Gong is the rock mirror image of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Like Sun Ra, Gong is a free-wheeling eclectic band that wraps itself in its on myth and mystery, namely, that we came from the Planet Gong and were spawned by aliens. It’s never quite clear whether Allen and his closest disciples treat this as fact or metaphor. Like Sun Ra, they seem to live the life and speak the jargon, whether on-stage or off. Nevertheless, for 40 years, Gong has made some riotous music with dada lyrics and the definition of “space guitar.”
Gong played their first concert in 1969, so their Nearfest date was something of an anniversary. Daevid Allen and singer Gilli Smythe are the only remaining charter members, but longtime associates from the golden era of Gong were there, namely guitarist Steve Hillage and bassist Mike Howlett (who also produced several great 1980s new wave bands like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Gang of Four and Flock of Seagulls). This was essentially Steve Hillage’s band with Howlett, Miquette Giraudy on synths and Chris Taylor on drums, with the addition of Allen, Smythe and Theo Travis on reeds.
Gong proved that you can go home again, as long as home is the Planet Gong. The band essayed music from their Radio Gnome Invisible Trilogy, but like Van Der Graaf Generator, they wanted to play new music as well, so we got tracks from their forthcoming album, which, essentially sounded like vintage Gong.
Whether wearing his pajamas or his pure white Pot Head Pixie suit with boa feather fringe, Daevid Allen brought a berserk energy to the proceedings, singing out his tales of pothead pixies, octave doctors and alternative consciousness. He’s in his 70s, but bobbed around stage like David Lee Roth in his prime. “Geriatric Acid Trip Prog!” as AyRon enthusiastically proclaimed on the NEARfest Board. Gilli Smythe is a bit older and sadly showed every second of her age. Wearing Alice in Wonderland-style queens raiment, it seemed like she was wheeled on and off the stage, where she stood motionless and silent, occasionally letting out a shriek or space whisper, but usually looking and sounding lost. She’s not the winsome wood nymph she once was.
The band rocked for the first half and once they hit the materiel from the trilogy, launched into space with some key jams. Theo Travis was a more than adequate substitute for longtime Gong reedman, Didier Malherbe. He squonked and squealed dueling with Hillage one moment and laying down the plaintive sounds of “Flute Salad” the next. The instrumental passages were vintage psychedelic excursions with shimmering glissando guitar from Allen, free-jazz solos from Travis, and Hillage’s careening, distortion-drenched and delayed solos. It was all accomplished over the driving ostinato basslines and grooves from Howlett and Taylor respectively. If you’re a follower, you had to love their performance even if it was stuck in 1974.
The Italian band, PFM, (Premiata Forneria Marconi), only one year younger than Gong, made their second NEARFEST appearance. They opened the 2005 show and their set was an ungainly mixed of epic symphonic prog and showboating, naive blues jams. They must have gotten the memo this time and stuck with their expansive compositions from albums like Photos of Ghosts and The World Became the World and some nice tracks from their 2006 release, Stati di immaginazione. It wasn’t until more than 90 minutes into their set that they pulled out some cloying pop tunes and a smooth-jazz vamp with a Kenny G sax line played on synthesizer.
The classical roots are immediately evident in this band which boasted three original members and two versatile replacements. Vivaldi echoes through much of their music. Of all the NEARfest bands this year, PFM explored the widest dynamic range, from ripping, guitar-stoked symphonic grandeur, to quiet and extended pastoral themes. Guitarist Franco Mussida had a distinctly different sound from other players at the festival. His solos built in melodic development instead of shards of flashy licks. Patrick Djivas knows how to plow through the undertow, holding it together on bass, although his lone solo sounded arthritic. Franz Di Cioccio is a powerhouse on drums, and I wish he’d spent more time behind them instead of acting like progs version of Italian actor Roberto Benigni (Life Is Beautiful) all outsized Italian joy, manic frontman antics and way to much hand-clapping. In fact, PFM had more clap-alongs than the rest of the festival combined. This is prog. We sit and watch sternly. We don’t clap.
I found the several films they played behind some tunes an occasional distraction. At times I thought, great music and a PBS lesson too boot. I learned more about Archimedes than I ever knew before. But it often put the music in the background.
Based on their 2005 set, I had told my friends that if they wanted to leave at any time, I was okay with that. But this year PFM came to play and stake their claim on their legacy.
Next up: NEARFEST surprises: Mexico’s Cabezas de Cera and Belgium’s Quantum Fantay.
John Diliberto ((( echoes )))