LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO

(February 9, 2016; WILDEY THEATRE, Edwardsville IL)

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Before jumping into the night’s music, a quick word about the venerable Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville, Illinois. The theater opened as a vaudeville venue in 1909 and still carries much of the charm of the era, as well as much of the Art Deco styling of a major mid-’20s renovation. This was my first experience at the Wildey and I was quite impressed with it as a concert venue; if a place can capture the unique ability to be both intimate and expansive at the same time, it is the Wildey Theatre.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Albert Mazibuko, Mfanafuthi Dlamini, Thamsanqa Shabalala, Pius Shezi; Pius Shezi, Msizi Shabalala, Thulani Shabalala;  Sabelo Mthembu, Abednego Mazibuko, Sibongiseni Shabalala (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Albert Mazibuko, Mfanafuthi Dlamini, Thamsanqa Shabalala, Pius Shezi; Pius Shezi, Msizi Shabalala, Thulani Shabalala; Sabelo Mthembu, Abednego Mazibuko, Sibongiseni Shabalala (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

I imagine that, like most Americans, my introduction to Ladysmith Black Mambazo came through Paul Simon’s incredible 1986 album, GRACELAND. However, the group has a rich and storied history going back to 1960 when Joseph Shabalala formed Ezimnyama, the precursor to LBM. The group still features four of Shabalala’s sons, Thamsanqa, Msizi, Thulani and Sibongiseni. Like their home country of South Africa, the history of Ladysmith Black Mambazo is littered with death and violence; in 1969, the longest serving member of the group (aside from Joseph, who now acts as the group’s musical director), Albert Mazibuko and his younger brother, Milton, joined the band. In 1980, Milton was murdered; the Mazibuko’s younger brother, Abednego became a member in the mid-’70s. Joseph Sabalala’s brother, Ben, also a member of LBM, was murdered in 1991, Jospeh’s wife, in 2004. Life is not easy for Ladysmith Black Mambazo but, through their continuing struggles, they have never lost their optimism or their joyous, uplifting sound.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Albert Mazibuko, Mfanafuthi Dlamini, Pius Shezi, Msizi Shabalala, Thulani Shabalala; Thulani Shabalala, Sabelo Mthembu, Abednego Mazibuko, Sibongisen Shabalala) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Albert Mazibuko, Mfanafuthi Dlamini, Pius Shezi, Msizi Shabalala, Thulani Shabalala; Thulani Shabalala, Sabelo Mthembu, Abednego Mazibuko, Sibongisen Shabalala) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

After a short introduction, the nine-member group took the stage and, after taking a bit of time to relate the meaning of the first song, they jumped right in. Along the way, each took their turn dancing out front and performing as frontman, with lead vocals that soared over the others’ backing. One of the highlights of the first set was the stirring “Long Walk To Freedom,” dedicated to the late freedom activist and former South African president, Nelson Mandela, in celebration of the country’s twenty-two years of freedom and Democracy. Even though we come from very different backgrounds, moments like this bring us all together; these are the times when the color of a man’s skin or his geographical heritage become secondary and we all join together to celebrate the Human Race.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Albert Mazibuko; Pius Shezi; Sibongiseni Shabalala) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Albert Mazibuko; Pius Shezi; Sibongiseni Shabalala) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

After a brief intermission, the singers greeted us with a short intro and snippet of “Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes.” The second half of the show featured a great deal of dancing and some audience participation. Throughout this set, several members offered introductions to the other men onstage, as well as introspection to the meaning of most of the songs. Highlights from the latter half of the night included “Homeless” (a song co-written by Joseph Shabalala and Paul Simon, which appeared on GRACELAND and Ladysmith’s ZIBUYINHLAZANE album of the same year) and my favorite song from the second set, “Rain, Rain, Beautiful Rain.” Ladysmith Black Mambazo have a timeless sound that somehow conveys nostalgia and spiritual depth at the same time. Seeing the group live is truly amazing… even if you aren’t fluent in Zulu.


