Once again, my life has intersected with the occult band Ancient VVisdom, led by lyricist, vocalist and Satanist, Nathan “Opposition” Jochum. The group has released three previous albums (including my introduction to the group, 2014’s SACRIFICIAL), as well as a notorious single-sided split with Charles Manson. Yes… THAT Charles Manson. The guy who is rumored to have written a tune or three with the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson. So, with a name like that and lyrics like that and a pedigree like that, their new record, 33, should be heavy enough to have its own gravitational pull. And, it is that heavy… except in the delivery. Antithetical to SACRIFICIAL, this is an album of mid-tempo, near-folk Gothic rock with acoustic guitars aplenty, minimal percussion and an almost soothing vocal performance. Sure, there are plenty of recognizable metal tropes on 33, with enough reference points to keep any headbanging historian ooh-ing and aah-ing but, the heaviness doesn’t come from any crushing musical fury; rather, the true heaviness comes from Jochum’s belief in what he’s singing. Whether you are – like Nathan himself – a true believer in the power of Lucifer or – like yours truly – a follower of Christ, you can feel the man’s fervor and… well, love for the subject matter. And, wherever you fall within that wide spectrum of beliefs, that emotional connection between Jochum and his own belief system makes for a very heavy – and very real – listening experience.
The genesis of the album is a fairly simple one. As Nathan explains, “33 is a master number. It is also the age Christ was crucified. 33 is the age of the peak of existence. It is the age I am. 33 is the answer.” With that concept in mind, Jochum – along with his brother, guitarist Michael (the Dark Angel) and new bass player, Connor Metsker – created his ultimate peaen to the Dark Lord, the first new music from Ancient Vvisdom in three years. Admittedly, it may sound a little strange to hear love songs to Satan but, again, with Nathan’s fervent beliefs laid bare, the lyrics aren’t as disagreeable as you might think. The album opener, “Ascending Eternally,” is a minor key piano piece which serves as a short, atmospheric intro to “Light of Lucifer,” a kind of space hippie, semi-acoustic dirge that – more than anything else – recalls very early Pink Floyd. With nearly whispered vocals, a wicked, droney vibe and the underlying philosophy of “less is more,” the track definitely gets the record off to a great start. “In the Name of Satan” has a Sabbath-like riff that’s dense enough to caulk Tony Iommi’s entire house. And, yet… even with that heavy riffage on display, as well as some rather hefty percussion (Nathan, again proving that less is indeed more, offers nothing more than a lead foot – or, perhaps, a Led foot? – to the pedal of a kick drum to produce the perfect percussive part for the song) and some Maidenesque twin guitar leads over the top, the number seems to be a near-balladic love song. Hearkening back to the last album, Jochum’s vocals are a nasally cross between Klaus Meine and Ozzy Osbourne. With the band seemingly working its way through every conceivable metal touchstone, “True Will” is Metallica’s “One,” with all of that band’s angst removed… just to prove it can be done! It features more of Nathan’s fine acoustic work floating through some great lead work from Michael. If possible, the vocals are even more understated than on “Light of Lucifer,” making the track that much more powerful. “The Infernal One” is very groove-oriented and much more of a ‘90s alt-rock sort of thing – it comes off as an oddly appealing cross between Soundgarden and Manowar, with kind of a ‘70s arena rock guitar solo thrown in for good measure. It’s actually not a bad song at all, though it seems a bit short at less than three minutes.
Ancient VVisdom (Connor Metsker, Nathan Jochum, Michael Jochum) (publicity photo)
The bass-heavy slab of Sabbath-cum-Metallica-cum-Gothic instrumental moodiness, “Summoning Eternal Light,” gives Connor Metsker a chance to shine (no pun intended). Like similar tracks from Geezer and Cliff, it works well as a stand alone piece or as an intro to the next number. Here, that number is “Rise Fallen Angel,” which features still more Sabbath crunch with Dio-like lyrics of mysticism and spiritualism, while visions of the mighty Priest (along with Cirith Ungol, Diamond Head and Night Demon) dance in your head. It may not be a masterpiece, but it is close. “33” is the one where the group (and, in particular, Nathan Jochum’s vocal performance) revisits that weird Blue Oyster Cult/Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser world of heavy ballads. The only thing missing is an actual drummer; far be it from me to question such decisions but, that one missing factor could have possibly pushed the entire album over the top. As is, though, the return to the heavily BOC-influenced SACRIFICIAL sound may also make “33,” lyrically, the most powerful song on the record. Having stumbled upon the BOC comparison, I am now hearing more evidence that the Jochum boys owe more than a fleeting nod to that august court. On “The Great Beast,” the vocals have settled into a nice pop-rock niche, while the music adds a wickedly cool swamp vibe to the proceedings. This track is definitely in the running for my favorite on the album. “Lux” starts off with a languid, melancholic slice of Americana before the song proper kicks in, a languid, melancholic slice of Americana, with self-affirming lyrics and a chorus that pleads – or warns – “Don’t give yourself away.” I gotta say that the further I head into 33, the better it sounds. A short, chilling piano piece called “Dispelling Darkness” closes the album. Echo-drenched and sustain-heavy, the thing may be the single most disturbing piece of music I’ve heard this year. I wonder how it would have sounded if it had been fleshed out into a full band arrangement with suitably maudlin lyrics. Ah, well… one can dream, can’t one? 33 may not be Nathan Jochum and Ancient Vvisdom’s magnum opus, but… it is one fine record.
Hot on the heels of the critically acclaimed THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW – relatively speaking, anyway… before that January 2015 album, the band’s previous release was 1997’s ANAGRAMARY – comes the seventh and latest chapter of the progressively-inclined Red Jasper, called 777. Like its predecessor, the record is a gently rocking progressive affair… kinda like latter-day Genesis or early Gentle Giant, with just enough bite to keep the more hard rock-inclined among us happy (not to mention some Marillion-esque keyboard work and some very tasty guitar from time to time). 777 is sort of a sequel to the Clive Barker-inspired …SECRET SHOW, with the lyrics once again exploring the very personal religious imagery from that release; as vocalist David Clifford writes in his liner notes, “777 is described as the antithesis of 666.” The first track is called “7” and it has a definite Marillion feel, though without the harsh, powerful vocals of Derek Dick (better known as Fish) or even the smoother pop stylings of Steve Hogarth. Clifford hangs around the upper registers, sort of somewhere around Geddy Lee’s mid-period Rush stuff, while avoiding the nasally proclivities of that stalwart. “Nothing To Believe” features a galloping bass line from Jim Thornton and really cool multi-tracked and harmony riffing from guitarist Robin Harrison. The lyrics document the struggles of youth and, finally, rising above the chaos and dismay with the chorus, “That life has gone/But my life will carry on.” Bonus points to newish drummer Florin Werner for his indiscreet use of the cowbell throughout the tune. Shifting from a demented waltz to a punky, charging hard rock affair, the schizophrenic “She Waits” offers a little something for everybody, including a completely unhinged Harrison solo and more words-per-square-inch than most tunes. “Forth of Fife” could very easily be considered either an homage or a flat-out rip of the Genesis classic “Firth of Fifth.” It has so many like elements that it’s hard not to compare the two: Lloyd George’s amazing keyboard work, particularly the solo piano; a flute part that may or may not be another George keyboard creation (no mention of a flute appears anywhere in the album credits); more stellar fretwork from Harrison; a melody line that is quite reminiscent of the Genesis tune. Given all of these similarities, it wouldn’t be too difficult to consider “Forth of Fife” a musical parody of an iconic piece of progressive rock. Thankfully, the tune stands on its own, as the nods to the previous work manage to weave themselves into the songs original fabric, allowing the words and music to tell their own story, live in their own reality. The most forceful track thus far, “The Gathering” features all of the hallmarks of a great progressive number, falling somewhere between classic Yes and a more metallic Rush. The rhythm section, in particular, puts a little extra punch into their parts – Thornton’s bass moves from Chris Squire’s melodic picking style to something akin to Tony Levin’s fluid stick thumps, while Werner falls just south of the percussive overload created by Neal Peart. Even at eight-and-a-half minutes, the song never lagged and, in fact, seemed to end far sooner than I expected. Again, bonus points to the other three Jaspers, with amazing work turned in by Clifford, George and Harrison.
