What’s to like?
Excellent live set unearthed by cosmic guitarist Steve Hillage during a trawl of his archive tapes, offering an alternative set of songs to his previous live album, with a quality sound mix that showcases the music and the musicians to good effect.
The low down
When discovering a new artist, sometimes it’s the live album that catches your attention in the music rack, and this was the case for me with Steve Hillage. I’d heard the name but knew nothing about him, and on the day I visited the used record store, the only LP in the rack was Live Herald.
It turned out to be a fortuitous introduction to Steve’s music, because the when I later tried out the studio albums, I found them a little lacking in dynamism and energy. The live versions had made such an immediate impact on me that it took me a while to appreciate their studio counterparts and the different vibe that Hillage was trying to create with them.
Hillage’s solo career may have started out influenced by the prog-quirkiness of the Canterbury scene on his album Fish Rising, but by the time he was recording the follow-up L, the music was morphing into something spacier, more transcendent and uplifting. This pattern continued to evolve on the Motivation Radio and Green albums, with the latter being a particular favourite among fans, and an excellent place to start if you’re more interested in studio recordings.
However, for me, Live Herald was a terrific summation of Hillage’s first three albums, with its spirited renditions of The Salmon Song and Searching For The Spark, the majestic extended Lunar Musick Suite and the uplifting cover of The Beatles’ It’s All Too Much. The strength of Hillage’s live performances was that he stuck fairly closely to the original studio versions, but with added energy and the ability to stretch out and jam during the solo sections, without the listener ever feeling like the song was about to lose momentum.
And unlike the traditional double live albums of the period, this one was pared down to three sides of vinyl, keeping the music tight and focussed and leaving you wanting more as the applause fades. The fourth side of vinyl included four new songs, which also turned out to be as good as the live cuts. It’s an album that I frequently come back to, and if I only had to have one Hillage album in my collection, Live Herald would tick all the boxes.
So when I came across the recently released Dusseldorf double cd set, my first reaction was to pass on it – I already had the album I needed. But then I looked closer at the track list and realised that this would be a completely different listening experience. This set is actually taken from a gig promoting the Live Herald album, and includes ten tracks not included in that set.
Whereas Live Herald’s performances are sourced from different shows, different tours and different years, this new Dusseldorf set is a complete show, with a notably different set of songs, and not originally intended for commercial release. The previous live album would have been professionally recorded, with everything set up and tested before the shows, but Dusseldorf is sourced from a cassette recorded at the mixing desk on the night.
The results sound raw and very live, with no polishing or overdubs, although Hillage probably did some work on EQ-ing the sound to bring it up to an audio standard worth sharing with his fans. Having listened to the album across the hi-fi speakers and on then on good quality headphones, the results are very good indeed. There’s a slight sibilance at the higher end when cymbals or tambourines are being played, but it’s barely noticeable. The bass and drums, on the other hand, sound terrific, with plenty of heft behind them, and I would venture that they sound better here than on the Live Herald set. You can certainly get why Hillage recruited these guys as his rhythm section when you listen to the groove on Unidentified.
The stereo mix is also remarkably engaging with the synths and sequencers bouncing back and forth from left to right speakers, and allowing Hillage’s guitar solos to swirl around your head. It’s especially effective when he uses his echoed and phased guitar effects (similar to use those by Queen’s Brian May) to build up a larger sound. And, to my ears, this mix pushes the sound of his glissando guitar effects much more to the front of the sound, compared to previous recordings. (His glissando effect is created by stroking the guitar strings with a metal rod to interact with the harmonics of the guitar and produce an ethereal sound.)
But even without the effects, you can hear from the way he chooses his notes and harmonics that he’s a gifted guitarist, and he comes up with some terrific melodies in his soloing. (Even if he wryly refers to himself as a guitar-zero rather than a guitar-hero in the lyrics to Unzipping The Zype.) His extended workout on a nylon guitar during the introduction to Radio is a really enjoyable, and he even throws in some interesting snatches of melodies he used for his ambient Rainbow Dome Musick project.
Here’s an official clip with the track Electrick Gypsies:
If you already have Live Herald, you might feel that this set is surplus to requirements, but I’d argue that it’s a worthwhile addition to your collection, offering a complete show with a radically different setlist and including tracks that were only ever played live on this particular tour. Not to mention that the set has been curated and produced by Hillage himself, so it’s not a record label afterthought.
If you’re new to Hillage, then Dusseldorf is a fine place to start, as the music is very melodic, upbeat and accessible, and offers as good an overview of the solo period as the previous live album. There appear to be very few compilations of the studio songs, at least officially, so the live albums are your best bet.
And in a surprise development, after putting his solo music on a forty year hiatus (to focus on his techno project System 7), Hillage has recently announced a handful of gigs where he’ll perform material from his four solo albums, so perhaps Dusseldorf provides a fitting taster for what’s to come?