Back on home turf, the indie legends give a high-speed performance of their greatest hits
It’s a great time to be an Ash fan. The Downpatrick rockers, despite being mostly based in New York these days, now play their homeland more often than at any time since they were starting out in the pubs and clubs.
The Ulster indie legends seem to be on a three-man mission to tick off every venue in Northern Ireland. Over the past couple of years, they’ve played the Spring & Airbrake, the Empire Music Hall, Custom House Square, the Portrush Playhouse and even the tiny – by their standards – Oh Yeah Music Centre.
This evening they’re back at one of their many stomping grounds, the Ulster Hall, to celebrate Arthur’s Day – and no doubt collect a hefty cheque from Diageo in the process. They’re also squeezing in a 'secret' show later, at Lavery’s – probably the smallest gig they’ll have played since about 1994.
As the Ulster Hall fills up, the event has all the trappings of a corporate shindig, from the all-pervading Guinness branding to the tottering party girls tapping their high heels to ‘Girl from Mars’.
Master of ceremonies Pete Snodden from Cool FM encourages us to raise a glass to ‘the man who gave Guinness to the world’, neatly sidestepping the national blight of alcoholism and the fact that Ireland’s favourite tipple is now owned by a London company.
Ash are due onstage at 5.59pm – 1759 being the year Arthur Guinness launched 'the black stuff' – but Snodden is still rambling at a couple of minutes past six. Clearly overwhelmed by the sense of occasion, he begins a countdown to 17:59 at 18:03, as several hundred people glance at their wrists in puzzlement.
Proceeds from tonight’s gigs will go to the Arthur Guinness Fund, to help Irish 'social entrepreneurs', though perhaps the first thing they should invest in is a working watch for Snodden. ‘Don’t you just love Arthur Guinness?’ he continues. Yes, yes – just get the band on.
Ash finally arrive at 18:04, and deliver a focused, 30-minute rampage through their illustrious back catalogue, dwelling mainly on the hits. Despite the rushed set-up, the performance boasts one of the best live sounds I’ve heard since the last time Motörhead shook this venue’s foundations.
‘Jack Names the Planets’, ‘Girl from Mars’ and ‘A Life Less Ordinary’ rattle out of the speakers. Mark Hamilton’s monstrous bass riffs and Tim Wheeler’s surprisingly searing guitar work keeping the assembled schmoozers on their toes.
Drummer Rick McMurray scowls as he powers things along, while touring rhythm guitarist Russell Lissack makes the most of his second-last gig with the band. ‘He keeps threatening to leave,’ jokes Wheeler.
‘Oh Yeah’ goes out to the frontman's Auntie Margie, waving from the balcony. ‘Kung Fu’ has the audience woah-ing along. ‘Shining Light’ and ‘Burn Baby Burn’ are dispatched as if to say to next act Kelis, 'Follow that.'
Now well into their thirties, Ash nevertheless remain vibrant and youthful-looking, even in the cold light of half past six. They’ll be back in Belfast in November, of course, for an Alzheimer’s benefit gig alongside the Divine Comedy and the Undertones. Just enough time for tonight’s crowd to recover from the inevitable hangover.
The Divine Comedy, Ash, and The Undertones with support from John D’Arcy will play the Alzheimer's Society Music Benefit in the Ulster Hall, Belfast on November 3, 2011. Tickets will go on sale on September 22. Further details can be found here.