The main reaction I’d been getting, on telling people about this gig, was, “Ash? Blimey, not heard of them in years – are they still going then?” The fact is, it’s now 20 years - count ‘em, 20! – since they barrelled their way onto the musical landscape, as skinny Irish teens with surf-punk pop toons, bristling with youthful energy and spunky attitude. Amassing a canon of bouncy, pop-tastic hooks and earworm-friendly tunes that in any reasonable world should have seen them, rather than the Museplay Killers of this world, catapulted to stadium level success, they somehow never quite made their way out of the cult status ghetto. Thus after a 5 year hiatus, they’re back with a new, crowd-funded 2015 album, “Kablammo” and struggling to sell out the rickety old Bierkeller. No accounting for taste.
Still enduring faves of myself and Rach, though, tonight being my 14th “live” Ash experience, so we’d booked tix promptly; however, my poor missus was overcome with a last-minute flu virus, so the Big Man gleefully stepped in at short notice, and I abandoned my stricken wife, like the heartless cad I am, in favour of the rock. Utterly ridiculous Cabot Circus Chrimbo traffic delayed us by ½ hour (bah!) so we parked up in Rupert Street NCP and hit the venue at 8.15, just missing openers The Amorettes. Got drinks and surveyed the venue – a regular 80’s haunt which looks as if it’s not seen a lick of paint since those days! – before being assaulted by the schizophrenic guitar rock sound of Asylums at 8.30. Encompassing frantic thrash punk, tepid grunge, reasonable driving Annie Christian-like indie rock and one horrible, almost 80’s hair-band number, they actually had some decent stuff (I liked the one introduced by the candyfloss-haired vocalist as, “about the misery of the Argos catalogue”, and the final number, which purported to be about “tennis rackets” (although I might have misheard that) and recalled Midway Still’s mighty cover of MBV’s “You Made Me Realise” for sheer savagery) but at the moment are jacks of all trades but masters of none.
Ash bassist Mark Hamilton had a watching brief close to our stage-right spot; he then disappeared backstage and we ran into old mate Steve Aldridge and wife Caz, before wandering onto the old wooden dancefloor for Ash’s arrival, prompt at 9.30 to the sound of broken glass. Riff-heavy opener “Go! Fight! Win!” was raw and ragged, befitting the first night of the tour, and the opening salvos took a while to dial in (particularly vocalist Tim Wheeler’s voice), a superb chiming second number “A Life Less Ordinary” notwithstanding. “Thanks for selling out tonight – champagne for everyone!” announced Tim after the slow grunge of “Goldfinger” and before a low-key newie, “Free”, then the gig finally burst to life with the bratty surf punk of “Kung Fu”, the call-and response “whoa-oh’s” with the enthusiastic Bristol crowd demonstrating those wide eyed boys from those 90’s Fleece days aren’t too far beneath the surface of the now late-30something Ash (a point later made by Tim, remarking, “[this venue] reminds me of the old Fleece And Firkin days! Does that place still exist??”). Justifiably buoyed by this roof-raising response, they hit their stride with the Ramones-like groove and falsetto chorus of a confidently delivered and surprisingly full-sounding “Cocoon”, segueing perfectly into rampaging oldie “Angel Interceptor”.
This was tonight’s modus operandi – new material from “Kablammo”, which sonically harks back to those expansive, anthemic “Free All Angels”/ “Meltdown” days, interspersed with singles and greatest hits from that period. Tim introduced “Evil Eye” with “We’ll do a song from “Meltdown” ‘cos it’s so fucking hot in here!”, and indeed the fans were on throughout, to little effect in this sweatbox. “Oh Yeah” saw a terrace chant finale, and Tim invited heckling before a tremendous, soaring “Machinery”, the best newie on show tonight. The inevitable “Girl From Mars” was dedicated to the sex doll on sale at the bar (!), and after a lengthy, effects-heavy “White Rabbit” (the only track from their recent “A-Z” collections on show tonight), “Shining Light” ultimately brought a sweaty, ragged but completely fun set to a close. The encore saw a great “Walking Barefoot” before they tackled a cover of “Teenage Kicks”, the boys delivering fellow Northern Ireland band The Undertones’ classic faithfully. An acerbic “Burn Baby Burn” concluded the evening, Tim saluting the crowd with his Flying V guitar and the band taking a collective – and deserved – bow, after a splendid set which I spent rocking out and singing along to. Great stuff – as I mentioned, it baffles me why they never broke it really big, but on tonight’s evidence, there’s still time...
And BTW, I went for a set-list but was unsuccessful this time... typical, really, as I strike out quite a lot with Ash, for some odd reason. Seen 'em 14 times, got 1 set-list!