The former Verve frontman thrills under the Docklands big top with material new and old.
An awful lot of bad things have happened this year. Richard Ashcroft’s ‘These People’ album and the subsequent tour promoting it were not either of those things.
I’ll be honest and say that I don’t own a single recorded work by Richard Ashcroft; either as a solo artist or from when he was fronting The Verve. This wasn’t a problem on Friday night at The O2. His highly regarded new album has been play-listed by right-thinking radio stations across the country and the finest cuts from his back catalogue are a part of the landscape. Such is his hold on the subconscious, there was barely a song he played that didn’t feel like an old friend.
Our first view of the man was from a roving camera that followed him as he left his dressing room, the resultant image being projected onto two monochrome screens either side of the stage. As the band played the opening strains of first track on the new record, ‘Out Of My Body’, we watched his progress towards us. Ashcroft was dressed in a sparkling Diamanté jacket and he had his new trademark gas mask draped around his neck. The gas mask wasn’t the only bit of vintage warfare symbolism going down. Upon reaching the stage, the first number was performed from under a single spotlight so bright it would have made a 1940s Luftwaffe pilot feel a little queasy.
Anybody here concerned that the illustrious back catalogue would go unreferenced was put at ease by song #2: ‘Sonnet’, one of a few tunes played from 1997’s ‘Urban Hymns’, the album that launched Ashcroft and The Verve into the stratosphere. The reception was as you’d expect. In fact, all songs tonight were met with maximum respect and standing ovations were all around. This was unlike most gigs performed by a solo artist of a once huge band; where either you sit through the new stuff to get to the old, or the old no longer gets played at all. New and old sat comfortably beside each other like old mates at a school reunion. The new stuff is that good.
I will be remembering some parts of this show for a very, very long time. The closing section to ‘Break The Night With Colour’ was one of the most intense things I’ve seen in a while. Ashcroft removed his Ray-Bans to use as a glorified plectrum on his Telecaster and then took advantage of the edge of the stage as a slide, Ritchie Blackmore style. He left his instrument on the floor to feedback whilst repeatedly screaming “Break The Night!” into a closely held mic.
Of course, it helps that the sound is as cinematic as it is anthemic. The Verve never exactly shied away from luxuriant string sounds and the new record is awash with them too. Leaving nothing to chance on this pair of dates (a couple of days ago, Ashcroft played the Liverpool Echo Arena), the band were backed by the Heritage Orchestra – conducted by arranger Wil Malone. Malone worked the strings on ‘Urban Hymns’ and Ashcroft’s freshman solo album ‘Alone With Everybody’ amongst others. He seemed to know what he was doing.
The main set closed with ‘Lucky Man’, which brought out a sea of mobile phone torches. In one of the few glitches that took place tonight, Richard had to start it a second time. “Keep those phones on – it will be worth it” was his response. It so, so was.
There were five encores, with some of the most iconic stuff held back in reserve. “The Drugs Don’t Work’ was a hair on the back of your neck moment, sung with solo vocal and guitar for the most part, plus several thousand members of the O2 Arena Community Choir belting back the words. It felt amazing from my seat. I can’t begin to comprehend how it would have felt from the stage.
The tour de force and closing song was a sensational version of ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ that Ashcroft introduced simply as “The National Anthem”. It takes balls to make a proclamation like that, but to be fair, this song registers with the public consciousness at least as much as the real one and if the audience tonight at the O2 is representative, at least everybody seems to know the words to the second verse.
It might smack of hyperbole, but this really was one of the best nights of live music I’ve experienced in quite a while. It left me with two overarching conclusions: 1) I need to buy some Richard Ashcroft albums pronto; and: 2) This rating system needs more than 5 stars.