It's a weird adventure taking a
long look at the many lives that a rock band can have, especially if they all
revolve round a guitar. Or better said, two. Today, Wishbone Ash is a totally different band to the one that formed in
1970, although the songs have hardly changed a bit and Andy Powell is still at the helm. Today, accompanying him by his
Mesa Boogie stage amp is Finnish Muddy
Manninen, and not Ted Turner.
However the essence of the music - that of the six strings - remains what
counts the most and whoever happens to be playing it at any given time in
history is largely inconsequential. To prove this point, we have the recently
released Road Works, a box set with
the best of the band's live performances over the last five years. On listening
to it, with the chords of The Pilgrim,
time seems to have stood still.
That was forty years ago, when several key records were recorded such as Pilgrimage (1971), and above all, Argus (1972), without doubt their best album to date. Andy Powell and Ted Turner soon made a name for themselves as the best twin lead guitar act on the circuit, something that was virtually unheard of back then, with both men playing two different styles off each other. Gradually, with Martin Turner on bass and Steve Upton on the drums backing them up, their reputation as fine musicians in this newly-created sub-genre grew.
Years later, Powell and Martin Turner went to court over who could walk away with the band's name. While all this was going on, the band itself was suffering from constant changes in its line-up, along with the odd reunion and falling apart again. It's clear who came out of the drawn-out ordeal the winner – untouched since 2007, the current set-up has lasted the longest in all of the band's history: Manninen, Bob Skeat on bass and Joe Crabtree behind the drum kit. You only have to see them rocking out on stage to appreciate how perfectly they understand what everyone is up to.
Most of the band's big hits can be found on these two records: Jailbait, Blowin' free, The King Will Come…, the classics that their fans are waiting for in all their concerts. Seventies rock, not too far removed from what today we call 'progressive' rock, and of course, quintessentially British.
Here we can enjoy soft melodies so that the two guitarists may let their imagination run away with them, giving rise to beautiful improvised music that differs every time they play. Powell is a true master and his present partner in crime is also an excellent musician who, apart from being technically proficient, is capable of producing very deep and intense music. Together their music blends perfectly; this no competition, no duelling of banjos.
Like his boss, Manninen is a Gibson man. His favourite weapon is a modern version of a 1957 Les Paul Junior. Also, just as Turner (more a Fender player) was, he can work his magic with a steel guitar too. Powell remains faithful to his Gibson Flying V, a strange choice for a man who confesses that his role models as a youngster were the Shadows and the great Django Reinhardt.
In the early '70s, Argus was much appreciated for its elegant, almost instrumental rock, presenting a new way of making music with the electric guitar, a way which countless other bands would later copy over and over again: Two's twice as good as one, and three even better. It was a credo that would rule the roost for decades. In 2016, the title of their last album, Road Works perfectly defines what Wishbone Ash are: a bunch of hard workers.
Listen now Road Works on Spotify!