For those so inclined, the Space Rock Invasion Tour of 2011 was a once in a lifetime event. The lineup was Huw Lloyd-Langton (of Hawkwind), Brainticket, and Nektar. Unfortunately for me, the tour never made it anywhere near my hometown, so I missed seeing it in person. The final show at the Key Club in Hollywood was filmed however, and has just been released as a two-DVD set from Cleopatra. As the old saying goes, it’s the next best thing to being there.
I am a big fan of prog, krautrock, space rock, or whatever you wish to call it. The more excessive, the better. Admittedly though, sometimes things got so out of hand that you just had to laugh. Take Tales From Topographic Oceans by Yes for example. Good lord, the cover art alone is worth the price of admission, let alone the double-LP “four sides, four songs” structure of the damned thing.
Even in their '70s heyday, Hawkwind, Brainticket, and Nektar were pretty obscure to the majority of the U.S. audience. To be honest, bong-wielding fans such as myself kind of liked it that way, they were our little secret. And if we laughed at some of the outrageousness, well that was okay too - because in the end, we loved it all.
Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Christopher Guest have always said that Spinal Tap was based on an amalgamation of various groups. While I am sure that is true, the classic This is Spinal Tap (1984) primarily draws from the world of prog. And just to be clear, there is no way that movie would have worked so perfectly had they not held a strong affection for the music (and the musicians) they were parodying.
With that rather obvious bit of foreshadowing out of the way, let me just say that I expected a fair share of “Spinal Tap moments” from this concert. And there were some, but they were fewer, and quite different from anything I had anticipated.
Huw Lloyd-Langton was a founding member of Hawkwind and played guitar on their self-titled debut album, released in 1969. After his initial stint, (which ended in 1971), he has returned to the fold numerous times. His four-song set is mostly acoustic, and he remains an excellent guitarist. His voice is not too bad either. This is all the more impressive considering the fact that he waged a life-threatening battle against Legionnaires' disease about a decade ago.
Be that as it may, our friend appeared to have a bit of a buzz going that September night. Like so many musicians though, this does not seem to affect his performance, just his between-song banter. For all I know, the "problem" could just be the lingering effects of being a 40-year space-rock warrior. But the cup he continuously cheers the audience with is a bit of a tip-off. The four songs he performs are “Wars of the Hobby Three,” “Hurry on Sundown,” “Solitary Mind Games,” and “Rocky Paths.” Although his song introductions are a little incoherent, they are kind of charming as well.
Brainticket’s performance was one that I was really excited about. In space-rock circles, they are legendary. I had never actually heard them prior to Cleopatra’s excellent six-disc box set though, which was released last year in conjunction with the tour. Joel Vandroogenbroeck is kind of the “Lemmy” of this band, Brainticket has been, and always will be his project. Albums such as Cottonwoodhill, Psychonaut, and Celestial Ocean are included in the box, and they represent everything good, and at times completely over the top about the genre.
I was hoping for a fair share of insanity, both musically and visually from Brainticket, and got it. Unfortunately, this is where the Spinal Tap comparisons come in - in the worst possible way. Remember the point in the film where David St. Hubbins’ (Michael McKean) girlfriend (June Chadwick) finally joins the band? That is the way this Brainticket gig plays out. To be fair, Vandroogenbroeck had previously used female singers in Brainticket, the most significant of these being Dawn Muir and Carole Muriel.
For all intents and purposes though, new recruit Abby Travis is the star of the Brainticket show. She comes out in some sort of Cleopatra outfit, with glittering, metallic snakes wrapped all over her. The things keep falling off as she dances, which makes the situation unintentionally hilarious. She is trying to look sexy and menacing while dealing with these oversized accessories, and the overall effect is ludicrous. Add to this the fact that she is not the most attractive plus-sized woman in the world, and you just have to wonder what the hell Vandroogenbroeck was thinking.
It is very difficult to ignore Ms. Travis, but if you can, the music itself is fantastic. Special props to the guitar playing of Andrew Scott, and of course Vandroogenbroeck himself, who plays organ, flute, and sitar. The shining moment comes during the final song, “Places of Light.” Bassist Tommy Glenvet takes over vocals, and Abby (finally) retreats while Vandroogenbroeck plays sitar on this very fine Cottonwoodhill track.
The undisputed stars of the tour were Nektar. While Huw Lloyd-Langton played for just under a half-hour, and Brainticket for 50 minutes, Nektar are onstage for a 100 minutes. Their ten-song set is a mix of classics. Like Brainticket, Cleopatra released a box-set devoted to Nektar in conjunction with the tour, theirs was only a two-disc “best of” affair though.
Nektar’s set is fairly straightforward. The old-school space-rock graphics behind them were actually used throughout the three-hour concert, but they are particularly effective during Nektar’s set. Even better though is the music, long songs with lots of “spacey” solos. Just look at the numbers, ten tunes in 100 minutes, that’s an average of 10 minutes per tune.
The set opens with the title track from what many consider to be their best album, A Tab in the Ocean. This over 17-minute piece leaves no doubt that they knew exactly what their fans were there for, and they were happy to deliver the goods. Nektar formed in 1969, and have had their ups and downs over the years. Of the original four, only founding members Roye Albright on (guitar, vocals), and Ron Howden (drums) remain, but their new recruits prove well-suited to the task.
As if to underscore this, the longest song of the night is “Dr. Kool,” from their 2008 Book of Days album. The track clocks in at over 21 minutes and is a great one. While I enjoyed the entire Nektar appearance, their 20-minute “Recycled” (from the 1976 album of the same name), was the one that really got me. There are plenty of moments of great musicianship throughout, but Albright’s guitar is really the star of this song.
As an old rocker, I have watched plenty of classic bands play, either live or on DVD. There is always the nostalgia factor at work, but there is a special element that comes into play when the music is so transcendent that you completely forget about the history and fully immerse yourself in the music. Nektar most definitely managed to achieve this at the Key Club last September, and I wish I had been there.
As for extras, they are limited to text-based interviews with each band. The double-DVD Space Rock Invasion contains a lot of great musical moments though, even if you do have to look past a snake-charmer chick singer on occasion.