It is two decades since Ash last stormed the stage of the 02 Forum in Kentish Town, London.
The Northern Irish trio have come a long way since Downpatrick County and the Penny Farthing pub on Donegall Street, where they first started out in 1992.
Tonight is the last gig of their seven-date UK tour to promote their recently released seventh (if you do not count the mini album “Trailer” from 1994) studio album, “Islands”, which dropped in May this year and made the UK Top 20.
The 2,300 capacity venue was rammed tonight, with the crowds turning up early to catch the entire show; starter and mains.
The venue was built in 1934, originally used as an Art Deco cinema. After the cinema was closed, the venue re-opened as an Irish dance hall called The Forum. It then became the music venue, The Town and Country Club before going back to its Forum name.
The evening kicked off with Oslo-based power punks Death by Unga Bunga, who recently celebrated 10 years on the music scene with the release of “So Far, So Good, So Cool”.
One of the striking things about the band is that lead singer Sebastian Ulstad Olsen looks more like a 70’s Geography teacher, while drummer Ole Stenar Nesset sits bare-chested in a sleeveless-denim jacket, sporting impressive lamb chop sideburns.
But looks aside, these guys mean business musically with their guitar-heavy performance. Nesset holds his own on the drums while Sebastian, Stian Gulbrandsen, Preben Salid Andersen and bassist Even Rolland Pettersen make a powerful noise on guitars.
Throughout their performance, the energy remains electric, there’s guitar riffs a-plenty and the drums are unrelentingly fierce. The front man wastes no time getting up close and personal with the audience and leaps into the pit and then into the crowd, early on in their set, still singing into his mike and darting about like a crazy man.
Olsen’s showmanship was kind of awkward, but possessed that borderline cockiness expected from a front man. But just when you think that he is going to monopolise the set, his fellow guitarists take up lead vocal duties alternately.
Initially so much was thrown into the opening song that one wondered if there was an essence of “peaking too early”, their screaming vocals getting louder, their wall of guitars amped-up to the maximum, strobe lights galore and the whole sound uber mosh-worthy.
Their strength seemed to lie in their guitar prowess and their personality. Clearly all accomplished guitarists and showmen, at one stage swinging their instruments behind their heads while shredding the instantly recognisable main riff of Thin Lizzy’s classic “The Boys Are Back In Town”.
Their express buffet of songs, although delivered with verve, stuck to the tram lines of their particular genre and did perhaps veer into “samey”; giving the impression they were holding back on what they are actually capable of. Especially given that they supported punk rock legends Stiff Little Fingers on their 40th anniversary in the US last year and apparently went down a storm.
Scanning the packed room, the crowd is of a varied demographic, across many age groups; from late teens to the white-haired more mature, but the predominant age probably averaged around early to mid-thirties. Confirmation that Ash has navigated through the 90’s and 00’s and not only retained its core fan-base, but also added new and younger fans too.
The band’s singer and guitarist Tim Wheeler cracks open their set with “True Story” from “Islands”, an album which has moved away from being heavily science-fiction influenced, like their earlier work “Girl from Mars”, their 1994 hit which established them into the mainstream.
You don’t spend this amount of time in the industry weathering the trials, tribulations, set-backs and pressures (financial and otherwise) of the fickle music business without tweaking the formula for success and survival more than once!
After their 2007 album, “Twilight Of Innocents” failed to dent the British Top 10 album chart, the first of their albums not to do so up to that point, Mr Wheeler decided they would then only release downloadable singles.
This led to the band taking a back seat from their very visible presence, to create the 26-part “A-Z” series. This download-only singles series highlighted the band’s experimentation with different genres to adapt to a new generation and to attract a new audience. But in 2015, they did make a new album, “Kablammo!”.
Tonight, Wheeler, Hamilton (bassist) and McMurray (drummer) are completely self-absorbed in their music. For them, the crowd aren’t an ego boost, but flies on a wall experiencing the same emotions and focus on the music alone, that they themselves feel.
Ash’s trademark quality sound is all over “Islands’” – aptly named after the creative process of the material having been composed on various different islands; including Ireland, Mallorca and Japan’s Naoshima.
Guitar riffs, drum solos and catchy lyrics, resulting in the whole room getting into a sing-a-long mode. Familiar favourites such as the Ivor Novello winner, 2011’s “Shining light”, and the aforementioned smash hit “Girl from Mars”, a reminder of the trio’s earlier sound.
Despite the venue being sold out and packed, the band managed to create an intimate ambience, where they were totally in the moment and maybe channelling the vibe they got back in Ireland, back in the day in some small rehearsal room or back street boozer. Relaxed and swigging a beer on stage in-between songs, but never to a degree that compromised their skills or the overall performance.
Their impressive track “Buzzkill”, in a similar vein to something you may expect from the Sex Pistols… Sweary and aggressive instrumentally.
On the third from last song of the main set before the deserved encore, they deliver a blistering version of the classic and timeless, “Teenage Kicks”, the late John Peel’s all-time fave song, underpinned by backing vocals by none other than Irish punk legend Damian O’Neill from legendary band The Undertones, the young guys who wrote (in 1977) and recorded (in 1978) that same killer song.
The final song of the set, was the 2001 hit “Burn Baby Burn”, which went down well. The band didn’t leave the stage for the obligatory encore, but invited the support band on for the first of the three-song encore. Ash has a reputation for a keen eye when choosing support bands, having been previously supported by Snow Patrol, usually leaning towards Northern Irish upstarts being given a brotherly leg-up.
The lack of hierarchy between support and headliner was writ large during the rocked-up ensemble performance of Abba’s “Does Your Mama Know”, the first encore song. This classic song executed in true Ash style, a nod to their 2012 EP “Little Infinity”.
Death By Unga Bunga and the three Ash guys had great fun on stage, which culminated in the spectacle of two of the support outfit, Olsen and Anderson, and Ash front man Tim Wheeler, crowd surfing across the venue.
While Ash bass guitarist Mark Hamilton leaped into the crowd to help his band mate stay prostate and safe above the sea of heads and smiling faces. Guitar still playing, microphone still live, as this organised mayhem was captured on a mass of iPhones, while one Ash member and the rest of the support band held the fort musically back on stage. The punters loved it.
Ash then all back in one place, gave us two final songs, “Waking Barefoot” and “Lose Control”, before they make their exit, the shouts for more die down and we all trek into the cold night air after a really wonderful experience. Not just a gig, really special for all. Me included.
Although marinated with many Ash familarities, their current album dips its toes into funk and soul waters too, particularly with the excellent “Did Your Love Burn Out?”.
It would be fair to say that there’s nothing burned out about this band, and it is apparent they ain’t done exploring and moving forward, and are not looking back or trading on past glories.
The global love for Ash isn’t likely to burn out any time soon either, by the looks of it… The band tour Australia, Japan and Europe in November, before three dates in Ireland (Cork, Dublin and Belfast) in December.
Words: Chloe Lauren
Photos: Alex Asprey