Live review: Nik Turner, Tremont Music Hall (11/5/2013)

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Nik Turner
Tremont Music Hall
Nov. 5, 2013

"What an honor it is to be playing back here in the U.S. after 20 years," Nik Turner, co-founder of space rock pioneers Hawkwind, told a celebratory crowd at Tremont Music Hall on Tuesday night.

Dapper in a natty suit and tie plus silvery face paint, Turner touched briefly on the acrimony between former Hawkwind members currently burning up the internet. The psyconautic sax and flute man expressed a wish to play again with his former cohorts in the legendary agit-prop, psych-rock outfit. At 73, Turner's ready to bury the hatchet with the Hawks' leader Dave Brock, the man who booted Turner from the Hawkwind mothership, not once, but twice.

With at least two Hawkwind related crews in circulation - and that's without delving into the intermittent '70s offshoot Hawklords who briefly resurfaced in in 2012 - a bit of Hawk history may be in order. Turner co-founded the band in 1969, contributing skronking sax, spacy flute and songwriting chops that fueled classic interstellar rockers like "Brainstorm" and the Hawk's biggest hit, the propulsive and swirling "Silver Machine." Fired in 1976, Turner rejoined in 1982 to front the band for their last great album, Choose Your Masques, after which he was sacked for the final time.

Hawkwind has gone through many musical permutations, yet two templates have stood the test of time. One model, either penned or co-penned by Brock, spawned growling bass-and-rhythm-guitar driven jams topped with a spiral nebula of Mellotrons, whizzing space SFX and mass vocals that resemble classic Jefferson Airplane in a psych ward. The other blueprint bears the fingerprints of the brilliant and erratic poet and extrovert Robert Calvert, who died too young at age 43 in 1988. Calvert authored jaunty New Wave meets art rock tunes that contained the Hawk's darkest, most disturbed lyrics.

Live, Turner was simpatico with both control freak Brock and loose cannon Calvert, and his approach to both the Hawkwind cannon and his Hawk-inspired originals split the difference between the two. His vocals mixed the gnomic high declamations of Brock with the caustic wit of Calvert, and his Space Ritual band hit the right balance between avant-garde and biker bar hard rock.

Opening with keyboardist Lana Voronina's Space Invaders beeps and retro ring modular tones on "Earth Calling," Turner and crew nailed the rockers. Before a NASA-meets-Peter Max video display of interstellar go-go girls, B-movie Sci-Fi clips and exploding stars, Turner howled like King Lear amid the tempest on the riffing and clattering "Brainstorm" which Dopplered past the crowd like a red-shifting galaxy. Bryce Shelton's rolling Booker T. bass line and Voronina's ethereal Doors-y keys propelled the bouncy, squalling "Orgone Accumulator."

The ominous upward sweeping sprawl of "Masters of the Universe" battled a punk rock racket as guitarist Nicky Garrett's elastic, Arabic-tinged solo rekindled my teenage memories of bedrooms lined with sword and sorcery black light posters.

Anchored by Jason Willer's pummeling hypnotic drums, Turner's band was ace. Yet their secret weapon was guitarist Garrett, former member of slashing-yet-melodic '70s punk rockers The U.K. Subs. (The Sub's "Stranglehold" is my nomination for the punk era's greatest unsung and underappreciated anthem.) Ratcheting up the rhythm and tension of Turner's current single "Fallen Angel STS-51-L", Garret underpinned Turner's ethereal flute excursions and frantic sax. His searing fills sliced dead center through the dark matter call-and-response of "Time We Left This World Today."

Yet, it was the quieter moments that transfixed the crowd. Garrett's folksy, Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy strumming launched the swirly, bubbling synth washes and echoing spacy flute of "Children of the Sun." Voronina, in face paint and retro-Star Trek space nymph regalia shared the mic with Turner on the number's limpid, whispery finale, after which she gently kissed the space rock patriarch on the cheek.

On the spoken word performance-art-meets-stand-up-routine "Sonic Attack," Turner's archly theatrical performance evoked bemused and beloved Brit character actor Bill Nighy voicing a crazed Dalek. Crediting his "flute, sax and astral-planing", Garrett called Turner the band's "Thunder Rider." He could well have added that sprightly old Nik was also a genuinely nice bloke. Whether warmly introducing the band, or sharing his mic with the audience on the choruses of "Silver Machine", Turner seemed to be having the time of his life.

A frenetic cover of Calvert's bopping prog-meets-punk rocker "Ejection" was a noisy energy rush, but the band's most unhinged performance was reserved for the finale "You Shouldn't Do That." As the group chanted ecstatically over Willer's machine-gun rhythms and Turner's groovy pan-galactic sax, Voronina jumped on her back. Garret tossed his feedback squalling guitar which Voronina caught with her feet. She balanced it briefly before boosting it back to Garrett who resumed riffing without missing a beat.

Mission accomplished, Turner and his star cadet crew left the Tremont crowd dazed and dazzled, copping a contact high from their close encounter with Nik Turner's silver machine.

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