Before heading off to England to play the Sonic Rock Solstice festival with Nik Turner & Flame Tree – and especially after learning that an additional London date had been canceled on short notice – I found myself asking what kind of fool would spend a small fortune flying halfway around the globe to play a single gig that wouldn’t offset a fraction of my outlay. Instead, I received a wonderful reminder of why great music, great people, and transnational experiences bring rewards that far outweigh mere economical calculation.
The invitation to play SRS coincided with the release of Flame Tree featuring Nik Turner, a new CD of bracing in-studio improvisations foregrounding the Hawkwind co-founder’s saxophone and flute alongside Seattleites Jack Gold-Molina on drums, Paul “PK” Kemmish on bass, and myself on guitar. Our SRS appearance (with Nazar Ali Khan subbing for PK on bass) was made possible by the presence of Jack Gold-Molina in London for a summer graduate-school internship. It was just the sort of serendipitous chain of events that I live for.
It always surprises me how few of my otherwise musically astute friends are aware of Hawkwind and their outsize influence on multiple streams of rock music that followed in their wake. Forged in the musical and political ferment of late 1960s London, Hawkwind, along with their peers The Pink Floyd, were the progenitors of what came to be called space rock, with their signature heavy British rock laced with lysergic synthesizer interjections, and the presence of celebrated science-fiction author Michael Moorcock as the group’s muse. Having listened to Hawkwind as a teenage hippie around the turn of the ‘70s, I get a huge kick out of somehow finding myself a part of the band’s extended family all these years later.
Now in its 15th edition and organized by the benevolent Martyn Hasbeen, SRS is one of the last surviving remnants of the Free Festival phenomenon that arose in the UK’s psychedelic heyday. Born in reaction to the increasingly commercialized mainstream rock festivals with their ever-escalating ticket prices and rising bullshit factor, the Free Festivals were defiantly free not only in the monetary sense, but also in their embrace of freewheeling lifestyles and philosophical/spiritual outlooks. Nik Turner avers that the phenomenon arose from the counter-festival that sprang up outside the massive Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, where Hawkwind regaled a large number of onlookers for hours in a huge, inflatable tent (that later collapsed on them); among the intrigued visitors who stopped by were Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis.
From then on the Free Festivals became a long-running presence in Britain’s cultural landscape, rallying points for a growing tribe of establishment dropouts who spent each summer roving from festival to festival across the British countryside. The festivals united thousands in a common cause, but also drew plenty of police repression. Hawkwind were generally considered the house band of the movement, partly because of their willingness to perform without payment for any worthy cause, but equally due to the suitability of their trance-inducing music. The movement took a beating during the Iron Lady Thatcher’s oppressive reign but continued with some force right into the raving ‘90s, and arguably to this day in the form of SRS and a handful of similar events which, while no longer free due to encroaching economic realities, clearly embody the idealistic spirit of their predecessors.
This year’s SRS was held in Bromsgrove, a small town outside Birmingham in the English Midlands. I took in most of the 25 bands on the bill and was very impressed by the consistently high caliber of musicianship on stage. While the lineup was heavily tilted toward overtly psychedelic units with names like The Alice Syndrome and Anubis, it also included erstwhile New Wave diva Lene Lovich, primordial punk outfit The Vibrators, veteran UK metal band Quartz, and the strident political folk of TV Smith. It was heartening to see that the genre wars of yore, where bands like these could never have shared a stage without bloodshed, had evidently been laid to rest. The audience took it all in without prejudice (imagine that happening in Seattle) and were generous in their show of appreciation. I was especially bowled over by Terminal Cheesecake, The Sacred Geometry Band, Pre-Med, and The Bevis Frond.
Musically, the weirdest offering proved to be Flame Tree, with our unholy mélange of free jazz, experimental noise, and broken grooves. I’d had my doubts as to how well our defiantly abstract extemporizations would go down with an audience largely primed for beat-driven rock, but was pleased that our set was well received by the unusually open-minded audience.
Once the last band wrapped up on Sunday night, I was genuinely disappointed that the SRS experience was over, for now. It’s no glib platitude to say that it was one of the most enjoyable communal experiences I’ve ever enjoyed, thanks largely to the tremendously warm and open attendees who sustain this vital event’s continued existence. The SRS faithful refer to themselves as a family, and it’s easy to see why; if only there were more loving, open-minded communities like theirs in this darkening world.
Dennis Rea is the author of Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China and Taiwan, published by Blue Ear Books. This post is an edited version of a fuller account posted online here.