A R T I C L E S
a n d I N T E R V I E W S
Sounds, 28 April 1973
Blowin' Free in the Windy City
There are probably more wisecracks sprung about gigging in Kansas City among English rock and roll bands than any other town in America. Last week the Wishbone Ash/Vinegar Joe entourage, now into their fourth week of a US tour, played the city’s Cowtown Ballroom and it was an occasion which the gent from MCA Records said had had the local kids on edge for weeks and accordingly the gig had sold out almost as soon as the tickets had gone on sale.
As it happened, though, no one connected with the tour particularly relished the thought of playing Kansas. Wishbone had appeared there all three of their previous American working trips and had obviously built up a strong following throughout the whole of the Midwest but as Steve Upton dryly commented in his Holiday Inn room after the band had completed a sound check on the afternoon of the gig, Midwest audiences in keeping with the apparent singularity of attitude of the area, appreciate little in the way of subtleties or inventiveness in the music they were paying five dollars to hear. “Hey man, boogie. We wanna boogie, c’mon man, get it on,” Steve drawled in the appropriate accent.
“It pisses you off, you know, especially when you’re trying to communicate on a different level altogether. We played a gig a couple of nights ago with Humble Pie and they were exactly what the kids in that particular town wanted to hear. We went on first but it was only like a half-baked set because we were getting this boogie shit thrown at us. It doesn’t happen too much because we’re big enough now to fill a hall with kids who are into the band on all levels but when it does happen it annoys me like hell.”
The Cowtown Ballroom and its clientele hangs pretty loose but what it lacks in any kind of finesse the audiences make up in sheer enthusiasm. First on were Vinegar Joe who clearly found a comfortable niche with the cowboys early on in the set and subsequently had little trouble in relating their hardline belting rhythms to the mood of the audience. Elkie Brooks took time out to tell them three quarters of the way through the set that for Joe playing in Kansas had been a gas: “I wish more audiences had it in them to shake their asses like you do,” Elkie bawled. The effect that particular line would have on this particular audience was, of course, a guarnteed success but it gave a good idea as to just how well suited Vinegar Joe are to playing to American audiences.
Later Elkie, sweating buckets in the rough comfort of a small dressing room and fighting the effects of a heavy head cold which she bemoaned had been brewing for days, after Joe had come off and a local seven piece countryish outfit had taken the stage to fill in time before Wishbone’s appearance confirmed her earlier sentiments thus: “That lot were really amazing. I mean this is going to be a long gig for them with three pretty energetic bands playing one after the other but I bet they’re still on their feet at the end of the night. I mean, nobody’s crashing or getting tired the way a lot of English audiences do, they’re just leaping all the time. The energy level is about the highest I’ve seen anywhere,” and Elkie’s words were fully borne out an hour and a half later when Wishbone finally did make their appearance to a cacophony of hoots and yells which belied the lateness of the hour and the ever increasing swelter in the auditorium.
Wishbone Ash operating in front of American audiences is a completely different animal to the way they approach British gigs. In this country they have always exuded a certain calm reserve, often mistaken for aloofness, and accordingly they’ve always enjoyed a peculiarly clean cut respect which emanates chiefly through the consistency and faultlessness of their music, both live and on all of their four albums.
But Kansas City obviously knew nothing about that for the vibe that here was a major English rock and roll band in town and that was occasion enough to let the flags fly a little for in Kansas especially the mystique surrounding anything as foreign as a rock band all the way from England is mighty powerful.
The set that followed was scrappy by Wishbone’s standards, the finer points in many of the songs being blunted by an audience who wanted mainly to boogie. The atmosphere, though, remained pleasant, if not ideal, throughout the entire set. Especially well received were ‘Jailbait’, ‘Warrior’ and ‘Throw Down The Sword’, the latter two numbers merging into a brilliantly conceived suite and is the kind of thing which is indicative of Wishbone Ash at their best.
All through his time on stage Andy Powell was dogged by tuning problems caused by the sheer body heat being generated by the audience. Consequently much of the sweeter moments were palled by a few sour harmonies between Andy and Ted Turner who was also fighting a battle against string condensation.
At the conclusion of the allotted 180 minutes a couple of encores were squeezed out of the group by the still wide awake audience but it was with a noticeable measure of reticence that they complied. It had been at once both a good and a bad gig and back in the dressing rooms thoughts eventually became focussed on a return to the superficiality of the Holiday Inn and sleep before the early afternoon flight to the next gig in Chicago.
Chicago has to be one of the most unpleasant cities on this planet. Its overall feel is overtly oppressive and the mood is reflected in the morose faces of its uptight populace. It was, however, one of the most vital gigs for Wishbone on the tour for ever since they first toured America two years ago, Chicago has been a stronghold for the group and this time as headliners would give a precise indication just as to how much Wishbone meant in terms of drawing power.
Once again local FM radio stations had been plugging both scheduled Chicago concerts for some weeks before the event and the previous week they’d been given a golden plug in the Chicago Sun Times, one of the city’s main daily publications, with a full page spread full of fax and info about the coming gig along with interviews with Steve Upton and Andy Powell.
