One of the coolest promotional trends in rock music during the ’70s was the promo live album. Record companies would distribute these to radio stations exclusively so deejays could have unique programming to snare an audience with. In turn, the bands would get to interest rock fans in their music while also making a case for why they were worth seeing in concert. MCA issued one of these for Wishbone Ash in the summer of 1972. It was called Live In Memphis and it offers a great little portrait of what made the band so special in their early era.
Live From Memphis is drawn from a live-in-the-studio gig done for a radio station that was recorded at the famous Ardent Studios (Richard Rosebrough of Big Star was the engineer!). It contains just three tracks but each is a showcase for a different aspect of the band live. “Jail Bait” makes for a potent opener. This pounding boogie plays differently from the steamy mix of its studio counterpart: the sound opens up here, drawing us into the live interplay of the guitar and giving its throbbing rhythms room to breathe. Even more impressive is “The Pilgrim,” which shows how the band could recreate the variety of textures and tempo changes in their epic tracks without mixing-assisted transitions. It also gives you a sense of the players’ discipline and their ability to communicate as they weave their parts into a complex whole.
The entirety of the second side is devoted to “Phoenix,” which expands from the original 10-minute studio opus into a 17-minute extravaganza of band interplay. Despite the nearly doubled length, this isn’t saddled with a bunch of extraneous soloing or one of those “epic jam” endings that became de rigueur in ’70s rock concerts. Instead, the band allows all aspects of the composition to expand, slowing down the first half a few notches to build tension and then extending each of the movements of the high-energy second half in a way that allows the band to savor each twist and turn of the dramatic arrangement without surrendering its intensity.
The end result captures Wishbone Ash’s original lineup in all its hungry-for-the-arenas glory. Live From Memphis also set the tone for how the group would use live recordings to showcase their abilities in a way that their studio work could only occasionally capture. These recordings fittingly became a bonus tracks staple of the group’s CD reissues and can be found on several releases, particularly reissues of Argus.