When it comes to stacking two sets of melodic lead guitars, British rockers Wishbone Ash were amongst the first to perfect the powerhouse combination. And for nearly 50 years, that trend has continued through various eras and manifestations, even making its way into the “Tough & Tender” Tour, which finds co-founding guitarist/vocalist Andy Powell and the rest of the rugged cast focusing on both the aggressive and acoustic sides of its extensive catalogue. In advance of an intimate appearance at the beautifully restored Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, the leader connected with Chicago Concert Reviews to explain the dual decision, touch on his acclaimed memoir, preview an ambitious 32-disc box set and look forward to what might come when the group turns 50 in 2019.
What led you to the decision of unplugging this time around?
Andy Powell: I thought it’d be nice to sit down at some point during the set. No, I’m joking. I’ve actually been playing a lot of acoustic guitar through the summer and also it’s a great way for new guitarist Mark Abrahams and myself to become better acquainted musically. It’ll not be the entire set – I must stress that – only a few songs. Sometimes it’s nice to play different arrangements of our well-known songs.
How does this format allow the songs to be featured in a fresh light?
Powell: It can place a different emphasis on the song itself, sometimes revealing things about the song to the listener and the performers alike.
What exactly will you be playing when you come to the Arcada Theatre?
Powell: We don’t decide on the set for a particular venue until the actual show day, but I’m thinking we’ll play material from the “Argus” album of course, plus very new songs like “Way Down South,” a prog epic or two like say “F.U.B.B,” which always sounds good in a bigger room and of course some acoustic material. All in all, a varied and eclectic set with some out and out guitar jams to end with.
Do you have any memories or stories that stand out from your numerous times in Chicago?
Powell: Well, Chicago was always where many of the more, shall we say, rock & roll events and partying took place during our tours. I remember playing Chicago Fest, the Aragon Ballroom and so many shows. We also recorded a live album there once, and so I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the city, picking up the feel of the place. I’ve always had a soft spot for Chicagoans and I believe it’s the same feeling from them for this band.
The group actually seems to tour constantly all over the globe. What keeps you glued to the road?
Powell: It’s what I know. I love the lifestyle. I love being connected to friends and fans. The whole process is re-enforcing what you do, who you are. It’s the same for most performers. Without tours, you become detached. Also, I’m a natural traveller. I’m good at it and love picking up on new experiences and interesting people. I’m a sensualist, I guess you could say. It can be physically hard so you need to travel sensibly though. No stress – that’s the real secret, if you can manage it.
Had you been keeping a diary or journal of your adventures over the years or did you just tap back into your memory when you wrote “Eyes Wide Open: True Tales Of A Wishbone Ash Warrior”?
Powell: I actually found that I’d kept a lot of journals through the years – more than I’d thought – plus I’d spent some time through working on website blogs and so on, reconstructing a lot of lost years or confusing timelines. Social media has been great for that because much of the ‘70s for example was a blur, in terms of knowing exactly where I was. The partying did not always help with that. My co-writer, Colin Harper, it must be said, was also extremely helpful because he’s a student of all things to do with popular culture and has an encyclopedic knowledge of events and years, so he was often able to pinpoint things for me.
You also have the 32-CD deluxe box set, “Wishbone Ash – The Vintage Years,” coming out on Snapper Music. How daunting was it to put together such an expansive package or was it simply a case of clearing out your vaults?
Powell: It was very daunting. It’s been three years in the making so far, physically locating ancient 24-track master tapes, stabilizing them and digitizing them, as well as getting input from all the many band members throughout the years. Tracking down vintage photographic material was a project in itself with permissions needed to be sought from photographers or from their estates, if they were deceased. That kind of thing, plus extensive interviews for the coffee table book that accompanies the set.
What led you to exploring the twin lead sound that defines the band?
Powell: In the mid-‘60s, music was going through an incredible leap forward, from pop to rock and each year seemed to bring forth more experimentation. In the UK, we had Beatlemania, the Stones, the British Blues Boom, the Mod phase, psychedelia and so on. If you were a band, you really needed something fresh to bring to the table by the time we started in 1969. Britain had produced some of the best guitarists, [Eric] Clapton, [Jimmy] Page and [Jeff] Beck, but only Fleetwood Mac and a little known band, Blossom Toes, were exploring what could be done melodically to expand boundaries by using two lead guitars, much as you might use a horn section. In the States, you had the Allman Brothers of course.
What we brought to the table was melody and power and we truly expanded what could be achieved by the tried and tested guitar, bass and drums format. We mined British folk roots, as well as jazz and blues, and that set us apart from our contemporaries. Speaking personally, I’d been in bands through my teens which featured horn sections, so I was very used to working out harmonized lines and arrangements. I had a good musical ear. All of these elements came together. We had a great drummer in Steve Upton and a bass player, Martin Turner, who was steeped in classical and church music and that also added to the mix.
Does it ever surprise you to hear what a wide range of bands have been influenced by Wishbone Ash, from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Iron Maiden to Opeth?
Powell: No, because we are now perceived as the roots to a lot of things musically and we really worked with sound and production, both live and in the studio, and a lot of these bands understood and respect that.
Are there any special plans coming up for 2019 when the band will turn 50?
Powell: Well, the box set for one, but I’m sure there will be some kind of commemorative tour or shows. We’ve just not settled on things yet. We are talking with the BBC about a TV documentary, I can tell you that.