Silver machine inoperable

A time-transplanted Martin Longley slides back to the heyday of prog-jazz space-rock.

Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall
March 6th

A powerful double bill of alternative outfits that came to prominence in the early 1970s. Hawkwind were the official headliners, getting to play for over 90 minutes, but Focus still delivered around an hour’s worth of prog virtuosity, with most of the audience already staunchly in place, arriving early for the prompt 7.30pm start.

Whereas Hawkwind have evolved their sonic attack over the decades, albeit very gradually, Focus are dedicated to a close replication of their signature sound. The Dutch flautist and Hammond organist Thijs Van Leer has always been at the helm, but drummer Pierre Van Der Linden has been onboard virtually from the beginning, even though he was subsequently absent for a few decades. The younger members are now bassist Bobby Jacobs and guitarist Menno Gootjes, the latter confidently aping the skull-drilling complexity of Jan Akkerman’s original parts.

Most folks will know, if anything, the epic multi-faceted Sylvia and Hocus Pocus, with Leer’s ascending yodels, plus abundant time-changes, guitar razoring aplenty, and numerous huffing build-ups. These tunes were negotiated with absolute precision, capturing the recorded evidence, but also loading up with a thrill of immediacy, as if the pieces had been penned only a few days earlier.

There was still time to uncover less familiar numbers, stretching out more into organ groove, extended guitar frazzling and fluttering flute-work. Of particular note was Eruption, an extended work from their second album. Leer might not appear very nimble nowadays, but his musical chops remain intact, when it comes to lips, fingers, breath and tonsils.

Gootjes is clearly a student of this music, adding a punked-up energy to the guitar solos, edged with a smoking distortion, but still not too overloaded to obscure the dexterity of detailed phrasing. Van Der Linden manages to combine the power of a rock thunderer with the tonal variety of a jazz sticksman, so consequently his solos held an unpredictable depth, and a skin-tone suggestive of African drums.

The massive event-density of Focus made Hawkwind sound quite single minded by comparison. Their sound mix didn’t seem as balanced or projected either, although following the interval your scribe had relinquished his central position.

After worming through the by-now close-ranked masses, and gradually settling into the vibrations, it became easier to appreciate the cosmic monotony. Such a phrase is intended as a compliment, as Hawkwind have perfected a rock version of minimalism, the interest being created by slowly-changing details. Bass riffs cycling around, filled with throbbing accents, synthesisers and theremin crafting swirls of sonic space-dust, mainman Dave Brock riffing perpetually.

One of the electronicist pair, Dead Fred, sometimes switched to violin, taking on the old Simon House role, adding an unexpectedly aggressive texture to the already thickening black-hole-of-sound.

Hawkwind’s Quark, Strangeness And Charm (1977) is one of their classic albums, so Damnation Alley and Spirit Of The Age were unsurprisingly a pair of song highlights, the latter ending the encore in alternative anthem fashion. Oddly, there was no Master Of The Universe, and even more unsettling was the absence of Silver Machine, but this is a combo who can please the crowd without being conventionally crowd-pleasing.