One year after their successful yet controversial 40th anniversary tour, Andy Powell’s Wishbone Ash is back at The O2 Shepherd’s Bush to round off another UK tour. When I saw Wishbone Ash back in the day (1977) they were playing venues like Wembley (Front Page News). These days they play the likes of The Brindley Arts Centre, Runcorn or the Farnham Maltings – worthy venues I grant you – but not quite the stadiums of yore – and their fan base is withering on the vine too – maybe the music seems somehow stuck-up and arty-farty to the new generation of gig goers. And, although there is no doubt that their work in the 1970’s was important and enjoyable, the truth is, let us not forget, that the band was never was quite everyone’s cup of tea. Even back then in the Seventies, when I was asked for a list of my favourite bands I would always include Wishbone Ash, but often with the extra qualifier ‘And do you know …’. Rarely was the answer, ‘Yes’.
Well I don’t know about ‘Blowin Free’ but there were more bald pates on offer at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire than at a Telly Savalas memorial convention – even flying-V man Andy Powell ( a man as bald as a B-cup man-boob) had to make mention of the apparent ‘certain age’ of the group of geriatric slap-heads surrounding the stage. He also noted that, incredibly, there was really a ‘girl’ in this sweaty, beer soaked crowd. Yes, the name ‘Wishbone Ash’ persuades those fifty-something old guys out from their doubled-glazed cozy homes faster than a DFS sale. Away from their M&S TV dinners and their sensible slippers …. and free at last, to singalong with their fellow “Warriors”. And it is always a bit of puzzle to me that the ladies don’t ‘get’ Wishbone Ash. Don’t they like soft and symphonic? The Wishbone melodies are lovely… why don’t they like them? And don’t they like lush vocals? It is not as if the band is Slipknot you know. One woman at Shepherd’s Bush explained the problem to me, “ Their stuff is quite complicated – you see. It is not easy to take”. Maybe that’s it then …. maybe Wishbone Ash is the musical equivalent of the Wisden’s Cricketers Almanack – they fulfil a man’s need for complicated structures and memory games.
Back in the day, the twin-lead symphonies were a close coupled affair evoked by Ted Turner and Andy Powell. Now It is Andy and Muddy. Muddy Manninen looks like a wigged-out blonde version of Professor Severus Snape after he has just been shocked and jolted by one Harry’s abracadabra bolts. He constantly looks like he is sucking a lemon whilst simultaneously being rogered by a rhinoceros- a look also accomplished by his predecessor Ben Granfelt. [Muddy replaced Ben in 2004.] And, frankly, I know he is a good guitarist and all that, but he mucked up the solo lead break in ‘The King Will Come,’ so badly that, as far as I’m concerned, he ruined the song. Now please believe me, I am not suggesting that the piece has to be played note-perfect at a live date. I am not asking that it comes across as a perfect studio copy – it’s just that I want the soloist to at least pay respect to the original patterns and swirls. And miserable looking Prof Snape failed to do this.
But the all round hero of the night and top guy (in my book) was bass -player quite extraordinary – Bob Skeat – who managed perfect renditions of the buoyant and brilliant bass sounds from those early masterpieces. Bob replaced founding father and superb lead vocalist/bassist Martin Turner (who now runs his own ‘Wishbone’ act and is worth catching.) Martin Turner is credited as the man who gave ‘Argus’ both voice and spirit. He was the key songwriter for this immense album and he wrote those memorable lyrics. His bass play was astounding- and it is to Bob Skeat’s enduring credit that he pulls off those amazing twists and turns with the same dexterity and speed.
And now we have Pendragon’s drummer Joseph Crabtree on percussion- but none will ever replace Steve Upton whose legendary rolls and flares lifted the Wishbone sound from the ashes and made them soar like a Phoenix. (Just listen to the fireworks on ‘Vas Dis’ – ‘Pilgrimage’.)
The gig started off with the formidably jazz orientated ‘Pilgim’ (Pilgrimage) the band then wandered off, without too much verve, into more jazz odyssey territory… yawn. ‘Jail Bait’ or even better ‘Blind Eye’ would have been far more energetic and arresting curtain raisers… and the crowd would have been at one from the outset. We didn’t really ‘get going’ as a crowd until the sublime ‘Persephone’ from ‘There’s the Rub’ – an album that sparked the remarkable talent of Laurie Wisefield. Then we went from a perfectly acceptable ‘Sometime World’ to a disappointing version of ‘The King Will Come’.
The band didn’t go nearly far enough in capturing that unique soft and gentle country air, emotional journeys like Pilgrimage’s ‘Valediction’ or the Wishbone Four haunting songs ‘Everybody Needs a Friend’ or ‘Sorrel’. It’s that softness from Wishbone Ash that I really love – that remarkable luminescent quality – but the band never really created the ethereal dimension. They just jammed and coasted along. A bit of a conceit and a bit of a session.
You really need to have to know their work before you go to see a group like this, so that you can admire the ability to ‘conjure up’ the music before your very eyes – you don’t really have the capacity to ‘learn’ a new song – so it is strictly an aficianado affair. This is a shame, because there was a considerable group of potential new customers for the band (who had actually come up to London to see the two important and delicious-sounding support acts – Panic Room and Mostly Autumn) and these Generation Y rockers were eager for more. And I regret to say, Wishbone Ash did not really offer up the goods.
But, as they say in rock n roll , “It’s No Easy Road.”
‘Martin Turners’ Wishbone Ash: http://www.wishboneash.co.uk/