Ash & Brand New Friend
Friday 20th December 2018 – Limelight 1, Belfast
After a year of touring their latest album Islands, Downpatrick three-piece Ash return home to a packed-out Limelight to play their last show of 2018 for friends, family and everyone in-between.
Opening for the band is Brand New Friend, no strangers to a large crowd after a year of skyrocketing success. The local pop-rock heroes shared three categories with headliners Ash in 2018’s NI Music Prize: Album of the Year, Best Single and Best Live Act respectively. Their set builds out of the strongest tracks from debut album Seatbelts For Aeroplanes and earlier 2016 EP American Wives, with frontman Taylor Johnson at the front, channelling a 90s alt-rock energy and confidence that both rivals and sets the stage for the headliners. Classically-trained singer and pianist Lauren, gives a passionate performance on keys and backup vocals. Brand New Friend perform with an energy and style well beyond their years, lending balance to their deeply confessional and emotionally powerful songwriting. The band close by announcing a three-date residency in Belfast’s American Bar in the new year, back-to-back each night.
Before long, Tim Wheeler, Rick McMurray and Mark Hamilton take to the stage. Ash have come a long way from universally-ridiculed Iron Maiden cover band ‘Vietnam’ to international rock success story. Their BPI Platinum-certified debut album 1977 cemented the band as some of the greatest musicians of their generation and left a legacy for smalltown bedroom/garage/basement-rockers everywhere that there’s no limit to how far they can take their dreams. It’s easy to overlook the emotional depth of Islands when faced with the confidence, humour and personality of the band on stage. At its core, a breakup album, Islands is a heartfelt overview of lost links, regret, grief, and hope for the future.
Eleven years after announcing they would ‘never make another album’, the band hasn’t been lazy by any means, putting out 26 singles between 2009-10 as part of the band’s ambitious A-Z project and 2015’s album Kablammo! Relentless tracks like ‘Buzzkill’ interrogate their home’s punk-heritage, drawing links to Stiff Little Fingers and The Undertones, with band members from the latter featuring on the album version itself. ‘Don’t Let Your Love Burn Out’ is a bluesy, scorching confessional. Voted ‘Most Underrated Song of All Time’ by bassist Mark in an interview ahead of the album’s initial launch, ‘Confessions By The Pool’ demonstrates an emotional depth that still highlights Tim Wheeler as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation.
Ash remain a band that makes it look all-to-easy: from the unapologetic, motorised rhythms of ‘Orpheus’ (which gets its own drum solo, courtesy of Larne-native Rick McMurray) and confident, crowd-pleaser ‘Oh Yeah’ – the namesake of Belfast’s Oh Yeah Centre venue. Stu Bailie, co-founder of the venue with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody, bobs his head in the crowd. Good humour stays at the core of the band’s philosophy, Islands’ subtle Star Wars reference ‘It’s A Trap’ is extended into an impressive full-band rendition of the Cantina Song. The album Islands’ cover art itself is an inverted depiction of the Skellig Island, a key filming location in the latest Star Wars movies.
As the set draws to a close, the band gives the crowd a choice for the obligatory Christmas singalong – Cliff Richard or Wham! As the crowd boos poor old Cliff, Tim Wheeler fights the corner: “Hey, Mistletoe and Wine is great!”. Opening with Mark’s delicate, beautiful falsetto (read: I’d had a few by this point) the room erupts into an electrifying festive singalong. Shortly after leaving the stage the crowd demands the band’s return, and they happily oblige. Bringing out friends, loved ones, and supporters Brand New Friend. Tim gives a shout-out to his Mum Rosalind, his number-one fan seated VIP with a full view of the stage. The band close the night surrounded by family who doubles up as confident singers and backup dancers, giving an unforgettable performance. The gig ends and the crowd moves out, with the band swiftly moving on to Menagerie to join Skibunny and Documenta in some impromptu Christmas classics singalongs to draw a close to a truly unforgettable year of music. After seeing it on stage, alive and well, it’s safe to say the love hasn’t, and won’t, burnt out.