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First Night: Mike Oldfield: The bells ring up a pounds 50 reunion

AT AROUND 9.30pm last night, as patterned lights played over the entire audience, Mike Oldfield ran round the stage of the Royal Albert Hall, whacked a tubular bell with a mallet, and grown men wept.

This was to be the great hippie reunion; and as is the nature of hippie reunions, it didn't come cheap. pounds 50 seats are more than twice the norm for pop concerts. But then Oldfield performing all this week for the first time in England in more than 10 years cannot be classed as a mere pop concert. Mystical experience, hallucinogen, answer to an insomniac's prayer, his creation, Tubular Bells, has been all those things.

While the massive hanging of the Tubular Bells symbol draped over the Albert Memorial instantly brought back memories of late- night sessions in campus bedrooms, the audience did not: surburban family groups in chain- store woollies. Perhaps ex-hippies had balked at the price.

Oldfield, it was, who made Richard Branson a millionaire, something that everyone appears to have forgiven except Oldfield. Tubular Bells by the 19-year-old prodigy was Virgin's first release in 1973, and the minimalist, haunting guitars and synthesiser-led symphony sold 16 million copies. Oldfield and Branson fell out of love and into litigation; traumatic experiences for a hippie, which might explain why the gestation period for Tubular Bells 2 was nearly 20 years.

The post-psychedelic era of the first Tubular Bells is long gone, though not it seems for the celebrated 'master of ceremonies' who announced the 'two slightly distorted guitars' and other instruments on the album. Vivian Stanshall, late of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, was intended also to be the voice on Tubular Bells 2, but when the producer went to collect him, he was asleep in the bath with a pot plant.

Oldfield, though, having discovered contentment through exegesis, a therapy in which you re-enact the birth trauma, looked fit last night. In white trainers, dark T- shirt and suit he bounced about through a jungle of instruments, with kilted bagpipers and juggler joining him on stage. He played all of the melodically more consistent No 2, but received an emotional ovation for a short burst of the dramatic and powerful original, a piece of social history with resonances that no follow-up could claim.

'It simply reminded me of a happier and freer time,' said Carole Russell, a marketing manager. 'In 1973, I was at college and there didn't seem to be a day when you didn't hear and feel this music.'

Among the younger fans, Peter Evans, a 26-year-old engineer, said: 'It just creates so many different visual planes. It was like meeting an old friend after 20 years - even though I was only six then.'

Chris Dewey, a student at Bath University, added: 'The climaxes are so intense. It sends a rush right through my body. Towards the end of 'Altered State' (from Tubular Bells 2) I experienced this intense tingling sensation.'

Today, they will attend a Mike Oldfield convention, organised by his fanzine Dark Star at a London hotel, before regrouping for more intensity in the nervous system.

(Photograph omitted)