Between The Cracks: Wishbone Ash – “Wishbone Ash” (1970, MCA-Decca)

With the release of their first album in 1970, Wishbone Ash instantly established themselves as an exciting, exceptionally tight and talented band with a unique sound that was both hard edged and beautifully melodic.  Featuring two outstanding lead guitarists who complement rather than compete with each other, strong lead and harmony vocals, and a flamboyantly aggressive yet rock solid rhythm section, this album still stands out as an interesting, innovative work with a level of musicianship that a lot of bands would envy.

What really sets this album apart is Wishbone Ash’s ability to craft sharp instrumental arrangements with multiple changes characterized by masterfully executed variations in rhythm, tempo, and accent.  These arrangements provide a dynamic framework for the soaring dual lead guitars of Andy Powell and Ted Turner.  While both are superb soloists, their truly distinguishing characteristic is their skill at creating the ear-catching and often quite intricate guitar duets that are the trademark of Wishbone Ash’s compositions.

The twin guitar sound is unleashed immediately on the album’s opening cut, “Blind Eye” with a jolting hook punctuated by some slick drum rolls from the ever astounding Steve Upton.  It slides from there into a rollicking, bluesy romp rendered with a pizzazz that eluded much of the blues rock fare of the time.

The next tune is “Lady Whiskey,” which gives the first indication of the true complexity of the band’s song writing.  It opens with a driving riff that serves as the song’s motif, but quickly runs through a series of changes filled with some stunning guitar themes that are occasionally reminiscent of King Crimson’s early sound.

“Errors of My Ways” mellows things ever so slightly with an arrangement in a minor key that draws its inspiration from English folk music, but with an electric edge that never lets you relax completely.  It also offers the first taste of another of the band’s key ingredients, its stellar vocal harmonies. Combined with their instrumental prowess, the harmonies demonstrate once and for all that there isn’t anything Wishbone Ash doesn’t do well.

The first side ends with the thundering “Queen of Torture,” a  lament about extreme emotional cruelty.  Again, this song follows the band’s tried and true, though never tedious, formula of sandwiching plenty of musical digression between the song’s predominant theme.  Needless to say, the guitarists provide some vibrant hooks to give it that special Wishbone Ash identity and flavor.

The second side begins with “Handy,” an eleven and a half minute cut which is essentially two songs in one. It starts out as a slow, dreamy instrumental with the guitars intertwining in a lovely, fluid way.  After a short, tasty interlude by bassist Martin Turner, the band picks up the pace and rapidly builds up to a quick drum solo that suddenly and quite surprisingly segues into a down and dirty swinging blues number that evokes the original Fleetwood Mac of Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer.  It’s a striking contrast to the first part of the song, but with yet another great guitar hook and some very impressive falsetto scatting, it definitely works and that’s all that matters.

The last song, “Phoenix,” is considered by many fans to be Wishbone Ash’s masterpiece.  It’s another long one, but the band makes sure you never lose interest. In addition to another helping of fine harmonies, there are hot solos, loads of crisp changes deftly propelled by Martin Turner and Steve Upton’s extraordinary bass and drum work, and a lively lilting guitar refrain that carries the song to conclusion. This is definitely one for the headphones!

Wishbone Ash’s popularity peaked in the mid-seventies (probably because the lamentable demise of free form FM radio made it virtually impossible for them to get airplay), but they’ve never stopped touring and recording despite several personnel changes.  While the only remaining founding member is guitarist/vocalist Andy Powell, Wishbone Ash is still an impressive band, and the current line-up does an outstanding job of capturing the band’s original sound, both vocally and instrumentally.  I saw them live for the first time last summer and they were every bit as good as I had desperately hoped they would be.  However, the most satisfying reaction to their show came from two twenty-something djs from the local corporate rock station that co-sponsored the show.  They had never heard of the band and were absolutely blown away.  One of them exclaimed to me, “You never hear them on the radio and it’s too bad, because you should!”  Program directors take notice–there’s still a place for bands like Wishbone Ash if you’d just give them the chance.

For more information about Wishbone Ash, check out their website at http://www.wishboneash.com.