Ash returned to Manchester on Thursday night for what feels like an annual tradition of a gig at The Ritz. Celebrating the reissue of their third album Free All Angels with a show performing the album in full with selected added tracks as an encore and with then-guitarist Charlotte Hatherley guesting on the tour, they delighted a packed crowd with a set full of their usual energy and memorable singalong tracks from one of Britpop's defining bands. Support came from The Gulps.
The Gulps’ opening half-hour set is full of energy and excitement at playing in such a legendary room in a city whose music appears to have inspired them given Harry’s between song declarations. Singles Stuck In The City and King Of The Disco get ripples of recognition but they’re playing to a room primarily watching them for the first time. However, as the crowd grows as the set progresses so does rhe strength of the reception they get as the energy on stage transmits to the audience.
Free All Angels starts with its three best-known tracks, a phenomenon of the late 90s to frontload albums with singles with little thought for the continuity and build of an album. Tim references this at the end of the last of the three, Burn Baby Burn, when he jokes they usually finish the set on it so they almost walked off. Like most of these album retrospectives the audience reaction away from the mosh pit in the centre dips a little with the less familiar tracks but Free All Angels is a very consistent album in terms of pace and the quality doesn't really drop at all across its thirteen tracks and we find ourselves surrounded by people mouthing every word of the album that, looking at the demographic, was one of the defining records of that time and one that re-established Ash after Nu-Clear Sounds didn't quite maintain the momentum of their debut 1977.
Charlotte Hatherley has returned to Ash for this short series of shows and she fits in like she hasn't been away. There's a consistency to Ash live, but one that never gets boring. There's none of the staged interaction between band members that you get at a lot of shows, each of them is doing their own thing, but the sum of the parts is greater. Tim still has that boyish youthful charm and unbounding energy and a constant smile across his face, Mark is lost in his own world playing out his axe-hero fantasies while doing the best job in the world and Rick, hidden away at the back, is the powerhouse. Charlotte, for her part, oozes the cool seeming indifference she always did until right at the very end as they take their encore bows. Sonically she adds weight to these songs that a three-piece on its own couldn't achieve.
The second half of the set is a collection of songs that Tim tells us they had to relearn and rehearse because they haven't played many of them for a while. Another reason why Ash don't get boring and they continue to fill venues like this - some of their contemporaries come back every year with the same set with a couple of tweaks and it's quite tedious. They start with Numbskull which Tim turns into a screaming competition between each band member in turn and the audience before introducing A Life Less Ordinary as the first song they recorded with Charlotte. Their cover of The Hell's Warmer Than Fire follows, a curveball as the audience around us don't seem to know it as well, a track released for free online when such things were a novelty just before Free All Angels was released.
It's followed by Clones and Orpheus from Free All Angels' heavier follow-up and Charlotte's last recorded output with the band before Wild Surf from its predecessor Nu-Clear Sounds. They then leave us with a blistering Kung Fu that has the mosh pit bouncing heavier than ever. There's no way that the Manchester crowd is going to allow them to leave it at that though and they come back for a two-song finale. Projects, again from Nu-Clear Sounds, is probably not the most obvious choice for the first one but it's them paying respect to the fact that Charlotte's here and the show should focus on her time in the band. They send everyone out buzzing with a final Girl From Mars before taking their final bows as a four-piece.
Ash prove that as a living thriving band that's still releasing new material that you can do these album retrospective shows and not be going through the motions. Their love of what they're doing is self-evident for anyone to see and that transmits itself and is amplified by the audience.
Ash played Walking Barefoot, Shining Light, Burn Baby Burn, Candy, Cherry Bomb, Submission, Someday, Pacific Palisades, Shark, Sometimes, Nicole, There's A Star, World Domination, Numbskull, A Life Less Ordinary, Warmer Than Fire (Little Hell cover), Clones, Orpheus, Wild Surf, Kung Fu, Projects and Girl From Mars.