It crossed my mind that Chicago, a famed place for its many excellent jazz and blues artists, might not be totally in sympathy with Wishbone’s ultra white rock and roll forms but once again the news was that both evenings at the Kinetic Playground had sold out in double quick time.
A week before the Wishbone concerts Beck, Bogart and Appice had reportedly played a poor set which had incensed many established Chicagoan Jeff Beck fans and the same weekend more trouble had ensued after the doors were locked on an Alice Cooper concert with around a thousand punters left pounding the doors trying to get into the hall.
“Chicago,” explained Miles Copeland, Wishbone’s tornado-like manager, “is a place where the kids get uptight very easily which in turn makes the police extra uptight and that’s why there’s always bound to be trouble of some kind at rock and roll gigs. The kids in Chicago and Detroit are probably the hardest of any other town in America. They know what they want to see and hear and if they get it it can be great but if they’re not getting what they paid for, you’re going to get big trouble.”
The Kinetic Playground is a converted factory and the main auditorium is a huge barn of a place with minimal pleasantness. The absence of a bar is an obvious safety measure, though it seemed to matter little with the omnipresent stench of grass wafting freely among the sardine packed hoard.
The first concert took place on Saturday evening and again it was Vinegar Joe who opened the bill. After a set which never really got off to any great degree despite wild enthusiasm from out front the band returned to the dressing room and immediately began making inroads into the crates of Budweiser beer, a seemingly all important requisite if rock bands while touring, though the beverage’s reputation among musicians varies dramatically.
The middle band of both nights at the Playground was Barnstorm, a relatively new five-piece led by ex-James Gang founder Joe Walsh. Barnstorm deal mainly in that kind of spaced out rock that Americans have come to savour with no lack of zeal. Joe Walsh was obviously well loved, though a few of his extended guitar solos and tricks with the wah-wah pedal were instrumental in drawing more bored looks from the audience than was comfortable.
On both nights they played carbon-copy sets and, despite a few shortcomings, managed to instil into the audience some sort of energy which was all their own.
By necessity Wishbone’s first night in Chicago was a vast improvement on the Kansas gig. Everything seemed to be on a more professional level and it was also the first real taste of seeing the group as a major attraction to American rock fans.
The adrenalin from both band and audience ran high throughout the entire set which opened with a slightly faster than usual ‘Time Was’, a perfect vehicle for the showcase drumming of Steve Upton to shine through. Upton’s style has in the past year become sharper and crisper and he has also studied well the technique of dynamism and what to play to gain maximum effect. His relationship with Martin Turner on bass has grown accordingly with Turner also turning in sterling bass licks and his usual highly sensitive vocal handling never far from prominence.
The pressure on the group throughout the whole of Saturday’s appearance manifested itself in the way they detached themselves from the audience at certain points when they desired a song to have the fullest impact possible. In this respect Wishbone have always been one of the hardest working bands – striving to get across points in their music when they feel to be imperitive to the number’s overall effect. Both ‘Doctor’ and ‘Ballad of the Beacon’ being prime examples of this from the group’s new album Wishbone Four, already released in America and due for release in this country soon.
Another of the group’s strong points is the growing talent of Ted Turner. Previously he’d worked almost hand in glove with Andy Powell concentrating mainly on complimenting Powell’s high pressure playing with his naturally more laid back solo and chord work. Now, however, Ted seems to be blossoming into a full talent in his own right. His vocal contribution on Steve Upton’s ‘Rock and Roll Widow’ is excellent as his phrasing is vaguely reminiscent of latter day Steve Winwood and on this song generally, the entire band are superbly laid back.
Also included in the current set is another song from Wishbone Four titled ‘Sorrel’ which precedes the pomposity of ‘The King Will Come’, a number which epitomises Wishbone Ash past, present and possibly their future too.
The last song of the set was ‘Phoenix’, which fittingly drew the most appreciative reaction from the still entranced Chicagoans. The number represents the peak of the act and as such is a might powerful closer. Martin Turner’s intense vocals soar above the solid rhythm work generated by the rest of the band, though on Saturday the intensity of the gig seemed to have robbed Martin of the ability to hit a few of the higher notes he needs during the slow opening chorus of the song.
The following day a music critic headlined his glowing review of the concert: “British Conquer Chicago”, a fair enough comment and one which was just as big a compliment to Vinegar Joe as it was to Wishbone, The second gig in the Windy City was a great deal more relaxed than its predecessor, though again Andy Powell’s guitar was difficult to keep in tune and this in turn gave rise to a couple of awkward moments. It’s the kind of problem that a band like Wishbone Ash can well do without for everything about them is so finely attuned to precision that the slightest problems created by an out of sorts guitar can ruin the feel of a number almost totally.
The Chicago concerts fulfilled the tour moved on to Milwaukee and perhaps more relaxing surroundings. Either way, though, Wishbone Ash this time round have cracked America wide open. Next, please.