There’s only one Wishbone Ash. Well, actually that might be a rather contentious statement in some quarters. What I mean to say is that there’s only one Wishbone Ash sound. There may be a distant resemblance to Yes here and there, in the vocal harmonies, busy bass playing, and occasional pastoral mood, but that’s it – they really do stand apart with their twin guitar prog sound.
|Mark Abrahams and Andy Powell get all wistful and elegiac|
Which is clear as soon as they kick off tonight’s show with ‘Real Guitars Have Wings’, an instrumental that may be brief but still has room to show off those rippling guitar harmonies. And having warmed everyone up with that, they then make a statement of intent by knocking out three humdingers in a row from Argus. Mark Abrahams takes the lead with a wah-wah intro that builds into the classic riff of ‘The King Will Come’, while Andy Powell contents himself with laying down rhythm textures, and those vocal harmonies produce the icing on the cake. They follow that with the Tudor-sounding opening theme that announces ‘Throw Down The Sword’, on which it’s evident that Powell, all salt-and-pepper and twinkling eye, still has a decent set of pipes, though it’s bassist Bob Skeat that adds the vocal fairy dust with his high harmonies – though verses and choruses are, as is often the case, the lesser part of the song, as Powell takes the lead guitar chair this time with a piercing, elegiac solo. By which time the thought occurs that Robin Trower may sometimes be identified as a master of tone, but there can’t be many pairings out there to match Powell and Abrahams for crystal clarity.
The third element of the Argus triptych is ‘Sometime World’, which opens in lyrical mode before revving up and building to its distinctive dah-dah-dee-dah vocal harmony section, before Powell produces an excellent solo underpinned by great bass runs from Skeat and ringing chords from Abrahams.
They make room for a new song, ‘We Stand As One’, which stands up well beside the oldermaterial. Written by Mark Abrahams, his prickling guitar lines are counterpointed by a jagged, rumbling riff. But the final highlight of this first set is ‘Way Of The World’, a dynamic epic with a mountainous riff, and a blazing Powell solo over more big chords, and undulating bass from the beaming Skeat. It then hits a fresh peak with a guitar harmony segment of byzantine complexity, followed by a screaming solo from Abrahams before they drop it down to create space for a crackling exchange of guitar fire between them.
They ratchet up the momentum again quickly in their second set, with Powell on a Telecaster for the boogie of ‘Blind Eye’, before the chunky, chugging shuffle of ‘Deep Blues’, which underlines that Joe Crabtree’s drumming is unfussy in the midst of everything going on around him, but exactly where it needs to be.
|Andy Powell and Bob Skeat - old guns havin' some fun|
‘The Pilgrim’ takes things back into epic territory in convincing fashion, its patient opening leading to a hypnotic rolling guitar groove. But while ‘Tales Of The Wise’ features a very WA stately intro, and a faster middle section with expertly combined lead and rhythm guitar, for me it demonstrates that you can have too much of a good thing, as it goes on long enough to begin to pall.
But of course with their back catalogue they’ve got too many get out of jail cards to really lose their way, and they promptly rip out the gutsy riff to ‘Living Proof’ to get back on track, before trumping that with the catchy guitar figure of the swinging ‘Jailbait’, with Powell prompting an arm waving, testifyin’ singalong.
They encore with ‘Blowin’ Free’, of course, a classic which is really beyond commentary, and brings a cheerful conclusion to an effortlessly strong 2 hour performance, accompanied by some appealingly old-fashioned visuals in the form of a slide/animation/kaleidoscope show.
Wishbone Ash aren’t anybody’s star vehicle. Powell may be the main man, but he’s happy to give his axe sidekick Abrahams plenty of space to shine, and it’s very much an ensemble performance. Fifty years gone, and a new album coming next year, Powell tells us. I dare say we’ll meet again.