Okay, I’ll confess: I was musically challenged in high school. The hardest thing I listened to was Bad Company, and my favorite rock station was one of the first to be infected by consultants. As such, Wishbone Ash was one of those names I read about in rock magazines but never appeared on my radio. Luckily, the band crammed its sound inside the Van Dyck last weekend and gave me a monstrous lesson.
And “crammed” is not an exaggeration. At the height of their popularity, Wishbone played major arenas, concert halls and festivals, and from what I could tell, they were going with their default volume settings. Why the Van Dyck didn’t blow down like one of those houses in old nuclear-blast footage during the torrid opener “Blowin’ Free,” I have no idea. But guitarist-lead vocalist Andy Powell wasn’t kidding when he said, “You’re getting an up-close-and-personal show tonight!”
Powell is the only original member left, and while Wishbone Ash started as a democracy in 1969, this is now his band and his alone. That said, this show was by no means a star trip. Wishbone was one of the first bands to use dual lead guitars, so Muddy Manninen couldn’t just sit back and let Powell do all the shredding (although Powell was certainly up to the job). Manninen scorched the audience multiple times with his Gibson Les Paul, and tossed in some burning lap-steel guitar on “Blowin’” and “Engine Overheat.” But the best moments came when Powell and Manninen teamed up, either on deadly dual-unison runs or wild call-and-answer sessions. On the last, long chord of “Throw down the Sword”, they were grinning at each other like absolute fools, totally pumped about what they’d just done.
There are three things to really love about Wishbone Ash: First, they’re not living off one or two big discs they recorded thirty years ago; they’ve kept on recording right up to the unreleased-and-as-yet-untitled disc they played tracks from during the show, and new stuff like “Can’t Go It Alone” and “Reason to Believe” are just as tough as Wishbone classics like “Open Road” and “Front Page News.” The vocal harmonies by Powell, Manninen and bassist Bob Skeat have a good hard edge, as well, and Skeat and drummer Joe Crabtree drive every song right through the wall.
Second, Wishbone Ash is that rarest of bird, the progressive-rock boogie band! Unlike contemporaries like Yes and ELP (who seemed to deliberately make it hard for themselves just so they could stay interested) all Wishbone’s compositions come from a solid rock foundation that never loses its punch. It’s a sound that makes you feel like you’re part of a unit, you’re part of an army, and you can easily hear Wishbone’s influence (both in sound and chord construction) on British heavy-metal monsters Judas Priest and Iron Maiden.
Third, there’s Powell, who’s the kind of bloke you really want to have a Guinness or ten with and hear all his stories about his four decades on the road. Noting that the Van Dyck had changed a lot since the band had last played there, he admitted, “I turned to go up the staircase, and it was gone!” Powell told us the only time the band doesn’t get on well “is when Joe refuses to unload the van,” and horrified us with the fun fact that British hotels “put these incontinence sheets on the bed!” We also got his take on the Royal Wedding: “Absolutely useless, the monarchy… but what a show!”
“What a show” applies perfectly to Wishbone Ash. They played almost two hours, closing the regular set with a majestic “Phoenix,” and slayed us all with the sound that’s kept the hardcore fans coming back for over 40 years – and as someone who missed the party when it started back in the day, I can definitely see why.
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
WISHBONE ASH SET LIST
You See Red
Can’t Go it Alone
Throw down the Sword
FUBB (Fucked Up Beyond Belief)
Front Page News
Reason to Believe
The King Will Come/Persephone