Wishbone Ash

Empire Music Hall, Belfast

There was a time, as schoolboys of a certain vintage will doubtless recall, when knowing the line-up details of the more venerable British rock bands really meant something and, in the little musical fishpond of the age, the world was a happier, simpler place. But everything moves on, or just fades away, and 26 years after Argus - his (first and only) band's creative and commercial apogee - Andy Powell is looking the next millennium right in the eye and determinedly using pragmatism as a means of ensuring that those who care for it never lack for the live option of progressive rock at its best.

Four dates into a 45-date tour and it is the fourth time - though you'd never know it - that two of the latest recruits have played the songs in public. Bob Skeat, on bass, is as solid as old-school bass players should be, while Mark Birch, filling the once-illustrious shoes of Ted Turner then Laurie Wisefield on second guitar, clearly was still at his old school (of the primary variety) when Argus was entering the record collections of older brothers the world over.

Ray Weston, on drums, is an old pro who's graced the Wishbone ranks before, while Andy Powell - forever associated with the still potent image of a Gibson Flying V guitar - is quite simply the keeper of the flame, who takes pride in what he does, does it well and, as long as people want it, is on a mission to keep a unique sound available, with whoever else wants to learn the parts and earn their notch on a Pete Frame family tree.

Such was the roar of approval when a roadie brought on the Flying V even before the band had set foot on the stage, that clearly the name of this shadowy, good-natured institution means more than the names of those in it.

"You wanna hear the old stuff, right?" says Andy, with equal measures of resignation and tease, and more than amply delivers the goods. Instant recognition greets the unforgettable build-up to "The King Will Come"; "Throw Down the Sword" takes on the resonance of a great baroque hymn, whereas "Blowing Free", full of joy and truly timeless in its poignancy, remains most remarkable for being as yet unnoticed by the people who are paid obscene sums to match latent, demographically all-conquering gems like this to TV ads for chewing-gum and hygiene products.

It was heart-warming, too, that the most recent material from the Illuminations album - not least the positively monolithic swagger of "Mountainside", containing spiritually if not literally the last great riff of the Seventies - is right up to spec with the best of the last 30-odd years. Those in doubt, with a few notes to spare, could test the theory with a copy of the sparkling new four-disc box set Distillation from the merchandising stall on the way out. Time was, it was just T-shirts and programmes, but everything changes.You move with it or you fade away.

Colin Harper

Further information and booking: Empire Music Hall, Belfast (01232 328110)