What struck me was how Turner had enriched the evening with his story-telling. It’s as if he’d taken a set of faded black and white photos and turned them into vivid colour.
All photos: Olivia Whimpenny
By the time the band take the stage, The 100 Club is packed. No matter that this isn’t officially Wishbone Ash playing, or even Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash playing, but (as a result of the legal dispute over rights to use the Wishbone Ash name with Andy Powell a few years back) just Martin Turner Ex Wishbone Ash. You can distance Turner’s name as far as you like from Wishbone Ash but the fans aren’t fooled; they know that he was the prime mover behind the group and they’ve voted in their droves with their feet tonight. Irrespective of the band’s name, this is 100% an evening of Wishbone Ash music. The tour poster highlights that fact, indicating that this tour will be a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Argus, and that it will also be a double bill consisting of two iconic albums played back to back, with Wishbone Four, the 1973 follow-up to Argus, being the second half of the show. I could challenge the description of Wishbone Four as an ‘iconic’ album, but I doubt there’s a soul who would deny Argus its iconic status as a landmark in the development of British heavy rock music. As an aside, full marks to the graphic designer who created the tour poster and especially how the ‘0’ in the ‘50’ has been constructed using the silhouette of the warrior from the Argus cover. Very clever!
For tonight, Turner is dressed in loud red shirt and multi-coloured trousers which create a sharp contrast with the bright white of his bass. His hair is stuck up in all directions so he looks more like a punk star than a rock star! Still, despite being into his 70s, Turner clearly knows how to play the part as he takes centre stage and becomes the inevitable focus of attention for the entire evening. The band, as if to emphasise his role, are dressed in much more subdued hues.
My bet was on Turner playing the two albums in inverse chronological sequence tonight – to save the best until last, so to speak. But no, the band come out and launch straight into the opening track of Argus, Time Was. It’s a fine version, and like much of the subsequent Argus set, is played a little heavier than the politely produced studio equivalent. But there’s also a metal edge too in the guitar playing as if the music had also absorbed lessons from that genre that it helped give birth to. The band are not surprisingly a tight unit since they’ve played together for some time now. Guitarist Danny Wilson is the senior member, having played with Turner for almost fifteen years. Wilson’s previous somewhat dubious claim to fame was a spell in the ‘90s with the pop group Showaddywaddy. Drummer Tim Brown has more serious rock credentials, having played with Don Airey and Phil Campbell amongst others. Both he and the second lead guitarist Misha Nikolic have been playing with Turner for about seven years now. Fifty years have passed since the songs were recorded so you can’t expect Turner’s voice to be exactly the same. He does admirably well in the rockier tracks but, for example, the warmth of tone that was there in the beautiful opening section of Sometime World has been lost. The famous Wishbone Ash harmonies are maintained though thanks to excellent vocal contributions from Wilson and Brown.
The band play Argus note for note – apart from one glitch which I’ll mention shortly – but not quite in the album song order. Blowin’ Free is moved to the end to close the set. That’s probably a wise choice to close with an energetic piece rather than the brilliant but reflective Throw Down The Sword. Turner is centre stage so you can’t help but notice the importance of his bass writing for this album. The fast section of Sometime World is the one piece of brilliant bass playing all fans will remember well but every run and every note seems to be just perfectly placed.
In terms of banter, Turner could have remained silent and simply played through the album solemnly and everyone would have been happy. But there’s actually plenty of interaction from Turner, enriching the songs and demonstrating a good sense of humour. That humour also extends to the audience – when Turner introduces The King Will Come as a song which includes quotes from the Bible and a Muslim book, one member of the audience wisecracked back ‘well it is Good Friday!’ Turner also proves to be self-deprecating, describing his original lyrics for Leaf And Stream as ‘naff’ and that thankfully Steve (Upton, I assume) came along with the excellent lyrics that were used in the final recorded version. We also get to hear about his concern that Warrior would be seen as a song advocating war, which made him decide to write a song clearly against war – and that was the genesis of Throw Down The Sword.
