For all the quality of their recorded product, Wishbone Ash have always best been experienced in a live setting. It was therefore entirely appropriate that this year’s remarkable ‘Vintage Years’ box set included CD’s of no less than eight previously unreleased live concerts, which provided much of the soundtrack to my summer.
The sole remaining member from those days, Andy Powell, has maintained a relentless touring schedule and though the two annual UK tours were reduced to one a few years back, this autumn jaunt extended, as he reminded us from the stage, to a remarkable 31 dates.
In front of an unexpected near full house for the London show, ‘Bona Fide’ was an appropriate opener as an instrumental showcase for the band’s traditional twin guitar prowess, before ‘Come In From The Rain’. With some fiery soloing, Mark Abrahams demonstrated the extent to which he has grown in confidence, 12 months on from being the new boy, and indeed talk of the fans was that the injection of his fresh sound was arguably also pushing Andy on to new heights.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that a band so associated with the seventies have been continuing to make new music, and ‘Deep Blues’ saw the pair swap solos before those classic harmony leads, while on the more American flavoured ‘Way Down South’ Andy delivered one of his typically lyrical guitar solos.
He got another opportunity to do so on ‘Lifeline’, perhaps the greatest guitar epic from the underrated ‘Mark 2’ era of the band, which I rarely, if ever, remember him playing before. This was the pleasant surprise of the night for a Wishbone anorak like me, but I did sense that by this stage the more casual fan was waiting for the ‘Argus’ material.
They duly obliged with a traditional trilogy, Mark stamping his own authority on the timeless ‘The King Will Come’, with Bob Skeat also playing a key role with a nifty bass line in the middle and his harmony vocals, before Andy’s guitar was more to the fore on ‘Warrior’ and ‘Throw Down The Sword’. More surprising was the least played track from that album, ‘Leaf And Stream’, with the Spanish-style guitars really adding to the song’s beauty.
The neon Wishbone logo adorning Joe Crabtree’s drumkit is as close to flamboyance as the band get, with the music allowed to speak for itself without gimmicks or set pieces. However Andy is a more relaxed and mellow compere than on those seventies live recordings, gently ribbing bandmates (‘Joe invented the internet’), and musing on Islington’s gentrification since his days in London, while few rock stars would be articulate enough to use words such as ‘aegis’ .
He takes an obvious pride in his life’s work, and is much improved as a lead singer these days. Only a couple of times did it show that the bulk of these songs were originally written to be sung outside his natural vocal register.
The twin guitars fairly sang on a lively ‘FUBB’ which never outstayed its lengthy welcome, while ‘Standing In The Rain’ was a welcome surprise and Mark impressed on the solo. The gig moved to a traditional Wishbone conclusion with ‘Jailbait’, featuring an audience call and response and a snatch of the riff to ‘Hear Me Calling’; and the usual epic in Phoenix which Andy joked they were still writing, in reference to the fact it always features band improvisation, though at ‘only’ 15 minutes in Mark’s hands the song has yet to reach the lengths it stretched to under his rather more taciturn predecessor Muddy Manninen.
Against a tight 11 o’clock curfew there was time for only one encore, and the inevitable ‘Blowing Free’ was well received and for such an overplayed song sounded remarkably fresh.
It was a night to be reminded of the enduring stamp of quality that still goes with the Wishbone Ash name. The band’s 50th anniversary next year whets the appetite even more for the next tour.
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
Gig review (The Tivoli, Buckley, 3 November)
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