Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Pluck of the Irish: Ash Burns on St. Patrick's Night -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act California Wives
Lincoln Hall, Chicago
March 17, 2013

The first time I heard of Ash was in 1995 when they had two terrific songs--"Jack Names the Planets" and "Kung Fu"--included on the soundtrack for the movie Angus, which I bought primarily due to the opening track being an otherwise unavailable song from Green Day, "J.A.R." The soundtrack had some other great cuts as well, and may also have been my introduction to The Smoking Popes.

At the time, the three members of Ash--singer/guitarist Tim Wheeler, bassist Mark Hamilton and drummer Rick McMurray--were all still in their teens. Their debut album, released in 1996, was named 1977 because that's the year the bandmates hailing from Northern Ireland were born.

With excellent songs like "Lose Control," "Goldfinger," "Girl From Mars" and "Kung Fu," 1977 hit #1 in Britain--as would 2001's also terrific Free All Angels--and still stands as my favorite Ash album.

Though their U.S. popularity never came close to matching their U.K. success, I enjoyed getting to see them in smaller clubs: Chicago's Bottom Lounge and L.A.'s El Rey Theater, both in 2003, and at the Metro in 2005 as co-headliners with The Bravery.

At some point, I lost track of Ash and was obvious to their self-releasing a new single every two weeks over the past few years as part of the A-Z Series. I believe Vol. 1 (of 2) was compiled on CD in 2010, but I just picked it up after Sunday's show and had it signed by a very gracious Tim Wheeler.

And I wouldn't have even known about their show at Lincoln Hall had it not been for a Facebook post by another Chicago music blog, Chicago At Night.

But as soon as I learned of it, I bought a ticket for just $20--despite not exactly relishing the idea of heading down to Lincoln Ave. alone on St. Patrick's Day night.

But everything turned out to be smooth and easy; I found a parking spot around the corner on Fullerton, got a seat with no problem in the Lincoln Hall balcony, found the entire atmosphere to be completely comfortable, etc.

And the show was fantastic.

Opening for Ash (Wikipedia; AllMusic) was California Wives, a five-man Chicago band. They had a really nice sound, good songs and were very entertaining over 45 minutes, including tunes called "Marianne," "Michigan" and "Los Angeles." They have an album out called Art History, which can be found on Spotify. It was recorded at Tim Wheeler's studio in New York--where Ash have been living of late--and sounds pretty good as I'm listening now.

Ash took the stage at 9:15 and ripped into "Meltdown," the title track from their 2004 album, then rolled through a thoroughly satisfying 90-minute set comprised of several older songs I knew and loved, including "Orpheus," "Goldfinger," "Walking Barefoot," "Jack Names the Planet" and "Girl From Mars," which I caught on video from my balcony perch:

Yet equally--and perhaps more gratifyingly--enjoyable were the new songs Ash showcased from the A-Z Series. Some I had heard once in preparing for the show, others were completely unfamiliar but all sounded great, including "Joy Kicks Darkness," "Binary," "Arcadia" and particularly, "Return of White Rabbit." All of these can also be found on Spotify, and you can see the full setlist for Ash in Chicago on Setlist.fm.

As an Irish band, Ash were certainly aware of the occasion, though in wishing the crowd a Happy St. Patrick's Day, Wheeler correctly noted that most of the celebrating in Chicago had taken place the night before.

But It was particularly great to hear them pay homage to a couple of their homeland musical heroes during the encore.

First up was a spot-on cover of "Teenage Kicks" by Northern Ireland's The Undertones, a band you should know if you don't. (Besides "Teenage Kicks," "Get Over You" is my favorite of theirs.)

Next was "Whiskey in the Jar," a traditional Irish song most notably recorded by Thin Lizzy, who Wheeler called his favorite band while also noting that Metallica had covered the song. I think Ash stayed true to the Lizzy version, and it sounded great

The trio closed the 19-song set with one of their own songs, "Burn Baby Burn," from Free All Angels. And true to the band's name--and entire performance on this green night--burn it did.

I don't think that even in England, Ash is as big as they once were. Perhaps this is due to their decision to put out their own music, rather than through a record company. But now well into their 30's, it's cool that the once teenage sensations still get enough kicks out of what they do to come through Chicago, even if it meant--as I learned via Tim Wheeler's Twitter feed--driving 17 hours from an appearance at South by Southwest in Austin, and then having to drive up to Minneapolis for a Monday night gig.

Wheeler mentioned from the stage that the band should be touring the States a bit more often than in recent years, and would hopefully be back through Chicago in the not-so-distant future.

I hope so.

For without being Irish nor liking Guinness (as a drink; I love the brand) nor attending a parade nor getting drunk, there really was no way that I--while wearing my green George Best t-shirt--would rather have celebrated St. Patrick's Day.

Below is a clip of Ash's outstanding rendition of "Teenage Kicks" by The Undertones:

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