Gig 64. Sun Ra, The Octagon Centre, Sheffield University, 15th October 1983.

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Sun Ra. Captain’s log, Earth day twenty-five thousand, three-four-eight. Commander Marshall Allen brings the Arkestra into land at the northern English city of Sheffield, an urban, industrial area surrounded by verdant hills and valleys.”

Or something like that. In my imagination, it sounds way more magical than the somewhat more prosaic “drove up from London on the tour bus, with coffee and toilet breaks at Newport Pagnell and Leicester Forest.”

But that’s Sun Ra. You buy into his whole, skilfully self-curated, astral traveller persona, and you want it all to be true. He’s soon to rendezvous with seventy earth years, but if he says he is from Saturn then who am I to argue? Looking around me, in the newly-opened Octagon Centre, on this mild autumnal Saturday night, I’m not the only one either. People have travelled from as far away as Leeds to be here tonight for this close encounter with an alien being. Maybe they’ve been sculpting eight-sided university buildings with their mashed potatoes for weeks? 

Some people call him Mr. Ra. Some people call him Mr. Re. Some people call him Mr. Mystery. His mother named him Herman, but that was before the beginning of the first world war. Perhaps if you bear witness to a lifetime of war and conflict, from Gallipoli to Afghanistan, then you can truly proclaim that the silent peace of outer space really is the place to be? After all, Tranquillity is more than a sea on the moon. 

Sun Ra and his group of musicians, known collectively as the Arkestra, are enjoying a period of popularity in the UK. He has been consistently name-checked by a new generation of young, jazz-influenced, NME-approved bands like Pigbag and Rip Rig + Panic. Sun Ra has, so far, released over thirty studio albums, with his debut surfacing back in the fifties. But it’s a single, the on-message, CND-friendly “Nuclear War” (which, Ra assures us “is a muthafucker”) on Dick O’Dell’s Y Records imprint that is connecting with a new breed of politically aware, “Swordfishtrombones”-loving, Peel-listening boho dancers. 

For South Yorkshire jazz fans like my Box band mate, saxophonist Charlie Collins, who like their music to be beamed in from The Outer Limits, a visit from Sun Ra is a pretty big deal. In fact, Charlie, ever ready “to boldly go”, has seen the Arkestra twice recently, in London and Manchester. Here in Sheffield, left-of-centre gigs can be found from time to time at Hurlfield school or upstairs at The Grapes on Trippett Lane. Where, for 50p, you can watch (to paraphrase Pink Floyd) several species of small beardy animals grooving at a lick. 

Aside from a “pinch-me-is-this-real?” night with West Coast, cool-school bop vocalist Mark Murphy playing in the bar at The Leadmill, I don’t think there has been an international ambassador from the left field in town since Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time ravaged The Crucible Theatre more than two years ago. 

The centre piece of the new Octagon Centre is the grandly-named Convocational Hall, and this is my first time here. It looks very modern, with exposed steel support beams, fat, tubular cylinders which resemble the plumbing for a Cyclopes bathroom and air conditioning units that hang suspended above the auditorium. Heavy drapes cover the windows to help dampen the acoustics. It’s a large, 1,500-capacity room, designed to replace the nearby, smaller Lower Refectory venue space, which during its time hosted everyone from Paul McCartney and Wings to Throbbing Gristle. 

There is a new bar adjacent to the main hall, and whoever is managing the barrels knows what he or she is doing - the draught Guinness is delicious. I’ve managed to convince Ava that tonight’s gig is a big deal and she’s joined me for a night out. We sit, supping our pints, on the fancy retractable benches that have been pulled out around the concert space for the evening. There is a standing area directly in front of the stage. The room is far from full, but there is a decent crowd in to witness what I’m hoping will be something special. 

The Arkestra onstage at The Octagon Centre (all photos by me.)

The lights go down and the members of the Arkestra start to assemble themselves on the stage. Goodness me there are a lot of them, at least a dozen. The biggest ensemble I’ve seen gathered together since Kid Creole and The Coconuts at the Poly last year. Visually, it’s like watching a Nativity play where everyone has decided to be one of the Three Kings. Golden robes, plush capes, gem-encrusted skull caps, shimmering taffeta vests and flowing, translucent scarves of silk and satin. 

Sun Ra at his piano.

