A new chapter has begun in Wishbone Ash’s long and distinguished history, with master guitarist Andy Powell accompanied by a new partner in Yorkshireman Mark Abrahams, following Muddy Manninen’s departure after twelve years.
They remain one of the hardest working road warriors, yet Central London dates have been a rare site on their recent extensive UK tours. Allied to curiosity over the new line up, this made for a much larger crowd than expected with the Academy substantially more full than when they previously played here.
Back at the turn of the seventies, Wishbone’s then revolutionary twin lead guitar line up altered the conventional wisdom of how a rock band was constructed. In his own way, support act Steve Hill was equally innovative. The White Stripes and Royal Blood may have brought duos into the mainstream, but the Canadian went a step further as a one man band, and no acoustic troubadour but a full on rocker complete with denim cut off and wild hair and beard.
He used a variety of pedals to play the drums simultaneously and most intriguingly his guitar had a drumstick tip which he dipped up and down while playing to bash the cymbals – who says men cannot multi task? He was also an engaging character and doubtless made many new friends.
The lengthy ‘Ballad of Johnny Wabo’ was a showcase for some incendiary slide guitar playing while the more considered ‘Never Is Such A Long Time’ took him into almost Bonamassa-esque territory.
The punchy ‘Dangerous’, and lengthy closer ‘Hate To See You Go’, complete with a snatch of ‘Whole Lotta Love’, suggested that, while the unusual format may have got him noticed, he has the pedigree to rank alongside a growing number of rising heavy blues rockers such as Jared James Nichols and Aaron Keylock.
Slightly incongruously, Wishbone Ash took the stage to the strains of ‘Delilah’ but it instantly seemed to put Andy Powell in a jovial mood for the whole evening. As the twin guitar band par excellence, it was fitting that Mark Abrahams should cut his live teeth duelling with Andy on the jaunty instrumental ‘Bona Fide’, while with a slightly shy smile he was also instantly more animated than his notoriously inscrutable predecessor.
A defining characteristic of Andy’s years leading Wishbone has been to push them forward as a contemporary recording act rather than simply wallow in nostalgia, and an opening trio of relatively recent vintage was completed by ‘Eyes Wide Open’, with some classic Wishbone harmony leads, and ‘Way Down South’, with a more Americanised feel and a trademark long but fluent and melodic solo from Andy. His vocals were also among the best I have heard from him, seamlessly backed by bassist Bob Skeat, now a fixture by his side for nearly 20 years now.
However he is also shrewd enough to know that a crowd in the main old enough to remember them first time round craves the classics they know and love, not least from ‘Argus’. A run of four numbers began with the ‘King Will Come’, fans eagerly anticipating how Mark would tackle his first main solo of the night, followed by the traditional suite of ‘Warrior’ and ‘Throw Down the Sword’, with a typically mellifluous solo from Andy even if the usual twin guitar climax was absent.
However those live staples gave way to a surprise as the rarely played ‘Leaf And Stream’ opened a mid-set acoustic section. There was a rare moment when Andy’s professional mask slipped as he told an anecdote and introduced ‘Wings of Desire’ only for drummer Joe Crabtree to remind him a few bars in that they were meant to be playing ‘Master of Disguise’ first!
Plugging back in there was a good mix of songs from all eras of Wishbone, from ‘Standing In The Rain’ to a tight, taut ‘FUBB’, the instrumental that is a good touchstone of how a new Wishbone member can fit in.
By the time of ‘Jailbait’ I was forming the impression that Mark’s arrival has not only stretched Andy but given the twin guitar attack a harsher , almost metallic cutting edge (though Muddy’s slide playing was missed), and he certainly rose to the challenge with some fiery playing during ‘Phoenix’ where the band introduced some fresh improvisation, even if at under 13 minutes it was somewhat truncated from the epic it has become in recent years.
There was a surprise for the first encore when Andy said they’d play another oldie, and though another lengthy epic, the way ‘Time Was’ built to a climax with his lengthy solo made me realise it was another good live choice before, casting aside his flying V for once, ‘Blowing Free’ was the inevitable and very enjoyable closer to complete a near clean sweep of ‘Argus’ material.
It’s still early days but this promising start to the new Wishbone era showed that, far from mellowing or coasting on a wave of nostalgia, the band continue to forge ahead and on a harder rocking path.
Review by Andy Nathan
Photos by Paul Clampin
Don’t miss Steve Hill on tour with Wishbone Ash in the UK in October & November.
Click here for the UK tour dates – http://bit.ly/2uPOyvh
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