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- Ash »
Way back at Reading '98, with a modest string of hits and one album behind them, Ash wowed thousands on the main stage with high-energy riffage. It was one of my first festival experiences, and I left ecstatic.
Tonight I leave King's College slightly less convinced. Back to their original three-piece set-up having spent nine years with Charlotte Hatherley, this was always going to be a different band to the one I witnessed eight years prior. After that night, I watched them slowly slide further into the clutches of radio-friendly pop-rock and I blamed the newcomer, but after going into tonight's show looking forward to the absence of their former guitarist-turned-soloist, it turns out that in some ways she's sorely missed.
Most of this is down to the vocals: having written three albums of songs revolving around two vocalists, that there is only one microphone onstage tonight immediately leaves the harmony-based numbers sounding barren. Songs from 1977, the new material showcased tonight and Trailer's 'Petrol' survive just fine as you'd expect and form the majority of the set, yet 'Walking Barefoot', 'Burn Baby Burn' and 'Orpheus' all miss the vocal counterpoint.
On the contrary, Hatherley’s not so missed on the guitar front. Tim Wheeler handles both rhythm and lead parts impeccably; soloing at any opportunity, finger-tapping and throwing rock poses as if he was 17 again, whilst bassist Mark Hamilton stalks the stage glaring out from under his super-floppy fringe, his no-nonsense scowl in contrast to Wheeler's wide-eyed glee.
For tonight's set they take no risks, excluding anything which might not work, so there's no sign of the slower moments ('There's A Star', 'Sometimes', 'Candy'), the harder ones ('Clones' and 'Numbskull', or anything else from Nu-Clear Sounds for that matter) or the just plain horrendous ('Envy'). Forthcoming single ‘You Can’t Have It All’ bristles with a powerful punk edge and ‘I Started A Fire’ combines the accessible songwriting of _Meltdown_ with a guttural yell for a chorus – although it’s one Wheeler struggles to hit on occasion – whilst ‘In Hell’ is more of a progressive multi-staged epic given pride of place as set-closer, starting slow and building patiently to a rock explosion.
Anyone hoping the forthcoming fifth album will be a step away from their pop-rock leanings may yet get their wish on tonight’s evidence, and you can tell that they’re particularly proud of the new songs by the vigour with which they're executed, though it’s still the old favourites that pack the most punch. For all the new songs’ backing-tape-assisted intricacies, it is still the super-simple few chords of ‘Kung Fu’ which blow all others offstage for a frenetic jumped-up finale, and along with an equally feisty rendition of ‘Girl From Mars’, it’s enough to send almost everyone home content with tonight’s back-to-basics performance, convinced that Ash still have what it takes.
Yes, tonight might not be their best performance, nor are they at a pinnacle of their career, but should Ash find a way to plug the gap left by the downsize, you can’t help but feel the wheels could soon be back on their wagon once and for all.
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