“I always wanted a job like yours. It sounds like fun,” says a charismatic woman with jet-black hair to my photographer friend. “It is fun,” he smiles.

Jim has a photo of Wishbone Ash’s frontman Andy Powell which he shot back in the early 70s. “Drumming Jen” is beaming over his shoulder.

I guess it takes her back.

”Fitzgerald’s is like a home to me,” she says.

He only started wearing the baseball cap when he got my hairline,” says a middle-aged man accompanied by his wife and twenty-something daughter.

He explains that his wife had to be talked into coming tonight, but his daughter loves these jam bands. Faithfully coming to see the band for more than 35 years, at the Aragon Ball Room and Rib Fest, too, he’s even run into former musician friends – he’s a musician, too.

It’s a packed house this evening at Fitzgerald’s in suburban Berwyn, twenty minutes from downtown Chicago. The door guy looks like American folk singer Woody Guthrie’s son Arlo. His shoulder-length, chalk-white hair waddles down his neck. My name somehow escaped the guest list though I had two letters proving that I should be there.

“You’re the press. I believe you. We love the press,” he says. But, he asks me to wait while he checks IDs and stamps hands.

We get it straight and later on in the evening he tells me he’s from the east coast. “No one in Chicago has an IQ of over 80,” he laughs. He also says we’re all brusque.

“So now you know I’m not a terrorist?” I respond back; retaliating for his scrutiny, once it’s discovered I’m legit.

But, aside from the repartee with this amusing gatekeeper, I have to admit we Chicagoans are brusque or at the very least loud.

The famed British band starts just about promptly at 9. The screams and hoots of approval are already coagulating – the massive crowd magically thickens – as if a chef had added cornstarch to a pan of anonymous ingredients and brought it to life.

Wishbone Ash features Andy Powell; a man who couldn’t afford his first electric guitar, so simply made one himself. His family was fond of motorcycle trips. Ironically the Harley Davidson Company has sponsored the band’s latest UK tour.

Powell is the last man standing in a group which, after over four decades of performance and periodic member turn-over, may seem to have connections to the Witness Protection Program.

In 1969 Powell answered an ad in the magazine 'Melody Maker' after hearing that founding members Martin Turner and Steve Upton were auditioning guitar players. Powell and another guitarist Ted Turner made such a favorable impression that they were both hired.

But that outcome was not just a lesson in diplomacy – the phenomenon of ”twin guitars” would take shape – a strategy also employed by the Allman Brothers - but when incorporated by Wishbone Ash, a more identifiable and sophisticated twist transpired. Melodic lines played in tandem, but harmonically; that was the theory, and in practice it’s hypnotic.

Like watching chess, tennis or other competitive sports involving a high intellect and keen senses, it’s impossible not to fixate on the ferocious, flight that takes place as the fumbling fingers of Powell duel with those of his colleague and alternate guitarist Muddy Manninen.

Each one starts at opposite ends of the fret board; each one declares a statement with the confidence and stance of a Samurai warrior. It’s not so much a battle of the bands, per se, it’s a battle of the psyches.

But, then there’s reality. We’re smushed together, though happily united in the heat of the moment.

“How ‘ya doing?” Powell shouts. His mighty and proud American Eagle image belies his uber Cockney roots. Slightly aloof, he arranges himself between bassist Bob Skeat and Manninen.

Skeat’s rubbed elbows with the likes of Princess Stephanie of Monaco. Observing his casual demeanour, I can’t quite imagine him amongst the casinos and minks that hallmark that principality. But, a hard-working musician, he enjoys the challenging thrill of playing bass with Wishbone Ash because he’s often asked to actually play a harmony-line, rather than just the traditional chord outlines expected.

Skeat is not the quintessential moody and mysterious bassist. Instead, he grins generously from start to finish of each song. Juxtaposing Powell’s more sober expression, his luminous smiles make the Mona Lisa look like a manic-depressive.

The first song up, ‘Pilgrim’, is rugged and manly. The band moves continually and they play several false endings much to the crowd’s delight.

Men, men, men; some look like retired postal workers and some definitely look like bikers who threw in the towel for a mortgage and lawn mower. All shapes and sizes; but there don’t seem to be jocks here tonight. Lots of mid-west flannel and denim reign. A surplus of beer bellies are present, as well. But, each one, in his own way, stares at Powell like he’s the Messiah.

“Smoking unbelievable time signatures,” says the dad. I can’t argue.

But, ‘Wedge’ percolates further. “So easy to get caught in the game” Powell sings. The twin riffs are juicy; clear, concise and abstractly articulate. This secret language struggles to come out through the strings.

The band oozes with ease into the contrasting section. Powell’s voice is mellow and tinged with a slight edge of cobblestone.

The guy with the daughter points to drummer Joe Crabtree, who replaced Ray Weston in March 2007. Crabtree plays progressive rock and jazz expertly. He holds a degree in physics and teaches at the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford, UK.

But, according to the guy with the daughter, Crabtree can be summed up this way, “Drummer’s younger than my daughter. I don’t believe he can be in here legally.”