Red Jasper (Jon Thornton, Robin Harrison, David Clifford, Lloyd George, Florin Werner) (uncredited photo)
“Reaching Out” begins with a lone, chiming guitar before developing into a really cool psuedo-’60s Folk-pop sort of affair. The addition of an “arena rock” keyboard solo (it reminds me of something Ken Hensley may have played during Uriah Heep’s heyday; David Byron called it the “Moog simplifier”), which could have rendered the song cheesy beyond repair, actually enhances the overall vibe. More late ’60s guitar highlights “Blessed With Gold,” a track that is equal parts “California Dreamin’,” Lordian (as in, Deep Purple’s Jon) keyboard bombast, Middle Eastern melodies and a certain “Arrh, matey” nautical theme. “Dragonfly” is a gauzy, pastoral number, with elegant fretwork from Harrison and keyboard washes from George. However, though Clifford’s ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS lyrics lend a child-like charm to the tune, it’s Werner’s percussive restraint and Thornton’s rather lilting bassline that really make the song work for me. It seems as though these Jaspers got most of their hard rocking tendencies out of their systems in the first half of 777, as “Paradise Folly” continues the Fairport Convention/English Folk sound prevalent on the second half. Another beautiful guitar solo from Harrison highlights the proceedings. “October and April” is listed as a bonus track. It’s a stripped-down cover of an obscure song by an even more obscure Finnish group called the Rasmus. Clifford duets with his daughter, Soheila, with brilliant accompaniment by Red Jasper’s original guitarist, Tony Heath, on a number that kinda reminds me of a Celtic version of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” A nice, if rather light, end to an unassuming record that sort of sneaks up on you… before you realize what’s happening, your toes are a-tappin’ and you’re having a quietly good time with one of England’s best secret weapons of progressive music.
Stackridge, 1971 (Mike Evans, Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Jim “Crun” Walter, James Warren and Billy Bent ) (publicity photo)
Growing up in The Middle of Nowhere, Illinois as I did, it was hard enough finding a store that stocked the popular music of the day, much less the fringe releases I preferred, by such artists as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Captain Beefheart or Fireballet. The special order became a way of life for me, allowing me to be the only kid on my block to own the latest releases by Fanny or Osibisa or the odder-than-usual concept album, FLASH FEARLESS VERSUS THE ZORG WOMEN PARTS FIVE AND SIX; actually, I may have been the only kid on my block that wanted those albums… but, you get my point. Anyway, with all of that, the band Stackridge somehow slipped under my radar. Naturally, I was familiar with the name. After all, I could and did read a lot of music publications as a young impressionable pup (still can and do, as an old impressionable hound); it just seemed that there was always something that interested me more.
Stackridge, 2015 (Eddie John, James Warren, Andy Davis, Clare Lindley, Glenn Tommey) (publicity photo)
So, I said all of that so I could say this: I eventually did manage to get my grubby fingers on a Stackridge album – EXTRAVAGANZA, I believe – and I was hooked. I was ecstatic when England’s Angel Air Records began their painstakingly comprehensive reissue campaign of the band’s back catalog, along with a live album and a couple of collections peppered in among them. When I decided to get back into the review game, I knew that one of the things I wanted to do was an interview with the two-headed beast that led and continue to lead Stackridge: James Warren and Andy Davis. In early 2014, I contacted their manager, supplied him with a few questions via e-mail and awaited a reply. Fast forward approximately ten months and, I am finally in receipt of answers from Mister Warren. Fast forward another couple of months and, with no reply from Mister Davis, the decision was made to move ahead with a revamped format, using James’ answers. Now, nearly a full two years since my initial request, here – so to speak – is the finished product. There are several questions and answers that allude to the 45th anniversary of the band and the chances of them recording another album of new material, as well as an extensive mention of the Korgis (the other band fronted by Andy and James) that may sound redundant, but please keep in mind that questions were posed and answers were given in 2014. Following the interview, we’re gonna delve into some of the best from both Stackridge and the Korgis, so stick around.
THE MULE: The original band got together in 1969, making this your 45th anniversary. The current line-up still features both of the primary songwriters and vocalists of the various incarnations of the group. Aside from the occasional break-up or vacation from each other, to what do you attribute the longevity of Stackridge?
JAMES:I think the longevity is due to the fact that the repertoire is so stimulating and diverse. It’s great to be able to perform songs as varied as “Fish In a Glass,” “Anyone For Tennis,” “The Road To Venezuela” and “Something About the Beatles” all in the same set. I’ve never been in any other musical combination that offers anything as fun or challenging.
THE MULE:Aside from Andy Davis and yourself, who is involved in the current version of Stackridge? Are the musicians – comparatively speaking – young guns or do you all enjoy a certain advanced… uh… musical acuity. Can we get a feel of the players’ musical pedigree?
JAMES:So, we have Glenn Tommey on keyboards – we’ve known Glenn since 1978. He’s a multi-instrumentalist but, when we met him, he was a recording engineer who worked on the first Korgis album and even sang backing vocals on “If I Had You,” a top twenty hit for the band in the UK. Clare Lindley is on violin, acoustic guitar and backing vocals. We only met her around seven years ago but ,she’s a veteran of the folk and classical circuit. She’s from Aberdeen, in Scotland. Eddie John is on drums and has been a very well-known and respected player on the Bristol scene since the 1980s. Clare and Eddie are in their 40s, Glenn, myself and Andy have all made it beyond 60!
THE MULE:The last album of new material, A VICTORY FOR COMMON SENSE, was released in 2009, after a long lay-off from recording. That album featured two more original members, Michael “Mutter” Slater and Jim “Crun” Walter. How did the album come about? How was it to work with Crun and Mutter in the studio again?
JAMES:The album was produced by Chris Hughes, original drummer with Adam and the Ants and producer of Tears For Fears and we recorded it at his home studio just outside of Bath. We’d known Chris for many years and the idea was suggested at a birthday party we were all attending. Because both Crun and Mutter had full-time day jobs and Mutter had the additional problem of living about 40 miles away from Bath, at least 75% of the work was performed by Andy and I. Crun is a lovely bloke but wildly eccentric, so creating music with him is never easy-going – he continually suggested completely perverse and off-the-wall ideas that we had to try then, inevitably, discard – and Mutter hardly participated at all except to sing his songs. So, it was a very different situation to how we worked together in the 1970s.
Stackridge, 2008 (Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Jim “Crun” Walter, James Warren) (publicity photo)
THE MULE:Did the Angel Air reissue program rekindle a kind of warm fuzzy spot for you regarding the group? Did it tempt you to reform some version of the band and get out on the boards and into the studio again? Have the reissues raised the public awareness of Stackridge, bringing along new fans? Or, is it just geezers like me looking to upgrade from that scratchy old vinyl?
JAMES:I think we never wanted to rule out the thought of a reformation. A handful of new fans have appeared but, to be honest, it’s essentially the “old guard” re-living their youth!
THE MULE:Can we expect to see new Stackridge music soon… or ever? If so, who will be involved in the project? Are you and Andy game to play with the “old guys” again?
JAMES:Sadly, I have to report that September 2015 will see the farewell tour of Stackridge. We’ve now pretty much exhausted the back catalogue in a live performance situation and it no longer makes any economic sense to record new material. There just isn’t sufficient demand for Stackridge music in the modern world! So, come and see us for the last time in 2015!
THE MULE:The group’s sound has always been the epitome of British “outsider” music, taking in bits of free jazz, traditional folk, Northern Soul, Beatles pop, the Incredible String Band and Frank Zappa. How have your musical tastes and influences changed over the years? When you are on holiday or have down time, what can we generally find you listening to?
