Ash : Birmingham Academy

All in all, it's a strong contender for gig of the year...

In the hysteria surrounding [a]Strokes[/a] and the [a]White Stripes[/a], it’s been easy to overlook the extraordinary return of Britpop survivors [a]Ash[/a]. But really, they’ve had a hell of year. Third album ‘Free All Angels’ has sold a quarter of a million copies, spawning four hit singles. There has been a string of sold-out tours. There’s been hilarious feuds with Louis Walsh and [a]Starsailor[/a]. And somewhere along the line, [a]Ash[/a] have become one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands on the planet.

They know it, too. It’s abundantly obvious tonight that are having the time of their lives. As they thrash their way through an amazing 27 songs, their enthusiasm doesn’t subside for a second. Tim Wheeler even manages to create a sense of occasion, announcing that it’s drummer Rick McMurray’s birthday. When you learn that he’s lying, you realise how perfectly the man’s honed his rock’n’roll flourishes. He wears a [a]Lou Reed[/a] T-shirt and

plays a flying V. Clearly, the man’s a star.

Tonight’s main set includes a full eleven songs from ‘Free All Angels’, it nonetheless resembles a greatest hits package. The pace ebbs and flows between the lush, Bacharach-inspired soundscapes of ‘Candy’ and ‘There’s A Star’ and the searing punk-pop of ‘Burn Baby Burn’ and ‘Walking Barefoot’, but there’s no lull, and no one strays from the moshpit until heat exhaustion sets in. You see, the beauty of [a]Ash[/a] is that though the songs can address any topic – from murdering your girlfriend (‘Nicole’), to sado-masochistic sex ( ‘Submission’), to simply being in love ( ‘Shining Light’) – they never shy away from delivering that killer chorus. For [a]Ash[/a], being lonely and depressed is not an excuse for writing dull [a]Jeff Buckley[/a] homages.

Amid the many highlights of ‘Free All Angels’, there are also some not-so-subtle reminders of how good [a]Ash[/a] have always been, even if it did go a bit wonky for them, commercially, circa ‘Nu-Clear Sounds’. The evergreen ‘A Life Less Ordinary’ gets an early airing, and there’s a neat irony in its despairing tone (‘I’ll sell my soul/What is it worth?’). ‘Angel Interceptor’, ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘Girl From Mars’ are confirmed as cast-iron power-pop classics – that Wheeler wrote them at 17 beggars belief. But it’s a glorious souped-up version of ‘Kung Fu’ that really blows holes in the roof tonight. During the agonising ‘quiet bit’, Wheeler screams “Are you ready!” over and over in true stadium rock fashion, and when the track explodes back into life, you half expect a riot to erupt.

Victory has already been declared by the time they leave the stage after ‘World Domination’ (which seems a realistic prospect, tonight). But somehow, [a]Ash[/a] manage to go up a gear for their extraordinary eight-song encore, which features a distinctly oddball selection of tracks. There are grinding, metallic versions of ‘Projects’ and ‘Jesus Says’, both of which invite a re-appraisal of the unfairly dismissed ‘Nu-Clear Sounds’. There’s an obscenely heavy version of Weezer’s ‘Only In Dreams’, which, during its blazing finale, features some heavy flirting between Wheeler and Charlotte Hatherley. More surprisingly, there is a spirited, straightforward cover of The Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’ (“the best song ever to come out of Northern Ireland… apart from some of our own”). And by the time they sign off with a stop-start, electrifying ‘Numbskull’, [a]Ash[/a] have proved that while they’re unashamedly populist, they retain that crucial element of surprise.

All in all, it’s a strong contender for gig of the year. It’s amazing to think that this time last year, [a]Ash[/a] were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and extinction – because now, they seem utterly invincible.

Niall O’Keeffe