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