Stackridge, 2012 (James Warren) (photo credit: MATTHEW REES/HAM LIFE)
JAMES:My wife, Clare, and I have sixteen year old twins, so when I do the school run in the mornings, me and the kids always listen to CD compilations of the latest top 20 hits – so I’m right up-to-date with contemporary pop! And I like a lot of it. Clean Bandit are one of my current favourites. I hate the typical middle-age attitude of only being able to appreciate the music you grew up with – I’m not sentimental about past musical eras in that way. I still adore and listen to the Beatles; don’t listen to the Incredibles any more, but THE HANGMAN’S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER will always be a work of genius for me. I listen to a lot more classical and jazz these days. I’m especially fascinated by 20th century composers like Stravinsky, Ravel and Satie. One of my treasured possessions is a 22-CD box set of STRAVINSKY CONDUCTING STRAVINSKY.
THE MULE:Your fans were and are, if not legion, very loyal. What is the profile of the standard Stack-fan? Do they now tend to bring along the kiddies (or grand-kids), to introduce them to the music of their youth?
JAMES:Don’t think there is a standard profile – they come in all shapes and sizes. It’s rare to see youngsters in the audience, although there are a few. I know when I was a teenager I wouldn’t be seen dead going to a concert of music my parents were into!
THE MULE:Forty-five years in, what keeps bringing you back to Stackridge? Is it the musical intricacies, the fans or some other intangible?
JAMES:I can’t improve on the answer I gave to your first question. The Stackridge repertoire is so wonderfully diverse and challenging so it’s like a musical holiday to go out and perform that stuff.
THE MULE:Certainly, over the years – particularly the first run – you have released some great albums (FRIENDLINESS, THE MAN WITH THE BOWLER HAT) and some very memorable tunes. Do you have any favorites, individual tracks or full albums? How about least favorites? Are there some albums or tracks that you thought were great at the outset but have since come to loathe?
Stackridge, 1971 (Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Billy Bent, James Warren, Micahel Evans) (photo credit: JORGEN ANGEL)
JAMES:The first album (STACKRIDGE) is a problem for me. I can’t listen to most of it any more. My singing is so fragile and under-confident, especially the falsetto bits and, most of the lyrics are painfully adolescent in a ridiculously self-indulgent sense. But, it was 1971 and I was only 20 so that explains a lot. I think there are some lovely tunes on FRIENDLINESS; the title track, “There Is No Refuge,” “Father Frankenstein,” “Lummy Days.” …BOWLER HAT still holds up well except for “To the Sun and Moon” (because of my singing). I think “Venezuela,” “Galloping Gaucho,” “Humiliation” and “Fundamentally Yours” are great. And “God Speed the Plough” is an absolute classic. I like almost all the tracks on EXTRAVAGANZA and MISTER MICK. SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND I still love. It’s more whacky and harks back to the original Stackridge mainly due to my extensive collaboration with John Miller, an incredibly eccentric keyboard player full of brilliant unconventional ideas. Wish I hadn’t lost touch with him.
THE MULE:I think that my favorites probably mirror those of most fans: “Dora the Female Explorer,” “Slark,” “Syracuse the Elephant.” The list could go on but, for brevity’s sake, what are your memories regarding the writing and recording processes of these fan favorites? Were they kinda instant favorites or do you remember them slowly taking on a life of their own to eventually become essential?
JAMES:“Dora… ,” “Slark” and “Syracuse… ” were “first generation” Stackridge compositions. Andy and Crun had the basic ideas then we would rehearse and rehearse to hammer out the arrangements. It was tremendous fun. The FRIENDLINESS songs I contributed were pretty much already mapped-out before I introduced them to the band but, then again, with …BOWLER HAT and beyond we would work hard as a unit to make a finished track from one person’s basic idea. I think the “favourites” sounded special from the outset.
THE MULE:You are one of the few bands, aside from the Beatles, to boast a production job by Sir George Martin. What was it like to work with him? How much – before, during and after THE MAN IN THE BOWLER HAT – has his work been an influence to you, personally, and the band, as a whole?
Stackridge, Cropredy Convention 2008 (James Warren, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)
JAMES:It was fantastic working with George. I’m happy to report he was as gentlemanly and effortlessly competent as one expected him to be. The …BOWLER HAT experience was very brief (about three weeks) but very intense. It’s a wonderful production. Even now I love and am influenced by his very simple but strong arrangement style.
THE MULE:Through the years, Andy and you have both worked on projects outside of Stackridge, both during the band’s heyday and following the original break-up. Did you use those instances – your solo album, Andy’s work on John Lennon’s IMAGINE, the Korgis, – to refresh the batteries, so to speak, or as a chance to branch out into something completely different from Stackridge? Can we expect to see something coming from either of you soon, outside of the usual Stackridge lunacy and the Korgis reunion gigs?
JAMES:Can’t speak for Andy but, our various alternative projects are, for me, both a refreshment process and an opportunity to investigate something completely different. I think Andy has been working on an album, whereas I’ve just been trying to come up with “coverable” commercial material.
THE MULE:Speaking of the Korgis, the other band that you have both been with since the beginning, is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, as well. The Korgis have been called “the pop side of Stackridge.” How do you view the Korgis, in comparison to the “mother” group?
JAMES:The Korgis is a way of expressing a more distilled, “radio-friendly” type of songwriting. I’m quite excited by the prospect of performing that material live. It’ll be the first time we’ve done it and, you never know, the project might “have legs” and lead on to an interesting new path.
THE MULE:Over the years, you’ve been able to slip out of one band and into the other rather seamlessly. How much of that ability to switch gears has to do with the dynamics of and differences in the musical styles?
Stackridge, 2008 (Rachel Hall, James Warren) (uncredited photo)
JAMES:We used to love the Kinks, the Hollies, 10CC – and it’s just easier to come up with and produce that kind of thing when it’s just the two of you, rather than having to take account of the whims and preferences of a whole band. Hence the need for the Korgis project.
THE MULE:A Korgis tour has been announced, the first in a while. Is it hard to get into a “Korgis state of mind” after such a long time off? What can fans expect to see from the Korgis as they celebrate their 35th anniversary?
JAMES:We’re about to start rehearsals, in January 2015. Basically we’ll be making the show up as we rehearse. But we’ll be aiming to provide an evening of dynamic and scintillating pure poptasticness!
THE MULE:Are there plans beyond this tour for more Korgis? A new album or more touring? Will you simply return to Stackridge to continue that group’s string of successful tours and live releases?
JAMES:As I mentioned above, we’ll be putting Stackridge to bed after September 2015. We’ll just have to see if there’s a public appetite for the Korgis. If there is, then I’m sure we’ll be inspired to record new material. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Thank you, James, for taking the time to fill us in on Stackridge, the Korgis and your plans for the future.
PART THREE: STACKRIDGE, ESSENTIALLY
When exploring adventurous music, it may be prudent to start with a “greatest hits” or “best of… ” collection. Even though most of Stackridge’s proper albums are definitely worth adding to your own personal collection, you may want to heed the above maxim and check out…
PURPLE SPACESHIPS OVER YATTON – BEST OF…
(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2006)
The 2006 Angel Air Records release features fifteen essentials from four of the band’s first five releases (not even “Spin ‘Round the Room,” the single from EXTRAVAGANZA made the cut) and heralded in the label’s brilliant reissue program of the band’s catalog. The collection was reissued in 2008 as ANYONE FOR TENNIS?, part of Angel Air’s Sound and Vision series, coupled with a DVD of the band’s April 1, 2007 show (25 songs, the audio of which has also been released as a double CD called THE FORBIDDEN CITY… got all of that?). The only flaw with this release is the exclusion of one of Stackridge’s best known and most loved tunes, “Slark.” But, we’ll be addressing that one later. The accompanying booklet for PURPLE SPACESHIPS… features a fine essay from author Michael Heatley (as do the subsequent reissue titles), archival photos and complete lyrics. The music itself is chock full of just-left-of-center fan favorites like “Dora, the Female Explorer,” “Do the Stanley,” “Fish In a Glass,” “Syracuse the Elephant” and a rerecorded version of the title track (originally a non-album B-side to the “Slark” single), all magnificently remastered under the watchful eyes (hearful ears?) of James Warren and Andy Davis. Having listened to this impressive sampler (in one of its various forms or another), you will undoubtedly want to check out the original albums to hear the tunes in their natural habitat, so to speak. Of course, that is best accomplished by re-starting at the beginning with…
(MCA RECORDS; 1971)
In 1971, everyone wanted to be the Beatles. James, Andy and the other members of Stackridge were no different. Well… maybe they were a little different; they also wanted to be Frank Zappa… and Bob Dylan… and King Crimson… and the Incredible String Band. The quintet of progressive folkies (or is that folky progressives?) are out of the gate with what must be declared “an instant classic,” with nine tracks of mesmerizing pop and rambunctious rock, including at least four that should be required listening.
