Wishbone Ash today: Joe Crabtree, Mark Abrahams, Bob Skeat, and Andy Powell.
Photo by Mannie Grove
Though not as well known among classic rock aficionados in the United States as their home base in England or even Europe, for more than 50 years prog rockers Wishbone Ash have carved out their own place in rock history and attracted some very, very rabid fans. Known as pioneers of the “twin guitar” sound that would later influence groups like Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden, their best known album is 1972’s history and war-themed Argus.
A military connection also features – at least visually – on their latest record, Coat of Arms (Steamhammer/SPV). The current Wishbone Ash lineup includes original member Andy Powell (lead vocals/guitar), Bob Skeat (bass), Joe Crabtree (drums), and new guitarist Mark Abrahams. They’ll be in Houston at the Dosey Doe on February 20.
“Primarily, we are introducing on record Mark as our new guitar player,” Powell says. “And we did prepare it in a different way. We went to a place in France and worked in a band room and recorded demos, which we don’t normally do. My son [Aynsley] was involved with the writing and arranging, and I did a number of lyrics with my wife [Pauline]. Then we took it to England and introduced the material to the full band.”
When it’s suggested that Coat of Arms has a lot of Powells on it, the 69-year-old Head Powell laughs. “Ha! Yes, it’s a family affair – but not quite the Partridge Family! A lot of rockers this age, your family becomes involved in the music by default whether they like it or not!”
But if the highly complex twin guitar sound both in the studio and on stage has to be practiced and meticulous, Abrahams seems like a perfect fit. He began playing guitar at the age of 9, and had a huge admiration for and decades of practice playing the music of Wishbone Ash. Powell first met him when Abrahams ran a music store in north London that would sometimes supply the band with equipment.
“Getting him was very fortuitous. It made for a lot of shortcuts and easier on me because he already knew the music,” Powell says. “He could tell me ‘Well, this is how you did it back in 1983…’ and he’d be right! It’s a joy to rediscover [the music] through him.”
Of the 11 tracks on Coat of Arms, the one that will garner the most attention is its lead-off single, “We Stand as One.” Originally written as a humanistic call to arms of world brotherhood and positivity in the wake of the massive fires in the Amazon rainforests, it has since taken on more meaning than Powell would probably have liked it to.
“You always hope with a song it can bounce into different areas, so it’s always prudent to keep things in that regard,” he says. “We’re in an interesting time right now when democracy is under fire – literally. It is kind of a call to arms, a rallying song. But since the [Amazon fires], we've had the fires in California, and then Australia! So it actually became more prescient and urgent.”
And for Powell, that sentiment also touches contemporary geopolitical issues. “I’m surprised that more singers and bands aren’t screaming from the rooftops about some of the things they see going on in the world. There are those who say ‘Oh, just shut up about politics and play the music.’ But I think you write songs and you…art is really a reflection of the times. And that’s our duty in a way.”
The original Wishbone Ash: Steve Upton, Andy Powell, Martin Turner, Ted Turner.
Record cover/Spectrum Audio UK
As mentioned, the passion of Wishbone Ash fans run high, enough to support two dedicated annual conventions. Many of those attendees didn’t blink at forking over the equivalent of around $350 in 2018 massive 2,500 limited edition box set The Vintage Years 1970-1991.
It featured 16 studio albums, three live albums, eight unreleased live albums, books, posters, rarities, promotional items, and even signed photos of the four original members who formed the band in 1969: Andy Powell (guitar/vocals), Martin Turner (lead vocals/bass/keyboards), Steve Upton (drums), Ted Turner (guitar), as well as later member Laurie Wisefield (guitar). It has sold out.
Powell gives credit to the team from Snapper Music, who produced it over three years – though it also included sensitive navigations and negotiations among the company and the five players. “To do something like that, you’ve got to be a statesman, a politician, an archivist, and a music lover. And the [band members] might not even be talking to each other…some ex-members didn’t want to be so cooperative, some did. But in the end, it was a real labor of love.”
It’s a matter of public record that Powell has varying degrees of relationships among the other four ex-Ashers, much of it stemming from the animosity over years of court cases between himself and Martin Turner over use of and billing rights to the name “Wishbone Ash” in their separate careers. A final ruling was handed down in Powell’s favor some years back, and Powell notes that he'd registered the name decades earlier after Turner had left the band for the second time.
The hallmark sound of Wishbone Ash is twin guitars: Mark Abrahams and Andy Powell.
Photo by Steve Koontz
“I see the whole picture because I’ve never stopped playing in the band, I never quit. It’s complex, and yet it's really that simple,” Powell offers. And while he’s not against any sort of project that would involve any combination of the ex-members, he’s not pursuing it either.
“If you put the four original guys together in a room, it would probably be ‘Yeah, that might be cool.’ But there are malevolent outside influences, particularly on the original members,” he says. “But this [current] band is really busy. We played in 18 countries last year!”
Powell also released his autobiography written with Colin Harper, Eyes Wide Open: True Tales of a Wishbone Ash Warrior in 2015.
Finally, Andy Powell realizes that the odds of a vintage classic rock band releasing a full album of original new music in 2020 is something of an anomaly, but he’s not ready for the band to stop being a contemporary creative force, regardless of how the majority of music is bought and/or consumed today.
“Some people may not know we’re still around!” he laughs. “I liked that we’ve signed with a small, independent label. We’re not on a huge label on a global scale now. Even established acts are finding it hard to get the word about new music. And we would not be able today to go to make a third album like Argus. It’s all one-shot deals now.”
Wishbone Ash plays 8:30 p.m. on February 20 at the Dosey Doe Big Barn, 25911 I-45 North. For information, call 281-367-3774 or visit DoseyDoe.com. Tickets $68-$108 and include a three-course dinner and soft drinks served 6:30-7:30 p.m.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.