Sun Ra, cloaked in twinkling ceramics and rhinestones, head covered by a white knitted bonnet, sits on the left side of the stage, his piano at an angle, so he can see both the audience and his musicians. Two drummers and a partially hidden bass player. Then, in front of them, is a large squad of sage and decorous black men, who make up the sax section, with enough reeds between them to hide the baby Moses.  The only woman up there is June Tyson, singer, dancer, black Tinker Bell and focal point. Visual and vocal foil to Sun Ra for the past twenty years. 

June Tyson.

He might have released over thirty albums, but I’ve only bought one. A cheap Italian compilation I picked up second-hand in Rare and Racy on Devonshire Street. I’ve played it a few times and quite like it, the music switching between raging torrents of noise and then calmer, more melodic and tuneful passages. Before this gig, I think it’s fair to say I liked the idea of Sun Ra - the clothes, the science fiction, the enigmatic cosmic pronouncements - more than the actual music itself. 

Tonight, all that changes. True, there are sections where you think you are being buried by a clattering succession of outsize sheet metal rolls from a jackknifed flatbed truck. Others where the horns conspire to make a terrifying bleat that sounds for all the world like Sweep from The Sooty Show being brutally tortured. However, the big reveal for me tonight is that this is one hell of a dance band. “Sod this,” I say to Ava after about twenty minutes, “I’m going down the front.” 

John Gilmore on tenor sax.

Plenty of other folks are having a similar lightbulb moment and soon the empty space in front of the band is starting to fill up. I’ve got my pint in one hand and my new camera in the other, gleefully bopping away just a few feet from this incredible band, who seem to be able to play anything: from standards to space shanties via chain-gang call-and-response spirituals. 

Sun Ra and the Arkestra call and response.

From his deliberately vague, obfuscated past, one truth I have gleaned is that Sun Ra played with big band jazz pioneer Fletcher Henderson, who was one of the stars and innovators of the prohibition era. Ra was his pianist and arranger in the post-war years, when the appeal of the big bands was on the wane. Henderson’s band were capable of playing dance music and complex arrangements, and it seems Ra has taken this disciplined musicianship and imported his own interstellar spice, merging big band jazz with space travel. A Frank discussion between Messrs. Sinatra and Herbert in a Nelson Riddle of the sands. 

Eloe Omoe (Leroy Taylor) burning on bass clarinet.

Bloody hell this band is tight. Tight like the rivets on a supersonic rocket ship. Tight like the barrel that the old crazy lady went over Niagara Falls in, tumbling through the tumult to emerge shaken but smiling. 

James Jacson plays the "ancient infinity drum".

It occurs to me that the Arkestra is a good name for this band. All musical genres are welcome aboard as the flood waters rise: the rock and the roll, the rhythm and the blues, the jazz and the soul. From ancient Nubian Nile songs to contemporary electronics, all are preserved, curated and celebrated here. I love the film ‘Silent Running’, with Bruce Dern and his little robots fighting to preserve the remnants of earthly flora in deep space. The Arkestra feels like a musical version of the same mission. 

Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space.

It’s science fact not fiction that both band and audience are spinning on the earth’s axis at about 1,000 miles an hour. Fuelled by four pints of Guinness I feel as if I transcended planetary boundaries some distant, unspecified time ago. Sun Ra skims one final pebble out across the Octagon Centre, watching and smiling as the sonic ripples spread love and joy around the room. As he shuffles over to the lip of the stage to say goodbye, I reach up and shake the hand of the first man on Saturn. The crew of the Arkestra get ready to depart. Next stop Europe, or is it Europa?

From Jimi Hendrix at The Mojo Club in Pitsmoor in 1967, to Roxy Music here at the Uni in 1972, all the way to The Cramps pulling the ceiling down at The Limit just three years ago, Sheffield has seen some legendary gigs. No-one I speak to in the bar afterwards, with the obvious exception of Charlie, who is thrilled to see so many jaws agape at what they’ve just witnessed, has ever seen anything like Sun Ra.

The Cabs are playing here next month. How on earth are they going to follow that?

Sun Ra left planet Earth in 1993. The Arkestra, with a new generation of musicians, currently led by the incredible Marshall Allen (aged 99), are still bringing Ra's message of love and peace to audiences all over the world.

Please come to Dublin lads.

With special thanks to Charlie Collins, Simon Elliott-Kemp and my editor Nigel Floyd.


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