Stackridge, 1971 (Andy Davis, James Warren, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Billy Bent, Michael Evans) (photo credit: JORGEN ANGEL)
The album kicks off with the elegant, ambitious “Grande Piano,” which features a great bass part from Warren (original bassist Jim “Crun” Walter, by the time the band began recording, had opted for a more reasonable career as a bricklayer before returning to the fold for FRIENDLINESS) and a memorable – dare I say, “grand?” – piano part from Davis. “Dora the Female Explorer” is the only song on the debut album credited to the entire band; with it’s bouncing, reeling music – highlighted by Michael Evans’ violin – and oddly engaging vocal melody, the tune has stood the test of time as well as any of the tracks from STACKRIDGE. “Dora… ” is followed by the instrumental “Essence of Porphyry,” an eight minute piece with several distinct movements, all of them quite operatic in their scope (despite the lack of lyrics). Evans’ violin is again a featured instrument, along with Michael “Mutter” Slater’s flute. The entire affair has an air of Zappa about it, the final section a prog rocker’s dream, evoking RED-era Crimson and Brian Eno’s Roxy Music. The centerpiece of the album (if not the career) is “Slark,” a fourteen plus minute “monster” that plays beautifully off the theme and melody of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” and led once again by Davis’ piano, Mutter’s flute and Evans’ violin. The lyrics suggest a lonely “monster” looking for acceptance and love but, being rejected because he isn’t like everyone else. The other tunes on STACKRIDGE are all pleasant progressive folk numbers, with just enough oddball charm and sweet melodies to make the album, in its entirety, indispensable. Angel Air’s reissue apends a stomping, rousing traditional reel called “Let There Be Lids,” a B-side from an unreleased 1973 single, as well as the single version of “Slark,” to the original album.
(MCA RECORDS; 1972)
As essential as the band’s debut is, it is, perhaps, their second release that offers the absolute best of what Stackridge aspired to be: A traditional English folk band with progressive and slightly loopy leanings. The opening track, “Lummy Days,” is rollicking, rolling sort of instrumental reel featuring some impressively heavy drumming from Billy Bent, now calling himself “Billy Sparkle.” What surely would have been a dancehall fixture in the early-to-mid 1920s, “Anyone For Tennis” shows the boys’ affinity for the oblique. At nearly nine minutes, “Syracuse the Elephant” would appear to be the band’s attempt to recreate the mini-operatic feel of the first album’s “Slark.” The tune, however, is a majestic piece of childlike progressivity, the tale of a forlorn elephant, raised in captivity and wanting nothing more than to live out his days in the company of his trainer, eating his favorite herbs.
The second side of the original album features such oddball fare as “Amazingly Agnes,” about a mule lamenting the fact that she is, in fact, a mule. That one is followed by the ballad, “Doctor Frankenstein Is Behind Your Pillow,” an apparent leftover from the first record, and the Beatles-esque rocker, “Keep On Clucking,” which features a killer backwards guitar solo from Crun toward the end. The final track, “Teatime,” would not sound out of place on Jethro Tull’s MINSTREL IN THE GALLERY or SONGS FROM THE WOODS; it starts as a rather pastoral madrigal before erupting in frenzied progressive blues, with Evans’ flute front and center throughout. The Angel Air reissue features the bonus tracks “Everyman,” the B-side to the “Flora, the Female Explorer” single; the chaotic, occasionally dissonant “Slark” B-side, the previously alluded to “Purple Spaceship Over Yatton,” one of the single greatest progressive tracks ever put to tape; the single-only release, “Do the Stanley,” a non-dancecraze inducing stomper, and it’s accompanying B-side, the beautiful, lilting “C’est La Vie.”
THE MAN IN THE BOWLER HAT
(MCA RECORDS; 1974)
The third Stackridge album, the intended title of which was THE ROAD TO VENEZUELA (and was renamed PINAFORE DAYS – with a very different track listing – for consumption in North America), was something of a dream come true for the sextet, as legendary (even then!) Beatles producer George Martin came on board (with engineer Geoff Emerick in tow) to lead the lads to new heights. The group was particularly disappointed with the sound quality of the first two records; along with Martin and Emerick came Sir George’s (such is his current title) state-of-the-art Air Studios in London and the sparkling, vibrant production quality and the brilliant arrangements and orchestrations that was nearly as important as the music on those highly revered Beatles sides. The difference is immediately heard, with the opening track, the poppy romp “Fundamentally Yours,” with Martin adding some well-placed piano.
As with the Beatles’ albums, Martin’s handprints are all over the remaining nine tracks of …BOWLER HAT, as well, adding piano here and there, bringing in orchestration elsewhere and generally giving the lads the benefit of his vast knowledge and experience in musical arrangements and production. The essential cuts include “Pinafore Days,” with its somehow Victorian sounding waltz and lyrics that would not seem out of place in a Monty Python sketch; released as a single in advance of the album, “The Galloping Guacho” opened side two, with a swirling calliope of carnival music that would not have been out of place on a late-period Beatles offering; the sparkling pop of “Dangerous Bacon” features a galloping drum pattern, a great guitar solo and a guest spot from Roxy Music’s sax man, Andy Mackay; a shot of Andy Davis whimsy, “The Indifferent Hedgehog,” leads into the majestically orchestrated instrumental, “God Speed the Plough,” which again highlights the flute of Mutter and violin of Mike Evans to great effect. Unfortunately, Martin’s involvement with …BOWLER HAT did not result in increased sales. Equally regrettable is the fact that the recording session seems to have included only the ten tracks featured here, as both singles from the period (the second was “Dangerous Bacon”), as well as their respective B-sides (“Fundamentally Yours” and “The Last Plimsoll”), come from the album; as a result, this is the first Angel Air reissue to not feature bonus material.
(THE ROCKET RECORD COMPANY; 1974)
With a move to Elton John’s new vanity label and Tony Ashton (late of Ashton, Gardner and Dyke and a brief stint in Family) in tow as producer, Andy Davis and Mutter Slater (Mike Evans appears briefly, performing the solo on “The Volunteer”) introduced a radically reconfigured group to the stalwart Stackridge fans. Not that there was an appreciable change in the music, although, without James Warren’s charming compositional skills, Davis and Slater tended to lean toward the more cabaret-esque side of the Stackridge spectrum; the pair also seems to have abdicated their newly-minted leadership to Rod Bowkett, the band’s new keyboardist, who wrote or co-wrote seven of the record’s ten tracks. The album opens with Bowkett’s 1920s dancehall-styled single, “Spin ‘Round the Room.” Considering the prevailing musical climate in the United Kingdom, I find it virtually incomprehensible that neither this nor the pair of …BOWLER HAT singles were radio or chart hits. It isn’t until the third track, “The Volunteer,” that we here a song from Davis, one of three co-songwriting credits on EXTRAVAGANZA. The song moves between a somber waltz and a rollicking sort of reel, one of the very few tunes that harken back to the original Stackridgian joie de vivre.
Stackridge, 1974 (Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)
“Highbury Incident (Rainy July Morning)” follows, a jaunty little piece of Beatles-like pop written by Davis, Bowkett and Mutter, highlighted by rather Crimsonesque work (consider Ian McDonald’s work on IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING) from new woodwinds player Keith Gemmell. Side two of the original vinyl took a decidedly jazzy swerve into – cover your ears… uh… eyes, children, as I type that word that should never be typed – fusion territory with, incomprehensibly, three cuts out of four being instrumentals. Former King Crimson (there’s that name again!) bassist Gordon Haskell walked in the front door, dropping off “No One’s More Important Than the Earthworm,” the most progressive tune here (go figure, huh?), on his way out the back door, leaving the bass duties to Paul Karas, formerly of Rare Bird. The three instrumentals are adventurous but, aside from “Pocket Billiards,” sound out of place here. “Rufus T Firefly,” the side’s opening track, is mentioned here because… well… Groucho Marx! Like …BOWLER HAT, Angel Air’s reissue of EXTRAVAGANZA features no bonus material. The album isn’t terrible; it just doesn’t come off as a proper Stackridge record.
