Special Concert Review
Chicago City Limits Schaumburg, IL - 3/11/05
by Scott "Dr. Music" Itter
t was about 10:00 when I left my home to hit the highways. I had about an hour drive ahead of me, which meant adequate time to analyze my upcoming Wishbone Ash experience. Of course, my background sounds were that of the Ash classic "Argus", along with a few unfriendly toll booth attendants every couple of miles. Hearing songs like "Time Was" and "Throw Down The Sword" emanating from the walls of my kid bus, I thought about how long I've been listening to these songs. Man, am I old; and, well, that means that the guys in Ash are even older. I had to wonder if they were going to sound anything like they did in 1972, especially on the vocal end. Somehow, the ability to sing and harmonize seems to drift for many of the older rockers. Then I got to thinking of where I was headed. This was a club with a capacity of about three hundred, in a pretty suburb about twenty five miles west of Chicago's downtown area. Not exactly Madison Square Garden. It was about 11:00 in the evening when I sauntered into the sports bar atmosphere of Chicago City Limits in lovely Schaumburg, Illinois. Hearing the opening band, I got an idea of how the sound quality would be, and it wasn't too bad. It seemed I wasn't going to be able to blame a bad performance on the lowly sound guy this time if need be. Big Blazin' Bob and the Boyzz, or some such thing, headed off to make room for the Ash techs to gear up. I made my way to the front of the stage, confident I wouldn't be getting caught in a mosh pit tonight. It was a great feeling. Yeah, I know . . . old. As I found myself surrounded by a crowd of aging rock fans like myself, we all seemed to be in the same state of mind a hope that our precious Ash would not disappoint. And, as the guitar tech placed Andy Powell's blood red signature Flying V on its stand, I heard one fan nearby refer to it as "The Holy Grail". Yes, the level of anticipation could not have been any higher. It was 11:30 when the lights dimmed.
As the quartet took the stage, led by founding member and guitarist extraordinaire Andy Powell, they exuded the confidence of seasoned veterans. Diving into their two hour set with the instrumental "In The Skin" from their 90's release "Nouveau Calls", the band immediately washed away all audience fears. Coming out with an instrumental, and performing it with perfect precision as they did, was an apprehension "ice breaker". This is a band that played over 250 shows in the past two years, and that tight cohesiveness came shining through. The lineup went blazing through their newest material, as well as pulling out some rarities from the back catalog. Performing much of the classic "Argus" release, including "Warrior" and "The King Will Come", the band was sharp in every aspect. The instrumental skills, as well as the vocal harmony prowess of those "Argus" songs, remained firmly intact during this set. Age, it seems, has done nothing but ferment this fine wine.
The band's appearance was also one that screamed with confidence. Powell, being the focal point of the group, was clad in a black t-shirt covered with a comfortable button down shirt and Levi's. Also, his perfectly shined bald head was something for Melissa Etheridge to be envious of. As Powell rocked through this set, it was hard to find a moment when he didn't have a smile on his face. As a matter of fact, the entire band was grinning from ear to ear for most of the show. This was a band that was thoroughly enjoying themselves. Bassist Bob Skeat getting playful with the salivating fans at the front of the stage, and drummer Ray Weston leaving his throne to accentuate some of his expert cymbal work, and guitarist Muddy Manninen interacting with Powell on occasion; this was a real rock show by real professionals. A band that has been touring the world for 35 years, has ended up in a sports bar with a capacity of 300, and is still appreciative of their fans. Simply a great sight to see.
As they lit up the stage with classics like "The Pilgrim" and "Rock & Roll Widow", it was at the center of the set that they shined brightest. With two songs from their "Almighty Blues" release, the band showed that they are still a significant songwriting force. I was afraid that the inevitable promotion of new material was going to be gravely overshadowed by the classic Ash tunes. I could not have been any more pleased with the new songs and the way they were played. "Almighty Blues" was a raucous jam that had the quartet firing on all cylinders, and "Changing Tracks" was a song that infected my head for hours after the show. These guys are still assembling great songs; songs that can stand with the rest of the classics and not sound inferior. This has got to be one of the most rounded sets that I've ever heard. They played songs from almost every stage of their career, even rarities like "Standing In The Rain" from the "Strange Affair" LP.
As they wound down their set with "Blowin' Free", there was a sense of "home". I had come to this show not really knowing what I was going to find. At this point in the show, I was wrapped up tight with older songs that I have always loved, and newer songs that I will begin to fall in love with. This was the Wishbone Ash I was yearning to see. A unit that is just as remarkable and salient as the group that began 35 years ago. Their choice of encores was evidence of how much confidence they have in their new material. They placed a song called "Shoulda Woulda Coulda", from their 2002 release "Bona Fide", next to one of the signature Ash pieces of the old days "Jail Bait". The two songs sounded wonderful together, and was a brilliant exhibition of extreme talent.
As I sat in my minivan ready to make the trek home, everything seemed okay in the world. The snow that was messy on the way in, was now beautiful as it made its' descent to Earth. The grouchy toll booth attendants that seemed miserable before, were now smiling and jovial. And, of course, "Argus" was still blaring from the walls of my van. I came, I saw, and I found the same Wishbone Ash that I know and love. Yes, all is well with the world.