WISHBONE ASH; WISHBONE ASH/MATT TAUL

(September 12, 2015; September 13, 2015; THE WILDEY THEATRE, Edwardsville IL)

Wishbone Ash, night 2 sound check at the Wildey Theatre (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Wishbone Ash, night 2 sound check at the Wildey Theatre (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

What can conceivably be better than seeing Wishbone Ash live? Why, seeing Wishbone Ash live two nights in a row, of course! Now, I loves me some Wishbone Ash but, this isn’t going to be a fan-boy rant about how great it was to see a band play the exact same show two nights in a row… because it wasn’t the same show two nights in a row. Night two at the beautiful Wildey Theatre was a recent addition to the group’s schedule and a bit of a departure from the regular ROAD WARRIORS TOUR; in the middle of the set, the band played their crowning achievement, ARGUS, from front to back… well, kinda (more on that later). This was my first Wildey experience and, I must admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The recently (2010) renovated Wildey began life in 1909 as a vaudeville theater and now serves as a live venue for music, comedy and stage plays, as well as a movie theater, showing classics from the not-too-distant past (we just missed PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE; MEAN GIRLS is upcoming). The seating capacity is somewhere around 300, give or take, and there isn’t a bad seat in the house; the sound is phenomenal. So… what am I trying to say? Well… I like this place. I really like this place! And, apparently, so do a lot of… uh… let’s call them “well established” acts, as the Wildey continues to show up on tour itineraries for Savoy Brown, Dave Mason, Gypsy and, yes, Wishbone Ash.

Wishbone Ash, night 2 sound check (Andy Powell and Joe Crabtree) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Wishbone Ash, night 2 sound check (Andy Powell and Joe Crabtree) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Both nights featured a VIP ticket option (something a lot of bands are doing in an effort to keep regular ticket prices more affordable), including a meet and greet session with the band, a “sound check” with original guitarist Andy Powell offering up anecdotes from the group’s forty-six year career and answering questions from the fans. The quartet also played snippets of rarely played favorites from that long career. Unfortunately, we didn’t get into the first night’s session in time to catch anything other than a few questions; the second night, however, featured a bit of “Lady Whisky,” from the first Wishbone Ash record, and a verse and chorus from “Ballad of the Beacon,” which comes from my all-time favorite album from the group, WISHBONE FOUR. Everybody – including Andy and his boys – seemed to have a great time in this informal setting.

Wishbone Ash, night 1 (Muddy Manninen; Andy Powell; Andy Powell with Bob Skeat) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wishbone Ash, night 1 (Muddy Manninen; Andy Powell; Andy Powell with Bob Skeat) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The first evening’s set began with three tunes from the latest album, 2014’s BLUE HORIZON, including the jazzy island vibe of the title track. Unlike a lot of other “classic” artists, Wishbone Ash have continually been able to introduce new material to their live sets rather than simply relying on their past achievements; of course, the fact that they continue to place a premium on producing high quality music certainly doesn’t hurt. Most of the set, naturally, was made up of songs from the first several years of the band’s existence, including a favorite from 1979’s JUST TESTING, “Helpless,” several songs from ARGUS, “Jail Bait” from the PILGRIMAGE record and a fiery (pun definitely intended) “Phoenix” from WISHBONE ASH. This Wishbone Ash is the real deal, no pale imitator of the band’s earlier incarnations; they have been together for some ten years, more than twice as long as the original group (Andy Powell, Martin Turner, Ted Turner and Steve Upton). Even adding the service time of the second version of the group (with Laurie Wisefield taking over Ted Turner’s guitar spot), this band matches both together for longevity… they know how to put on a show. In an interview before the shows, Andy commented on the “youngster” of the band, drummer Joe Crabtree, as being half his age and “kicking him up the arse,” both on stage and in the studio. Andy’s guitar-slinging partner, Jyrki “Muddy” Manninen (who physically reminded me of the sorely missed Glen Buxton), more than upholds his end of the band’s innovative dual lead sound; he can also lay down a brilliantly bluesy solo when required. Aside from Andy, bass player Bob Skeat is the longest tenured member of the group, at eighteen years and counting. He and Crabtree are a formidable rhythm section, keeping the sound tight even as they add their own flairs to the most well-known numbers from the band’s illustrious past. I should note that a collective groan went up from the crowd when Andy broke a string and had to put aside his Flying V before launching into “Phoenix.” That guitar body has become synonymous with Andy Powell and Wishbone Ash and watching the man playing something other than that guitar was sorta strange,

Matt Taul (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Matt Taul (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Night two was a different beast. The first night was broken up into two sets of roughly fifty minutes each; this night featured an opening act and one ninety minute set from the headliners. Matt Taul, of the Stubblefield Band, offered a serviceable (if rather uninspired) acoustic set, augmented by hot-shot guitarist Phil Waits, who did exhibit a bit of fire with his lead work and solos. To be fair to Taul, I think that this acoustic outing may not have been the best option as an opener for a group like Wishbone Ash. His evocative, raspy rock growl was just so out of place with the folky playing (Waits’ stellar picking notwithstanding) on display throughout the set.

Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Andy Powell) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Andy Powell) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Ash opened night two with the same three BLUE HORIZON tunes before introducing the tour’s only North American performance of the entire ARGUS album. Predictably, the earlier question and answer session revolved around the evening’s special event; Andy related the band’s literary influences for the seven songs on their third album (a fascination with Tolkein and Arthurian legend, as well as Martin Turner’s study of the Bible). Even though these things were obvious when ARGUS was released in 1972, hearing the stories made me listen to things a little differently… shining a new light (THE light?) on the familiar songs. After a brilliant “Time Was,” Powell led the band into “Blowin’ Free.” He didn’t realize his mistake until Skeat whispered in his ear that he had forgotten the record’s second song, “Sometime World.” Joking about his earlier rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and his advanced age, Andy set things right, in a backward kind of way. With the program back on track, Andy reminded us ALL just how old we are, by mentioning that it was time to flip the record to side two for “The King Will Come.” Aside from the lyrical themes and reliance on traditional English folk music for inspiration, the album is known for the extended instrumental sections, particularly on “Warrior,” one of the hardest rocking tunes out of the seven. Watching Andy (with his trademark Flying V, though not the famed white one he used during the band’s early years) and Muddy lock into a harmonic groove or seeing one of the pair break away for a nearly note-perfect solo, with Bob and Joe laying down a solid bottom end, was definitely a highlight of the show.

Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Muddy Manninen; Andy Powell and Joe Crabtree) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Muddy Manninen; Andy Powell and Joe Crabtree) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Having thrilled the crowd with ARGUS, the band returned to the new BLUE HORIZON album, as well as dipping into one of their more overlooked releases with the title tune from 1977’s FRONT PAGE NEWS and ending with an even better version of “Phoenix” than they played the previous evening. They returned with a pair of rarely performed numbers for an encore, “Persephone” from THERE’S THE RUB, the band’s first with Laurie Wisefield, and “Blind Eye” from the venerable debut release. “Persephone” is perhaps one of the finest ballads of the “arena rock” era and was a request from the earlier VIP session; when Powell asked the gentleman why he requested that particular tune, he said that it was the most beautiful song he’d ever heard. Andy, visibly taken aback at the pronouncement, could only say, “Wow.” When the number was over, there were more than a few members of the audience seconding that response. “Blind Eye” exhibits the earliest progressive proclivities of the band, but is also an astonishingly effective example of Wishbone Ash’s contributions to the British Blues Movement, with great harmony leads from Manninen and Powell and solos from all four members of the group.

Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Andy Powell with Muddy Manninen; Bob Skeat) (photo credits DARREN TRACY)

Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Andy Powell with Muddy Manninen; Bob Skeat) (photo credits DARREN TRACY)

I’d seen the band once before, in 1993, on a package tour with Uriah Heep and Nazareth (Blue Oyster Cult was a no-show) but, that version (featuring only Ted and Andy from the recently reunited original four) paled in comparison to the Wishbone Ash beast on display over these two nights in mid-September, 2015. And, while the heart pines for the chance to see the original four perform again, I don’t hear any complaints (nor do I have any) about the four guys who pulled out all the stops to give their fans the music they wanted to hear.


ON THE BLUE HORIZON: A CHAT WITH ANDY POWELL

WISHBONE ASH AT THE WILDEY THEATRE, SEPTEMBER 12/13

Wishbone Ash ROAD WARRIORS TOUR

Wishbone Ash ROAD WARRIORS TOUR

Wishbone Ash have released some of my favorite albums over a very long career, including WISHBONE FOUR, THERE’S THE RUB, LIVE DATES, NUMBER THE BRAVE and the latest, BLUE HORIZON. The band – founding member and guitarist Andy Powell, fellow guitarist Jyrki “Muddy” Manninen, longtime bassist Bob Skeat and the youngster of the band, drummer Joe Crabtree – are bringing their ROAD WARRIORS TOUR to the beautiful Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville IL on Saturday, September 12th, followed by a special show on Sunday, the 13th, featuring a performance of the seminal album, ARGUS, in its entirety.