(THE ROCKET RCORDING COMPANY; 1976)
The fifth Stackridge full-length comes with an oddly familiar history behind it: Their record company didn’t like the concept and demanded changes be made. The record started life as a concept album, following the life of a cranky old man, with Mutter adding odd bits of dialogue – written by then-unknown children’s author, Steve Augarde – to move the story along. Rocket Records sent them back to the drawing board, basically telling the boys to “lose all this talking stuff, cut these songs and, by the way, where’s the single?” The resultant product looked and sounded quite different than the original, as did the band as Andy and Mutter welcomed back Crun Walter on the bass, with Keith Gemmell the only holdover from the EXTRAVAGANZA band; the lineup was completed with drummer Peter Van Hooke and former Greensalde member Dave Lawson adding synthesizer textures. As much as Stackridge had known a bit of success on the singles chart, it must have been quite humorous to be told, “We don’t hear a single. We need a single.” Another trip to the studio and the band had a single, a sort of Caribbean (or, if you rather, psuedo-Reggae) take on the Beatles’ “Hold Me Tight,” which was released several months before the MISTER MICK album. Rocket Records were immediately rewarded with a release that seemed to disappear from existence virtually before it was released due to a surging apathy for anything that could not be considered punk.
Stackridge, 2008 (Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)
The reorganized and partially rerecorded version of the album featured a sound that owed more to 10CC, than it did to any of the original Stackridge’s influences or, indeed, to any of the previous four Stackridge records. Having missed the mark (chart-wise) with the band’s Beatles cover, Rocket decided to cut their losses and open their version of MISTER MICK with “Hold Me Tight.” This version really isn’t too bad but, with the more standard progressive pop featured throughout the remaining nine cuts, sounds very much out of place. Possibly, the most adventurous piece on the album is the B-side to “Hold Me Tight,” “Breakfast With Werner Von Braun,” a holdover from the original sessions, which could best be described as a Bedouin waltz. The incongruities rear their ugly heads rather quickly, as “The Steam Radio Song” features the accompanying narrative thread (written by then-unknown children’s author, Steve Augarde and delivered by Mutter) from the original recording; as sequenced by the record company, this bit of dialogue shows up about four tracks too soon. While the official version of MISTER MICK has its flaws, there are still enough nice moments to make it listenable, including the original album’s opening track, “Hey! Good Looking” and the Beatles-esque “Fish In a Glass,” also from the original, Stackridge version of the record. The Angel Air reissue pairs the Rocket Records release with the original, rejected twelve track version, which previously saw release as THE ORIGINAL MISTER MICK in 2000. Comparisons prove there are now stunning differences between the two but, with only seven overlapping tunes, the double disc release gives you five previously unheard (or, at least, very rarely heard) tracks.
PART FOUR: THE KORGIS, COLLECTIVELY
The Korgis, Andy’s and James’ other band, like Stackridge, got the “best of” treatment from Angel Air, first with 2005’s KOLLECTION, which, like a lot of Angel Air releases showed up a little later on in a Sound and Vision version as SOMETHING ABOUT THE KORGIS (a demo called “Make a Fuss About Us” was replaced with a new version of the Stackridge tune “Something About the Beatles”). The recent release of a much different package called …BY APPOINTMENT weeds out a few of the lesser tracks from KOLLECTION and adds a few cuts from an acoustic release called – naturally – UNPLUGGED. For essential music from the Korgis, I humbly suggest…
THE KORGIS… BY APPOINTMENT
(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2015)
After the MISTER MICK debacle, Andy Davis and Mutter Slater laid Stackridge to rest. Shortly thereafter, Andy and James Warren made nice and formed the Korgis, with violinist Stuart Gordon and keyboard player Phil Harrison along for the ride. The eponymous first album was released within two years of the demise of the mother band and garnered Warren and Davis something that had alluded them throughout the seven year career of Stackridge: An actual charting single… a hit, in the form of “If I Had You.”
The Korgis (James Warren, Andy Davis) (publicity photo)
The gently rocking “If I Had You” opens …BY APPOINTMENT, sounding for all the world like a George Harrison outtake. The group’s biggest hit, “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime,” follows; the languorous lead single from the second Korgis album, DUMB WAITERS, hit number five in the UK and was Top 20 in the States. The next single, the Beach Boys-lite of “If It’s Alright With You Baby,” barely nudged its way into the British charts, the last release from the group to see any such action. THE KORGIS… BY APPOINTMENT – by my calculations, the tenth compilation package from the group – features a mix of single releases and album tracks, rerecorded for this release, though a few are culled from 2005’s UNPLUGGED record; Andy and James are joined by long-time collaborator, John Baker. Highlights include the oddly appealing “True Life Confessions,” which is a bizarre combination of Mariachi horns, English pop and Caribbean percussion… truly an embracing of the “world music” vibe; a taught, tense “Lines,” from UNPLUGGED; the anthemic “One Life,” with its brilliant lead and harmony vocals, charging percussion track and massive organ leading the way.
The second half of the collection features “Mount Everest Sings the Blues,” a blast of old time rock ‘n’ roll and boogie-woogie; a beautiful, lush remake of “Something About the Beatles,” from the late-90s Warren-led Stackridge reunion (SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND also featured original members Crun Walter on bass and Michael Evans on violin); a cool version of the Korgis’ first single, “Young ‘n’ Russian,” from UNPLUGGED; a weird, faux-jazz Andy Davis tune called “Art School Annexe.” While the final half of …BY APPOINTMENT is more easy listening than the first half, overall, this is a solid introduction to the Korgis and their music.
PART FIVE: THE LAST WORD, FINALLY
With Stackridge calling it a career and Angel Air Records reissuing the original albums (with plenty of bonus material), now is definitely the time to jump on this band’s wagon. As mentioned above, a great starting place is the “best of” collection, PURPLE SPACESHIP OVER YATTON but, you really can’t go wrong with the group’s original run of albums (STACKRIDGE through to MISTER MICK). Other recorded highlights from the band’s reformative years include SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND (1999), THE FORBIDDEN CITY (2008’s double CD of the group’s April Fool’s Day show from the previous year) and their final album, A VICTORY FOR COMMON SENSE (2009). Any or all (as well as any of the Korgis collections – UNPLUGGED and …BY APPOINTMENT being personal favorites – and various James Warren and Andy Davis solo projects) are worthy of your attention.
UPDATE: Stackridge took their final bow in their hometown of Bristol on December 19, 2015. A film of that last show will be edited and released on DVD sometime in 2016. Of course, we know that – like comic book characters – rock bands never truly die and, sometime when we least expect it, Stackridge will mount another comeback. I’ll be waiting.
(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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
WISHBONE ASH AT THE WILDEY THEATRE, SEPTEMBER 12/13
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)
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)
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)
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)
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, wherecan 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)
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.
(May 5, 2015; THE DUCK ROOM at BLUEBERRY HILL, Saint Louis MO)
Daniel Lanois with Jim Wilson and Kyle Crane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
For a guy who’s NOT a household name, Canadian musician/producer Daniel Lanois has sure had a huge impact on modern music. He engineered some of Brian Eno’s early ambient recordings, collaborated on Eno’s 1983 masterpiece APOLLO and some later works, co-produced U2 with Eno on seminal albums like THE UNFORGETTABLE FIRE, THE JOSHUA TREE, ACHTUNG BABY and more, did peerless auteur-style producing duties for albums by Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young and others, and released some terrific, pleasant solo recordings of his own, among them ACADIE, FOR THE BEAUTY OF WYNONA, BELLADONNA and his brand-new FLESH AND MACHINE. Lanois is a gentle, philosophical musical visionary who seems utterly tuned in to the deepest aspects of artistic intent and maximum creative impact. His show at the Duck Room was surprising in the dynamic range of what was performed and the sharp-edged clarity of the sound.
