I managed to overcome my low level anxiety about whether I should attend the Wishbone Ash gig at the Sportsmen’s Tavern just north of the University of Buffalo. I’m unfamiliar with the area and had had nagging questions about the night-time safety of the neighbourhood, but I soon put these concerns to bed. I’m thankful I did because missing the show would have been a real shame, not only because Wishbone Ash is still one hell of a live act but also because as a venue the Sportsmen’s Tavern is a rare jewel, modest in size but impressive in charm and character.
The deep, narrow and tall building looks like a family residence built between the wars in a neighbourhood that was once probably Polish or Lithuanian. There are similar modest structures either side of it and up and down the street. Inside, the back of the stage is covered by black ruffled curtains covering the windows that face the street and the stage itself over-looks the bar, tables and chairs and a standing area, the back of which leads to a flight of stairs that head up to a second story. There is another bar upstairs and more open space and stools and tables that surround a balcony over-looking the stage below. Throughout the venue, hundreds of pictures and portraits of famous musicians and framed concert posters adorn the walls. Above our heads, unfinished roof rafters are visible, and two metal beams cross the building’s width. Electric fans create an air flow, and ageing rock ‘n’ roll fans emanate their own wind flow whilst eating meals from the busy downstairs kitchen, ordering food from young, slender waitresses. From the upstairs area, a side door leads to an outside narrow, long and rather cramped roof area where people gathered to socialize and drink in the twilight. Bar stools lined four large glass-less window frames on this warm summer evening for a perfect view of the stage about twenty-five feet below. On a crowded night like tonight, bands must look up and see fans glaring down at them like deranged gamblers at a cock-fight, and behind them, a screen hangs mounted to the wall playing a live feed for any unfortunate with an obscured view. Over two hundred people, most of whom were between fifty and seventy, and some with various crutches, oxygen units and other medical devices, crowded round in awe to see a band that has survived the long decades and who for a small number of years was one of the most coveted live acts in the world.
At 7.45, the mighty Ash stepped onto the stage, led by the veteran Andy Powell, the band’s only remaining original member, and the current lead vocalist and one of two electric lead guitarists; smiling, he clutched his famous “flying V” electric guitar and spoke affably to the crowd. The other lead guitarist, standing to his right in tight, pinstripe jeans is a tall, arresting Finn with long unkempt and thinning blonde hair, named Muddy Manninen, half-Viking half-Keith Richards. To Powell’s left is the steady Bob Skeat on bass, still a relative new-comer to the band despite eighteen years under his belt. Both Manninen and Skeat offered supporting, sometimes harmonising vocals. Behind them on the drum kit was the youngest member of the band, Dr. Joe Crabtree, a technically gifted drummer with a doctorate in physics who plays with real poise and approaches the drums with the studious mind of a scientist, and the erect, upright stance of the master percussionist.
To excited, expectant applause and dimming lights, they warmed up with a couple of rhythm and blues numbers, followed by the slow title track from their latest album, “Blue Horizon” recorded and released last year, an album that according to Powell, the band is very proud of (code for a polite request to indulge them, and continued code for a promise to soon get round to playing the songs you really want to hear). In the midst of this song, for the first time of the evening, the band’s signature sound of twin lead guitars harmonizing in high pitches crackled through the air. Riffs replete with melody were then introduced mid-song, and soon afterwards the tempo quickened like a stressed heart-rate.
After a momentary pause for Powell to speak to the audience, at which time he brought our attention to his resemblance to Walter White from “Breaking Bad”, (as I’m sure he does every night), the band began the beautiful and classic trilogy of songs from their most famous and critically acclaimed album from 1973, “Argus”, an album that brought them into exalted company with bands like The Stones, The Faces and Deep Purple. Excitement levels and noise levels rose palpably as the opening sequence of “The King Will Come” was unleashed. Fans stood up (if they could), cheered and swayed. “Warrior” and “Put Down The Sword” followed with grace, spirit and perfection. Loud, raw cheers and whistles met the pauses between songs. The two guitars rose like majestic beasts in a jungle leaving the safety of the shadows in what at first glance might look like a confrontation. Respectful of each other’s territory and careful not to be invasive, these guitars invited each other to the fire side and instead of dancing a dance of death, they ascended together, side by side, with the sparks of the night and launched out into a world where we all beheld the chaotic electric rock of an indestructible dream. Bass and drums followed underfoot, offering a lush, padded canopy for as long as these beasts needed them. And then the jungle disappeared and stone castles and straw villages came into view amongst shouts and cries, blood and confusion and stench and soon insane horse-riders burnt homesteads and killed children and never-ending feuds were continued, before these scenes were themselves replaced by serious record contract negotiations and cocaine-rich New Year’s Eve parties and jealousies and dead friendships and dwindling crowds. Wishbone Ash never truly cracked America.
With these three very English, almost medieval, songs behind them, 2015 Wishbone Ash next tackled deeply American music in a song called “Way Down South”. King Arthur Pendragon had become John Lee Hooker, and I spotted my waitress doing a little dance as she entered the second floor from outside. In the same vein, a bluesy number called “Baby, What You Want Me To Do?” came and went, before slow, hypnotic, and wistful guitar playing announced the beginning of “The Pilgrim”, the title track from their second album, “Pilgrimage”, recorded in 1971, and the album that heralded their world-wide break-through. The song also has some challenging singing on it, and although Powell and Skeat didn’t demonstrate the power that the recording has, they did replicate the spirit and the cadence and they confidently nailed the harmonies, staying perfectly in tune throughout. They perfected the song’s eerie spirit and the drum break brought more excited cheers from the rosy-cheeked grand-parents packed into the bar who were dreaming of 1971.
In my pre-match research, I’d read that the band was preparing to play a lot of the songs from this “Pilgrimage” album, and that they’d even used this album title as the name of the current tour. So much for research; they didn’t play any more songs from “Pilgrimage”, which didn’t bother me very much because I don’t regard it anywhere near as good as the magnificent “Argus” anyway. What they did instead, to infectious smiles in the crowd, was to launch into “Front Page News” and the catchy “Living Proof”, Ash-fan favourites from the early 80s (which is around when I happened upon them), before ending with the anthemic “Blowin’ Free” from the “Argus” album. I’d returned downstairs where groups of fans were hanging on to themselves and cracking jokes between songs and singing along wistfully to the choruses. These wonderful Ash musicians played two encores before leaving the stage at a very civilized 9.30, and headed outside to sign autographs by the table selling merchandise.
It’s sad that there is a rift between Andy Powell and one of the other founding members, Martin Turner who also tours under the court-ordered name of “Martin Turner plays the music of Wishbone Ash”. But like a lot of bands that have survived the decades, Wishbone Ash boasts very talented musicians who have actually been on board for much longer than the iconic band members who created the legendary status in the first place. Muddy Manninen especially, that raggedy Finn evokes the look, the spirit and the talent of the 70s but he also looks a bit annoyed that he missed the era when Ash were massive. Highly dependable session musicians today play the music of creative genii whose brief flames flickered and dimmed, and who we all miss. Andy Powell has constructed a group who can carry the authentic sound of Wishbone Ash with him as their leader, and who can bring that sound of yester-year to the fee-paying public of the twenty first century. Unsurprisingly, the current band knew the arrangements like the backs of their hands and everything was implemented like clockwork. However, what will happen when those early creative pioneers who first crossed and destroyed the frontiers of music and culture and society leave this world forever and the rest of us behind?