Wishbone Ash (Andy Powell) (publicity photo)

Wishbone Ash (Andy Powell) (publicity photo)

Powell told the Mule what to expect both nights in a recent interview, “You know, it’s a forty-five, forty-six year career for Wishbone Ash. We’re going to dip into those decades, we’re going to do a very nice feature of the new album… we want to feature the BLUE HORIZON album, give the people a bit of that album.” He goes on to explain what fans of the band expect in a live setting: “We have people, when they come see the band, they expect to see guitar playing and there’ll be a ton of guitar playing, of course, especially featuring the twin lead guitar sound that we’re known for. The bottom line is the fact that it’s entertainment… and we want to give the biggest bang for the buck that we can in concert. We go out with all guns blazing, we use everything that’s available to us in terms of what we’ve created in the last 46 years.”

Wishbone Ash (Andy Powell) (publicity photo)

Wishbone Ash (Andy Powell) (publicity photo)

As far as the Sunday show, Andy said this about the ARGUS set: “They added the second show because that’s what’s going up. We will, in fact, take a spot in that set, we’ll play the entire album, the songs in order as they would have been heard on the album. I believe it is the only show on the tour that we’re doing that. It will just be a small variation on the first night… well, quite a substantial variation, in fact. We’ll be featuring that album. It’s something we’ve done before in concert, in Europe and we’re happy to be doing it in the United States in a theater situation. It’ll be great.” And playing at the Wildey? “Awesome theater! We have not played there for two or three years now and we’re really happy to be going back there.”

Wishbone Ash (Joe Crabtree, Andy Powell, Bob Skeat, Muddy Manninen) (photo credit: TIM ASSMANN)

Wishbone Ash (Joe Crabtree, Andy Powell, Bob Skeat, Muddy Manninen) (photo credit: TIM ASSMANN)

What about the band? With Crabtree coming on board in the middle of the last decade, this version of the band has been together longer than the original group of Powell, Martin Turner, Ted Turner and Steve Upton. Andy is rightfully proud of the group’s accomplishments. “This current entity has been together for about ten years. It’s so road tested, we’re such a sort of a unit now; it’s almost like a complete… another career, in a way. We put out some really solid albums in the last several years. It’s a band that just seems to be able to function in any context: We can go into a club, or into a theater, we can play festivals in the summer… wherever I take the band, whatever the setting, it seems to rise to the occasion and I’m so happy. I don’t think that was always the case at various points in the band’s history. I’m really happy to be doing it… it’s given me such a great peace of mind because at this point in my career – I’ve been with the band 46 years – it’s great to have the latter part of the career so solid, so strong.” He goes on to point out, “We’re not a tribute band, we’re a living, breathing band, a band that reinterprets the original songs, modernizes subtly here and there… and all of that stimulates me, kicks me up the rear end in terms of being a musician. Every night is a workout and the band – Joe Crabtree, our drummer, he’s half my age. We’re not lagging in any way because of the longevity of the band, in fact, it’s the opposite, we’re more stimulated than ever and creative. We’re not a band just resting on its laurels, although we could do. I know a lot of band’s do that.” Emphasizing the creativeness of the current band, Powell describes crowd reaction for songs from BLUE HORIZON, exclaiming, “Without blowing our horn, it’s pretty amazing! You can see their eyes are wide open, they’re very engaged… I mean, it’s very intricate material and what we do with two guitars, bass and drums is pretty ambitious, actually. You hear when we… you can just see it on people’s faces, they respond immediately.”

EYES WIDE OPEN (Andy Powell book cover)

EYES WIDE OPEN (Andy Powell book cover)

So… your an author. Tell us a bit about that. “Yeah, I just penned a biography. So many people encouraged me to do it because I’ve got loads of road stories and that’s just part of it; I’ve been in the business long enough now that I can look back across the decades… not just music in this band, but music in general. I felt I had something to say. I didn’t want to write anything until I had something to say.” And, where can we find a copy? “It’s available at Amazon. It’s called EYES WIDE OPEN: TRUE TALES OF A WISHBONE ASH WARRIOR, ANDY POWELL. It’s a wry look at the music business and my life in it.”

The Wildey Theatre (publicity photo)

The Wildey Theatre (publicity photo)

Andy left us with this message regarding the Wildey Theatre shows: “I think it’s going to be a great weekend. All the best to all our friends and fans.” For more information on Wishbone Ash at the Wildey Theatre or, to order tickets, visit wishboneash.com or wildeytheatre.com.