Rocco DeLuca (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
The audience was first treated to a handful of songs by opener Rocco DeLuca, who has a soft voice of incandescent, emotive clarity, double the impact of similar intonation by, say, Bon Iver. “You sing like a bird, Rocco,” Lanois told him early on, in an apt compliment. The sound crew were clearly on their game right from the start, and this made every tune stand out, from the loud to the more gentle numbers.
Daniel Lanois (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Lanois delivered both about equally, with a major tribal aspect to the rhythmic foundation that had the audience really riveted. “Sioux Lookout,” a track from the new album, was introduced as a piece “about the balance with nature,” as Lanois explained the challenges and daunting experiences faced by the indigenous Canadian tribes he has so clearly been influenced by both musically and philosophically. And a beautiful instrumental piece was introduced with the comment “I wrote this song when I saw the empty eyes of a native compadre.” Lanois is adept at both instrumentals and “conventional” songs with vocals, and the show was divided roughly equally that way. A rousing, aggressive piece called “The Burning Spear” was put together “like a punk thing,” the artist told us, and indeed, it rocked and tranced the crowd out in delerious fashion. But then Lanois would turn around and do a tender song like “I Love You,” from 2003’s SHINE, which featured simple lyrics that expressed that sentiment unpretentiously, something he said that more songs need to do. Also performed from that album: “JJ Leaves L.A.,” one of several tunes showcasing Lanois on his “trusted friend,” the steel guitar. It’s definitely a signature element of his sound. And he did one of his best-known songs “The Maker” from ACADIE, drawing a tremendous response from a crowd that kept growing throughout the show, it seemed. Lanois was effusive with his praise for the audience and their enthusiastic reactions to the material. A highlight was the communal “Congregate,” which featured Rocco again on strong vocals, and which inspired a short commentary by Lanois about the value of gathering for special, magical moments in life. The crowd ate these moments up.
Daniel Lanois (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Worthy of special praise were the vocal harmonies by Lanois and “mighty” Jim Wilson (his bass player and sideman for over a decade). Wilson is a consummate musician who has sung and played guitar in another revered band called Mother Superior who have performed and recorded as Henry Rollins’ backing band. Lanois clearly has the utmost respect for Wilson judging from their amiable musical partnership and back and forth comments, and Wilson, all smiles at the show, obviously feels the same way. From the hypnotic rhythmic elements all night (courtesy of Kyle Crane), to the well-paced variety, soothing instrumental passages, and the affable warmth of master Lanois himself, this was a truly delightful, pleasing show all around. Lanois is something of a rare gem in the music industry, a guy whose actions and enthusiasm ripple throughout different genres, with lasting impact. One hopes he will return to St. Louis again before too long, and judging by the enthusiastic response tonight, that’s more than likely.
Way back in the previous century, the Great Crusades released one of my favorite albums, 1997’s THE FIRST SPILLED DRINK OF THE EVENING. The record was filled with songs that were equal parts sloppy Rolling Stones rock ‘n’ roll, snotty Replacements punk, moody Americana and drunken Celtic reels, with Brian Krumm’s smokey Leonard Cohen cum Kris Kristofferson baritone delivering his own Dylanesque lyrics. Seventeen years later, the band still sounds wonderfully ragged on “Sometimes On Sundays, Too,” a love song that wouldn’t be out of place on something coming from Dylan himself. During the ensuing years following that first release, Krumm has continued to gargle with broken glass, giving him a voice that is a huskier (and more melodic) approximation of Rod McKuen. When he rasps the chorus, “There were parties every Saturday/At the house on Illinois Street/And sometimes on Sundays, too,” you may find yourself clearing your throat in sympathy. The music is a jangly, acoustic blast of what has been dubbed “rock-noir,” featuring a very hymn-like arrangement and orchestration. In short, “Sometimes On Sundays, Too” is every bit as sublime as anything from that first Great Crusades album.
The Great Crusades (Christian Moder, Brian Leach, Brian Krumm, Brian Hunt) (uncredited photo)
The B-side of this special split single features frequent tour-mates and kindred spirits of the Great Crusades, Germany’s Planeausters. In fact, Crusader Brian Leach is listed as producer; he adds a nice bit of piano to the track, as well. “Wouldn’t Say It’s Over, But It’s Gone” also acts as the flip-side of the new-love tale of “Sometimes On Sundays, Too.” The tune has to be one of the most horribly effective break-up songs of all time. Musically, the track is a sleepy, languorous bit of shoegazing with some nice guitar work from Michael Moravek and an impossibly slow drum track from Per Ceurremans, one that sounds like it was played back at half-speed while the song was being mixed. “Wouldn’t Say… ” is my introduction to Planeausters, but I gotta say, if this cut is what this band is all about… gimme more. As the magnificent Boxing Clever Records branches out past the release of these exquisite split singles, moving into the realm of full-length albums, maybe a deal can be struck for the release of the latest Planeausters record. Make it happen, Jim!
Planeausters (Michael Moravek, Per Ceurremans, William Kollmar) (uncredited photo)
The Great Crusades’ latest full-length is THIEVES OF CHICAGO, available at their Bandcamp page. As with all singles from Boxing Clever Records, this release is available directly from the label’s web-site; also available from the fine folk at Boxing Clever is a limited edition skate deck featuring the record’s cover art. Tell ‘em the Mule sent you!
(RED RIVER ENTERTAINMENT/SYMPHONIC ROCK RECORDINGS; 2014)
Quick, name the most prominent female-fronted progressive bands of the ’70s. Not so easy, is it? That’s ’cause there just weren’t that many, which makes Renaissance an extremely important band in the history of prog. So let us now salute the band’s five-octave-ranged vocalist Annie Haslam, for however she did what she did. Namely, to make exceptional ’70s classics like TURN OF THE CARDS, ASHES ARE BURNING and NOVELLA, to keep it going fairly consistently through subsequent decades, and to take care of her classically trained pipes so that Renaissance could remain a going concern into the modern age. The public at large, of course, probably didn’t realize the band was still around past the ’90s, and truthfully, there is something a bit anachronistic about this band in the new millennium. But that said, the level of musicianship in Renaissance has always been incredibly high, and Ms Haslam has a stellar voice, soaring, commanding, sometimes ethereal, and always displaying warmth and something more than a little regal. Her songwriting partner, and the other rather indispensable long-time member of the band, was Michael Dunford, whose guitar work had elegance and shimmering musicality; Dunford drew from folk, classical and rock in somewhat equal measures. Sadly, he passed away during the making of this album, which took the band by surprise and could have spelled the end. But… Haslam and company carried on to pay tribute to Dunford’s talents, which are plentiful here.
Renaissance, 2012 (photo credit: RICHARD BARNES)
Although I’d be lying if I said this album approached the classic sound of their amazing ’70s run, it’s still lovely and listenable. I particularly liked the cinematic dramatics of “The Mystic and the Muse,” with its rapid changes and the vibrant keyboard work of Rave Tesar, and some of the shorter, more evocative tunes like “Waterfall,” which casts a nice Pagan-like tranquil spell, and the gender-balanced, accordion-flavored pop truffle “Air of Drama,” which is nicely crafted. “Porcelain” is also a highlight, very musical and airy, with one of Haslam’s more relaxed vocals, and some nice chord progressions. The background vocals are charming. And let’s give it up for Haslam’s ability to still hit those amazing high notes without much trouble. Being operatically trained has its advantages, for sure. By the time I got to the last track, “Renaissance Man,” I felt rather melancholy, though. It felt like this music belonged in the past, and I almost wanted to be back there.
