Royal Festival Hall London UK
25 February 2005
The Sun Ra Arkestra take the stage in glittering costumes and outlandish headgear, looking like the house band at a particularly wild Star Trek convention and sounding like nothing else on earth - or indeed on Saturn. Since Sun Ra's death in 1993, the patented mixture of swampy big-band and riotous free jazz has been presided over by saxophonist Marhall Allen, who launches tonight's proceedings with a squealing solo. Taken as a big band they sound great, with the same barely-controlled energy of old; what is missing tonight is the sudden, surreal switches into free improvisation that take that energy to another level. There is the sense that anything could happen, but it too rarely does.
Afro-futurist free jazz first met agit-rock in 1968, when Sun Ra's outfit played a series of double-bills with the MC5 that have passed into counter-cultural legend. There was mutual admiration between the two bands, and a shared tendency towards anarchy. With the surviving members of MC5 touring again, it must have seemed a good idea on paper to recreate those concerts; in practice, it makes for a very strange event, and not in a good way. The bands are no longer connected by a zeitgeist, and music history has favoured hard rock over free jazz, which is reflected in tonight's audience, who are mainly here to see the jams kicked out one more time. Most don't bother to come to the first half, leaving the hall half empty and subdued.
DKT/MC5 play it straight and loud, the three original members propped up by guitarist Gilbey Clarke. Vocal duties are shared between Basement Jaxx powerhouse Lisa Kekaula, resplendent in foot-high afro, and Dictators frontman Handsome Dick Manitoba, who struts and bounces around the stage like a grizzled punk energizer bunny. The band sounds great, the songs are still good, but it sounds less like a radical musical force than the soundtrack to a car commercial.
And then, at the end, something does happen. The Arkestra are invited back on stage, joined by vocalist David Thomas, for a free-form rendition of "Starship". Everyone plays flat out, generating furious noise and energy in a rambunctious free jazz blow-out. It's not refined or pretty, but it's thrilling; briefly, the spirit of '68 lives.