Turner also explains that Blown’ Free is so old that it pre-dates Wishbone Ash as a band. A half-baked version had been laid down at the time of the second album (Pilgrimage) by reluctant band members but not included in that release. For Argus Turner was determined to have it included and got the band to put down the song as it is known today. But even then, the rest of the band got cold feet and sent over Derek Lawrence (the producer) to try and convince Turner to leave it off, with Lawrence apparently claiming it was too poppy and fluffy for the album. Luckily, Turner insisted and got his way because without that persistence, this famous song might have been lost to us, or at best been released as a bonus track on some anniversary release.
Back to that glitch. The band get through the first verse of Warrior and then Wilson stops playing and apologises, citing problem with one of the stage monitors. It gets fixed in seconds and the band start from the beginning again, with a little variation on the lyrics: ‘I’m leaving to search for something new’ now becomes ‘I’m leaving once again to search for something new’! That little jest captures the spirit of Tuner’s approach to the gig: play some music; tell some good stories; and have some fun. Much better than standing there poker-faced like Ritchie Blackmore expecting us to reverently listen to his musical achievements.
After Argus the band then take a well-earned break, as do the audience, although the demographics mean that the queue for the toilet is longer than the one at the bar. Anyway, after the fill-ups or empty-outs, it’s time to revisit Wishbone Four. As with the album, the band start with the excellent So Many Things To Say, and as with Argus, there is some tweaking in the running order with both No Easy Road and Doctor deferred, presumably to ensure a conclusion in crescendo. The downside of that choice is that it results in a sequence of four relatively laid back songs – potentially dangerous in terms of the engagement level dropping. Danny Wilson takes lead vocals on the folk-tinged Ballad Of The Beacon and it’s a fine performance, a little meatier than the studio version. The band then play my personal favourite from this album, Everybody Needs A Friend. It’s that slow languid melodic style that was one of Wishbone Ash’s hallmarks. Here, the band pace it perfectly – played too quickly and the song would lose its serene majesty, and played too slowly it would become dirge-like. Wilson and Nikolic take one each of the guitar solos and both excel. Turner also touchingly reveals the origin of the song. His mother-in-law had died and he didn’t know how to comfort his wife and hence the song and the lyrics became his message to his wife. If anything, that adds even more emotion to the performance and not surprisingly there’s a massive round of applause as the song concludes.
It’s then a case of going from the sublime to the ridiculous as Turner explains how the next song, Sorrel, is about a sorrel plant which he lovingly nurtured and asked his partner at the time to look after while he went on a six week US tour. She forgot about him and she forgot about the plant and it was dead on his return. ‘The bitch’ Martin declared earnestly! It’s a pleasant enough song and nice to hear again but to be honest is pretty ordinary. The same is also true for Sing Out The Song with its country influences (perhaps picked up on the same US tour?). I sense the audience is a little restless at this point but the energetic No Easy Road gets things back on the path and feet are tapping and heads are shaking again. A nice tight version of Rock ‘n Roll Widow follows that. Wilson again takes lead vocals and gives a fine performance of this classy song. And they then close with Doctor – not the best rock ‘n’ roll song ever written, it must be said, but book-ending the Wishbone Four set with the two most energetic tracks was for sure a clever move.
And we get to the mystery part of the evening: the encores. The instantly recognisable You See Red is first up, and is greeted warmly by the fans as its funky thumping rhythm gets everyone moving. Freed from the shackles of playing an album note for note, the band get down to some enjoyable jamming as well. This segues into a lengthy version of the evergreen twelve bar blues of Jail Bait, during which there’s time for Turner to introduce the band members. Wilson then returns the favour introducing Turner with the last quip of the night (‘he’s a legendary fashion icon!’). The crowd want more but the cut-off time has arrived and that’s it. All the talk on the way out is about how well the band played. Yes, that’s certainly true but what struck me was how Turner had enriched the evening with his story-telling. It’s as if he’d taken a set of faded black and white photos and turned them into vivid colour. For most of the audience, the gig was an exercise in nostalgia, so what more could one ask for?