Renaissance (Michael Dunford and Annie Haslam) (uncredited photo)
That’s the thing with bands you remember from their prime. You were younger, so were they, and the whole dang music business was a different animal back then. What is the significance of a band like Renaissance in this day and age? Any band, of course, has a right to keep doing the things that distinguished them in the first place. But Renaissance don’t sound like the NOW, and their classically infused brand of prog just sounds a little out of place. I couldn’t help thinking about an amazing date I had around 1977 or so, taking this girl to see Renaissance in concert and watching her awestruck face as this unique band served it up in their prime. And I got chills listening to stuff like “Midas Man” back then. I like Renaissance, and Annie Haslam is a true pioneer among female vocalists, capable of stunning emotional heights and stirring forays into your subconscious. But I seldom truly LOST myself in this new music; I couldn’t escape the underlying theme of time going by. There are moods when you WANT that sort of thing, however, even if it makes you sad. The loss of Michael Dunford hangs over this project, as does the loss of youth itself. Ms Haslam, however, always sounds wise and knowing and devoted to the graceful acceptance of what must inevitably be. It’s not always easy to do that as a listener, though, and SYMPHONY OF LIGHT put me in mind of a trip to the art museum, struck by the vivid colors and brief sensations and indescribable nostalgia for something I never truly experienced. And leaving, all I could think of was the march of time and the yearning for something different. Such things are buried in this music despite the peppy, pleasing production. How to grow old gracefully, even rock groups gotta deal with that.
Like that dotty old aunt that just refuses to go away, since the apparent demise of Jethro Tull, the band he’s fronted since 1967, our Mister Anderson has been a very busy lad (and clever, as well), releasing two albums in less than two years and launching at least a pair of world tours with another currently underway (for full details, go here: jethrotull.com/tour-dates/). The first album, a sequel to Tull’s 1972 opus, THICK AS A BRICK, rather ingeniously titled THICK AS A BRICK 2 (or, for the acronymically advanced among us, TAAB2), prompted a solid round of touring, occasionally featuring a Jethro Tull Favorites set but – more often – a performance of the original TAAB album followed by the playing of TAAB2 (with an intermission between… our hero is, after all, no longer as spry a fellow as when this game was begun – but, then, who among us is?). The maestro absconded from the band he created with two then-current members, adding three new names to the credits section. This is the apt and able crew that toured with Ian on his most recent stage jaunts and who are here returned to the studio for the recording (and subsequent release) of HOMO ERRATICUS, a collection of tunes written by the man himself and the fictional wunderkind protagonist of the TAAB albums, Gerald Bostock.
Ian Anderson (publicity photo)
As our boy Ian (with a sparse few exceptions) was the primary songwriting force in his previous engagement, it is no surprise that – but for the name on the label – this HOMO ERRATICUS could, in fact, be another installment of the Tull canon. Don’t think of this statement as a condemnation; it isn’t, just an observation. Besides, writing with a fictional entity about a non-existent tome written by an equally non-existent historian seems to have endowed the “laird of the manor” with a renewed vigor for the process. There hasn’t been a Tull record this well thought out and featuring such a strong set of songs from bow to stern since CREST OF A KNAVE (for which, no doubt in an effort to prove the point, they won a Grammy for Best Heavy Metal Performance). So, the premise – and there’s always a premise – of this newest of Mister Anderson’s recorded output is this: After a trip to Mathew Bunter’s Old Library Bookshop in Linwell, Gerald Bostock comes across a dusty, unpublished manuscript, written by local amateur historian Ernest T Parritt. The book is entitled “Homo Britanicus Erraticus.” Two years prior to his demise (the Year of Our Lord, 1926), Mister Parritt, after a fall from his horse during a hunt, “awoke with the overwhelming conviction of having enjoyed past lives as historical characters: a pre-history nomadic neolithic settler(“Doggerland”), an Iron Age blacksmith (“Heavy Metals”), a Saxon invader (“Enter the Uninvited”), a Christian monk (“Puer Ferox Adventus”), a Seventeenth Century grammar school boy (“Meliora Sequamur”), turnpike innkeeper(“The Turnpike Inn”), one of Brunel’s railroad engineers (“The Engineer”), and even Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria (“The Pax Britannica”). These past lives are revealed through the first portion of the album, subtitled “CHRONICLES.” The endangered Parritt’s delusions also extended to his prophesying events yet to come (the second part, “PROPHECIES”) and the fanciful possibilities of future Parritt lives (part the third, “REVELATIONS”). The poet Bostock then took it upon himself to render this Parritt’s lives in a more lyrical fashion. As with his award-winning entry of 42 years previous, the work was introduced to our Ian, who then reworked Mister Bostock’s reworking, adding his own musical flourishes. And, now, the hue and cry is heard the world over (or, at the very least, throughout several large cities in the industrialized nations): “Well, yeah… but is it any good?”
Ian Anderson (Scott Hammond, David Goodier, Ryan O’Donnell, Ian Anderson, Florian Opahle, John O’Hara) (photo credit: Carl Glover)
Yes. Yes, it is good. There are several differing versions of the “Ian Anderson sound” (and, by extension, the “Jethro Tull” sound) and most are on display at various junctures, nestled cozily amongst the fifteen tracks here presented. Oddly enough, the Tull-like “Doggerland” also features a very Ken Hensley-an (he of Uriah Heep fame) heavy Hammond organ sound (provided by Tull ex-patriate, John O’Hara) that is not unwelcome. Mister Anderson’s proclivity for Scottish, English and Celtic folk melodies is highlighted on “Heavy Metals,” featuring the hammer and anvil as sole percussive instrument. Two late 1970s and early 1980s Tull offerings, STORMWATCH and A, are evoked on “Enter the Uninvited,” which features a rather lilting, if forceful rhythm. Though the tune is driven more by the keyboards, there are some very nice guitar flourishes (by the aptly titled Florian Opahle), a quite nifty bassline (by another Tull refugee, David Goodier) and, of course, the very essence of Tullitude, the Laird Master Anderson’s unique and masterful excursions on the flute. As befits the song’s title and this particluar imagined pre-life of Mister Parritt, the introduction to “Puer Ferox Adventus” has a very churchy feel, with mantric chants (the Monking around of the clerics, no doubt), leading to a remembrance by Brother Parritt before the song becomes a canticle with lyrics that recount the life of Christ as told in the Gospel of Luke. As a counter-balance to the lyrics, the music takes on a much harder edge. The piece is the longest on HOMO ERRATICUS – over seven minutes – and is a solemn, stately affair. If not the centerpiece of the album, it is certainly one of the best of a truly grand offering from Mister Anderson and his musical conspirators. “Meliora Sequamur” continues the Psalmic bent of the previous number, though from a decidedly different point of view. The song is far more pastoral than the previous and introduces the pipe organ and a monastic choir to great effect. Highlighted by a more powerful presence of both organ and bass, “The Turnpike Inn” also features an inventive guitar signature running throughout. There is also a very nice flute chart and just a hint of accordion bleeding through toward the end of the piece. The subject matter (Parritt, the Engine Driver) of “The Engineer” demands and receives a heavier, virtually metallic sounding guitar part over what is, essentially, a Celtic folk tune. The dichotomy, which should be quite jarring, is actually an asset. The final piece of “CHRONICLES” is one of those Ian Anderson specialties, where our man Ian experiments with the number of syllables that can be comfortably fit into a standard four bar blues. Bassist Goodier and percussionist Scott Hammond drive “The Pax Britannica,” with minimal obstruction from other instrumentation, outside the Laird’s flute and rather unobtrusive work from Opahle’s guitar and O’Hara’s keyboards. Lurking somewhere around the edges, I’m sure, is the vocalist Ryan O’Donnell.
Ian Anderson (Ryan O’Donnell, David Goodier, Scott Hammond, Ian Anderson, John O’Hara, Florian Opahle) (photo credit: ALEX PAVLOU)
The next three numbers encompass Parritt’s “PROPHECIES,” beginning with “Tripudium Ad Bellum,” an instrumental that is very reminiscent of the early (as in, Mick Abrahams early) progressive Blues of Jethro Tull. There is a certain jazzy feel to the near-apocalyptic proceedings as England (and, indeed, the world) is off to war, with the improvisational bon vivant himself, Ian, providing the lead instrument via the flute. “After These Wars” is an extension of the previous song, featuring many of the same musical themes. The setting is now a post World War II England, where the rebuilding of a continent has seen many a miraculous discovery (including television). The number has the lilt and bent of a folk song, but the muscular bass work and power-chording guitar (and subsequent solo) belie that folkiness. Skipping ahead ten years or so, “New Blood, Old Veins” finds a more stable, more adventurous England spreading wings and taking flight to discover the world about them, while inextricably moving toward a new “English Invasion” spearheaded by four fabulous minstrels, Liverpudlians by birth. Again, the themes of “Tripudium Ad Bellum” repeats here, with the jazzier aspects of Mister Anderson’s flute; the new elements introduced in “After These Wars” are also present, with forceful guitar work and a powerful rhythm section, highlighted by a slightly menacing organ. Whatever his presumed mental status, this imagined Parritt fairly well hit a nail or two rather solidly with his “PROPHECIES.”
