Ah, old faves Ash, another essential for Rachel despite her pregnancy. In the couple of years since harder-edged "Meltdown" CD, they'd shed guitarist Charlotte Hatherley, reducing to their core 3 founder members, prompting a couple of questions. What would the new material be like, shorn of Hatherley's pop influence? Would their full-on "live" sound suffer, one guitar down?
Thus intrigued, we set off for this sell-out show, suffering the usual parking-mare near this difficult venue, despite our early-ish arrival! Sat in the lobby before support V-Formation's set. A burst of strident colour and noise, at their best they recalled the choppy guitar speed of early Wedding Present, although the vocalist's yelping style recalled the Crimea's Davey McManus, minus the stage charisma. Overall OK, promising I suppose, but a bit thin on tunes for now.
Something you could never accuse Ash of! We stood near the back, out of the melee in this cavernous hall, for Ash's 9.40 arrival to the accompaniment of Nat King Cole! Fears about the possible thin-ness of the sound were allayed with an early "Burn Baby Burn", the guitar riff ringing out loud and clear. Ash's buoyant, upbeat, hooky punk-pop always translates well "live", and despite now being a 3-piece again, tonight was no exception, as the enthusiastic mosh could attest to. Initially, it seemed as if Tim was taking on too much, singing lead and harmony, and trying to keep lead and rhythm guitar lines going! However, this diminished as the sound settled.
"Good to be back in Bristol! This is a great room, we played here back in 1995," said Tim, prompting some thought. Sold out though this was, Ash certainly deserve to be playing bigger venues by now, especially with contemporaries such as Muse playing Wembley Stadium these days! Echoing this thought, the new material was more considered, mature, slower-burn yet with an occasionally epic feel, particularly the excellent "Roulette" and a lengthy, sinuous "Twilight Of The Innocents", which recalled the widescreen soundscapes of U2, no less.
However, turning 30 they may be, but you can't take the teen enthusiasm out of Ash - a splendid "Life Less Ordinary" (still my fave Ash song, with the killer combination of driving guitar and heart-gripping hook), a Ramones-like, singalong "Walking Barefoot" and a superb "Girl From Mars" were the set highlights, and the raucous, ebullient "Petrol" and "Kung Fu" encores capped a typically thrilling, enjoyable 1 hour 20 minutes from this trio of Irish upstarts. And with the more mature new direction, they may yet take the step up that they've long deserved.