Saturday, October 01, 2016

'1977' Redux: A Good Bit of Smoldering Ash on a Wednesday -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act
The Evening Attraction
Lincoln Hall, Chicago
September 28, 2016

With 25 candles having burned away since the vaunted rock 'n roll year of 1991, I've been noting and celebrating the silver anniversary of some of the best, and most important albums, in rock history--and my own life: Nirvana's Nevermind, Pearl Jam's Ten, U2's Achtung Baby, Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik, R.E.M.'s Out of Time, Guns 'n Roses Use Your Illusion I & II, Dinosaur Jr's Green Mind, etc., etc. etc.

But while perhaps not as heralded, 1996 also brought several notable albums that I have long cherished: Wilco's Being There, Manic Street Preachers' Everything Must Go, The Wallflowers' Bringing Down the Horse, Local H's As Good as Dead, Soundgarden's Down on the Upside.

And an album that took its title from a different year: 1977 by Ash.

I can't precisely recall if I purchased 1977 promptly after its release--the title denotes the birth year of  2 of the 3 members of the band hailing from Northern Ireland, while also commemorating a seminal year in punk rock--but I likely did given that I had learned of Ash through their inclusion on the excellent soundtrack to the middling 1995 movie Angus.

Also my entreĆ© to the Smoking Popes, Angus included two songs from Ash: their first single, "Jack Names the Planets," and "Kung Fu," which would wind up on 1977. The soundtrack album's opening song--and presumably the reason I knew of and wanted it--was "J.A.R. (Jason Andrew Relva)," a terrific, otherwise unreleased at the time Green Day song that followed their breakthrough Dookie album.

This would acutely explain why I think of Ash (and the Smoking Popes) in a similar vein as Green Day, but without being exact, the comparison still feels pretty apt. Especially on 1977, which despite much fine music in intervening years, remains their best album.

Over the years, I've seen Ash a handful of times, in relatively intimate venues, so I know they never enjoyed the kind of commercial success in the U.S. as they did in the U.K., where 1977 hit #1 and went platinum.

Hence I wasn't too shocked that they didn't sell out Lincoln Hall, where I had last seen them in 2013. But learning upon arrival that the club's second level was closed for this show caused mild chagrin, as it holds the only seating options. Coolly, LH employees offered to get me a highback chair so I could sit off to the side of the main floor and still see the show.

I gladly took them up and appreciated this, and though I probably looked out of place, who cares? As it was, venturing to Lincoln Avenue on a work night for a General Admission show bespeaks how much I like Ash and the allure of hearing them play 1977 in full, as was promoted for its 20th anniversary.

Opening the show was a Chicago quintet appropriately named The Evening Attraction. While not mind-blowingly so, I thought they were rather good, reminding me that at a time when I whine about the lack of great new rock bands, there are still numerous unknown (and presumably unsigned) acts keeping the faith.

An instrumental called "Tea Party" recalled Dick Dale surf music, while "When You're Young" and "Lost Inside My Head" were a couple of songs that made me take note. Literally.

At 9:15pm, Ash--still with its three original members, singer/guitarist Tim Wheeler, bassist Mark Hamilton and drummer Rick McMurray--ripped right into 1977 with a rollicking "Lose Control," followed by "Goldfinger" and "Girl From Mars," probably my two favorite songs of theirs.

The album is pretty strong throughout--all the more remarkable for how young the band was when creating it--and despite the predictability of hearing it performed in sequence, just how ravishing some of the album's later tunes ("Let It Flow," "Angel Interceptor," "Darkside Lightside") came across provided surprise enough.

From recent setlists, I expected they would follow the album playthrough with several other songs, and though the Chicago set was shorter than some other tour stops, the 85-minute set was well-paced and quite satisfactorily sufficient.

The ever-amiable Wheeler was gracious throughout--I had chatted with him briefly after the 2013 show, but not on Wednesday--and gems like "Jack Names the Planets," "A Life Less Ordinary," "Orpheus" and the closing "Burn Baby Burn" were a joy to hear anew.

I'm sorry we didn't get a "Teenage Kicks" cover of Ash's great Northern Ireland predecessors, The Undertones--as was played elsewhere and here in 2013--but a romp through Abba's "Does Your Mother Know?" was great fun.

And while the lack of a brand new album--Wheeler said one is due next year--and only one song from 2015's Kablammo! ("Let's Ride;" I would have loved to hear "Machinery," which I featured on my Best of 2015 Spotify Playlist) deprived the concert of any urgency to accompany the look back to 1977, all in all it was a pretty damn good night.

And, or course, year, be it 1977, 1996, 2016 or whatever confluence thereof.

They're obviously not teenagers anymore, but it's nice to know that even in--or perhaps especially in--playing to about 100 people on a rainy Wednesday night in Chicago, Ash still burns bright. 

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