Ian Anderson (seated: David Goodier, Ian Anderson, Florian Opahle; standing: Scott Hammond, Ryan O’Donnell, John O’Hara) (photo credit: CARL GLOVER)
As far as Parritt’s “REVELATIONS” go, the first two seem to be spot on, as they depict “future” occurrences from 2013 and 2014. For a gentleman that never existed, his fictional fortune-telling was on a par with Nostradamus or HG Wells. “In For a Pound” is, one supposes, the love story of HOMO ERRATICUS; it’s all our man, Ian, performing vocally and joining himself on the acoustic guitar with everything fitting in rather nicely at just over half a minute (proving, in fact, that love is fleeting). The problem of ever-widening urban sprawl amid growing societal and economic discord is addressed in “The Browning of the Green.” As more and more city-dwellers seek to “get back to the country,” they unfortunately drag all of the “comforts of home” with them, despoiling every acre of the idyllic rural landscape. The music has an edginess about it, not quite heavy metal but definitely leaning in that direction. Looking into our future another ten years, Parritt has a message from the stars: “We don’t like your kind ’round here, Earthman!” The spoken word piece is called “Per Errationes Ad Astra.” The final of Parritt’s “REVELATIONS” and the final musical offering is called “Cold Dead Reckoning.” The song leaps ahead another twenty years (to the year 2044) and foretells of the ultimate demise of the crumbling society of man and an eventual rebirth of humanity and spirituality, all to a pounding beat. About ten years ago (uh… from present day… that would be 2004), there was a television series called THE 4400, a science-fiction tale with very similar aspects to “Cold Dead Reckoning.” I mention this not only because of the similarities in theme, but also because, somehow, the melody of the song reminds me of the series’ theme song. Coincidence or… did our nonexistent Parritt have something to do with it? As he’s been gone these 86 years (longer, if you consider his fabricated existence), we may never know. The only certainty regarding his writings and the reworking there-of by the equally mythical Gerald Bostock – and by extension, their collaboration with Ian Anderson and his musical minions (who, I am told, are quite real) – they most assuredly make for an enjoyable listen! In fact, this HOMO ERRATICUS is the best music to come from the Ian Anderson/Jethro Tull camp since CATFISH RISING, more than 20 years ago. (There are several versions of HOMO ERRATICUS to choose from: a standard CD version, a CD/DVD version, a 2-CD/2-DVD version with a hardback book, a downloadable version at iTunes, and a double set of glorious vinyl… choose wisely! Going here: www.kscopemusic.com/ can help.)
All through the 1970s – my formative years as a music lover – my brother managed a trucking terminal a few miles from an MCA Records pressing plant. Naturally, all of their product shipped through that terminal. And, just as naturally, there were instances where some of that product was damaged. This product basically fell to my brother to do with as he saw fit. So, what does that story have to do with Wishbone Ash? Well, Wishbone Ash’s US label was Decca, an imprint of MCA. The first time I heard the Ash was when my brother brought an impressive stack of vinyl for my consumption: The Who, Elton John, Budgie, Neil Diamond, Blues Project, Blue Mink, Mose Jones and… the first three Wishbone Ash albums (just to name a few). Holy Batcrap, Commisioner Gordon! I had slipped into my own blissful state of musical Nirvana! Thanks to my brother, Mike, I eventually owned every Ash record up to THERE’S THE RUB (they jumped ship in the States to Atlantic Records for two albums before returning to MCA) and I loved every one! That kinda makes me a “lifelong fan.”
Wishbone Ash (Joe Crabtree, Andy Powell, Bob Skeat, Muddy Manninen) (photo credit: TIM ASSMANN)
Like those two Atlantic releases and all but a select few since, this new Ash album is a hit or miss affair for me. It ain’t horrible… in fact, once you tally the points, there are more hits than misses. “Take It Back” opens the proceedings. A track that is very much in the vein of the Laurie Wisefield era, it features the trademark harmony guitar sound, a solid vocal from Andy Powell and fiddle from longtime associate, Pat McManus. Reverting to the band’s blues roots, “Deep Blues” has the aggressive sound of the group’s first album. The song has a great blues riff and some finest-kind soloing from both Andy and Jyrki “Muddy” Manninen. “Strange How Things Come Back Around” is another Laurie-sounding tune with some odd, Frippian guitar synchopations. I’m not too sure about those backing vocal “la-la’s” during the slower bridge sections… they seem to drag the whole thing down. There’s a fade in/fade out right before the instrumental break leading into the solos that completely transform the number into a kind of Tommy Bolin era Deep Purple funk thing. While there is certainly an air of the familiar, this is not your standard Wishbone Ash song and, actually, is rather enjoyable because of it.
One of the few misses, “Being One,” sees the Laurie Wisefield love-fest continuing. Unfortunately, Powell delves into two of the group’s weaker albums (NEW ENGLAND and LOCKED IN) for inspiration. The song has a slow, funky sort of groove which, eventually, morphs into a progressive jazz piece… with all of the trappings that the term connotes. Powell’s silky voice provides a welcome tension to the rough riffs and hard edges. “Way Down South” is a lazy, laconic (as the name implies) Iain Matthews/Fairport Convention style folk number. The tempo picks up during the instrumental section, with Bob Skeat’s deep, emotive bass leading the way into another nice solo. The tune isn’t awful but, at well over six-and-a-half minutes, it’s just too long for it’s own good. Next up is “Tally Ho!” Now, this is more like it! This is the Wishbone Ash I fell I love with way back when, the progressive folk banner flying high. There are moments that recall “Leaf and Stream” from the legendary ARGUS and, the solos in the middle section are quite effective in context. My only complaint is this: Andy’s vocals are a little weak here; this is one instance with the latter-day Ash where the vocals of either Ted or Martin Turner would have worked better. Speaking of vocals, Manninen makes his debut on lead with the dirty blues of “Mary Jane.” His voice is a little rough but, a welcome change from Powell’s (I really am a fan of Andy’s voice… it’s just that over the course of ten tracks… well, you know, variety and spices and such). The tune features some very nice harmony guitar work and a couple of slide solos.
Wishbone Ash live, circa 2009 (uncredited photo)
After mentioning the refreshing change of pace from Andy’s vocals on the last track, he delivers what may be his two best vocal performances on BLUE HORIZON. “American Century” features an aggressive “FUBB” like intro before settling into a PHOENIX or ARGUS progressive groove. The drums of Joe Crabtree keeps a mid-tempo rhythm going, while Skeat’s charging bass propels the tune forward at a faster pace, creating a brilliant musical dichotomy. “Blue Horizon” is definitely a “song” in the strictest sense, with powerful lyrics and atmospheric vocals on display over the pure musicianship of the players (the hallmark of Wishbone Ash). That isn’t to say that the musicianship is sub-par; far from it! The guitars seem a little louder and each solo sends the tune into a different place, stylistically. The first has a James Bond/mystery vibe happening while others have a majestic, almost Floydian feel. Eventually, everything kicks into a more Ash sounding instrumental section, with Tom Greenwood adding some nice organ flourishes. The ARGUS song, “The King Will Come,” is evoked with “All There Is To Say.” It’s another pretty, Cletic folk tune, with guitars and lyrics reminiscent of that earlier number. Pat McManus adds some very nice fiddle and bazouki for a more folky feel. If you’re a long time fan, BLUE HORIZON will fit comfortably next to the rest of your Wishbone Ash albums, though it may not get as much play; if you’re new to the band, I think that you’ll find the album a refreshing change from a lot of today’s music and will, ultimately, lead you to seek out those earlier albums.