredibly difficult for us not to rush the stage and give him a giant hug, as he embodied the lovable free spirit of freakdom in all of us.
Despite attempts by security to prevent it, the night ended with loads of people dancing in the aisles and down in front of the stage, much to the band's delight. Singing messages like, "You don't have to change your ways, you just have to be who you are!" Allen seemed capable of melting even the iciest of hearts. "You can try," he encouraged, "If I can do it, you can do it!" Although there have been times when we've forgotten these truths, we left remembering them on Saturday. Thanks, Daevid!
Massive Attack's Meltdown continues at Southbank Centre from now until 24 June 2008 with performances still to come from Stiff Little Fingers, Mark Stewart and the Maffia, Grace Jones, Gang of Four and more. Please refer to the Southbank Centre Meltdown site for more details.
Photo of Gong's Daevid Allen taken from daveknapik's Flickr photostream.