Powell, in his clear booming voice, announces, “We’re gonna scramble down and bring you some songs.”

‘Sometime World’ starts out as a bluesy ballad, then the pleasant vocal harmonies careen into riff-heavy clangs of sharp melodic jam. It turns out to be a lengthy epic; a Viking saga. In fact, it’s the timelessness that makes the songs so seductive. No one’s on a watch or checking an I pod.

After this the brilliant wa-wa screams like a petulant newborn. Classic rock follows with full-tilt fury. ‘Kingdom Come’ imbues loads of interaction between the lads. A souped-up bonanza between Manninen and Powell could make timid hamsters in a corner engage in a cat fight. The false endings create a scrim of suspense and what results is a fog that won’t fade until that recapitulating hook evaporates the crippling vapors.

The loudest applause of the night follow. ‘Throw Down The Sword’ ignites a bright-edged intro. Again, it’s transfixing to witness these two guitarists scaling the notes from opposite ends of this merry-go-round. Powell’s veneer slowly derails. Little by little, the biker image dissolves. He breaks into smiles and his eyes glisten while he plays.

In contrast, ‘Lady Jay’ is more stylized, but a healthy choice. ‘Front Page’ detours again. Truculent bass-line melds, like industrial steel, against Powell’s intonations. Excitedly, taken back somewhere fantastical, Powell declares, “Celebrating 40 years as a band.”

‘The Way of The World’ is the last song of this set. Andy assumes a stately presence. He wails “way of the world” in a snarly lament. The bridge builds until he sings with more innocence, “Carry me.”

The voice floats over the room like lush waves. The crowd murmurs the lyrics. The bodies below the stage rock like adrift buoys. A patchwork quilt of chords convene, then. Crabtree breaks into a riveting solo. This is the night of the rock male. Gristly goatees and caps swerved to the side; hearty chuckles, and album covers cursing to be signed…

A gripping leit motet circulates the room. The crowd may be loud and maybe the collective IQ doesn’t match that of the east coast glamour boys, but this is a listening crowd – a loyal crowd.

The second set begins and Powell is now more casually dressed. Wearing a checkered cotton shirt, he dives right into the lively mob. “I Can’t Wait For You to Get Started” he screams. He wears dark shades. The unmistakable fragrance of something illegal wafts through the room, and it blends with the body heat.

“It’s the nature of the beast,” sings Powell. Rapid-fire notes, chugga chugga, rapid-fire notes, chugga, chugga…’Engine’ is full-force and the bevy of catatonic men drink it up like nectar from the summer’s last remaining flower.

‘Reason to Believe’ moves in yet another direction. Dreamy pop vocals cut against Powell’s edgy voice, astonishingly, also keep the energy fully throttled.

“Someone’s getting high,” whispers a nameless fan. The Kelly green visual on the drum-kit looks harsh and surreal, like Shrek, in the dim light. The ceiling fan flails through the sweat-drenched, pot-imbued ground floor.

“Low moans/Fire in her eyes,” Powell sings. Powell plays the guitar like it’s a fragile mandolin. The fills of the alternate guitar are welcoming.

“Are you having a good time?” Powell asks.

“Was that good or was that GOOD?” asks the guy behind me.

There is a discipline to Wishbone Ash. Maybe even a formula; a swarthy intro, a gripping build, then a harmonic interchange, which leads to an emotional confession. No, it’s not just a litany of melodic patterns. It’s a spiritual moment.

Manninen champions the high register – and like a loyal pair of beat cops – they work fastidiously with no time to lose. Some more rhythm happens while Powell sings, “I’m wondering why your face don’t want to shine.” Bundles of call and response, lots of blues…

A huge drum roll begins ‘Phoenix.’ A lithe melody streams. Powell has a weepy quality in his voice. Tension builds with each verse.

By now, these “twin” machinations are expected. A few notes serve as a tease, then a bombardment of notes filled with tragic innuendo follow. Crabtree’s drum solo shows off his more than decent chops. The drums go African. Skeat claps his hand above the crowd. They signify back.

There are a few moments after the band leaves where the tension builds and what starts out as simple requests boil beneath the surface. Could there be a brawl? I almost pray the band plays an encore.

Whispers of “Blowing Free” scatter. But, the voices grow louder and louder.

“This is a song everybody knows,” shouts Powell, hopefully not aware of the esoteric hints of hostility. There are lovely shades of lullaby in the song before it heaves up like the mysterious Loch Ness.

A country-infused tune follows and then the finale is the folky ‘Blind Eye.’

Powell, on the Wishbone Ash website, appears to not just tolerate us, but like us. He says, “I love Chicago – a fine city full of down to earth honest folks (at least at our shows.) Three encores and people without tickets were turned away at the door unfortunately.”

Were they turned away for being too loud and having an IQ of under 80? I’m dying to ask. But, then, who would be left and how would east-coast Arlo make the cut?

Photos by Jim Summaria www.jimsummariaphoto.com

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