ON THE ROAD REPORT FROM THE VERVE’S US TOUR

NME News Editor MAT SMITH was in Chicago to watch the first night of the Wigan Wonders' troubled US jaunt...

THE VERVE‘s long-awaited tour of the US kicked off in Chicago last Tuesday (July 28). NME News Editor MAT SMITH travelled to the windy city to watch the beginning of the McCabe-less, downsized trawl through America.

THE VERVE launched into their much-discussed American tour in Chicago last Tuesday, their first show since guitarist Nick McCabe quit the band. Arriving in the city on Sunday – Richard Ashcroft (pictured) and wife Kate Radley from Mexico, the rest of the band from London – they rehearsed at the Aragon Ballroom in the north of the city throughout Monday and Tuesday amid tight security.

The band featured bassist Simon Jones, fully recovered from his recent illness, plus new recruits BJ Cole on lap and pedal steel guitar and percussionist Steve Sidelnyk. The set was predominantly compiled from material from ‘Urban Hymns’ along with ‘On Your Own’ and ‘History’ from ‘A Northern Soul’. Richard Ashcroft also performed a solo acoustic version of ‘See You In The Next One (Have A Good Time)’ from ‘A Storm In Heaven’ as the first song of the band’s encore. He dedicated it to Kate Radley.

The concert, the first in a three-week tour which has been subjected to a number of cancellations and downscalings in venue size, was to have been followed by an aftershow party upstairs at the venue but the celebrations were cancelled 20 minutes after the band finished their set.

An insider described the band’s mood before the show as “incredibly tense. I’ve never seen a band as determined to do themselves justice as this,” the source told NME. “To go onstage without Nick is not going to be an easy thing for them to do. It’s been hard work to get that together in such a short space of time.”

The band’s management booked a total of 15 different hotels in Chicago in an attempt to shake off tabloid and music press reporters. When during the gig NME leaned over a barrier to look at a set list pinned to a computer screen on the mixing desk, a security guard accused us of trying to copy the computer programme. The band’s PR said they just wanted to get the show over and done with. The Verve cancelled visits to the city’s main music radio stations, WTMX, Q101 and WXRT, during their stay. Although it’s customary for UK bands to visit local stations on the day of a show, Virgin’s local rep said all requests for the band to undertake press and radio promotion had been turned down by management the week before.

Nevertheless, the show had sold out its 4,500 tickets and promoter Andy Cirzan of Jam Productions said he was “confident” that if the band returned next year they would be able to play the Rosemont Horizon, the 14,000-capacity stadium they had originally been booked to appear at. “We went through the same thing with Oasis. It’s hard EQing the success in England with success in America. Sometimes bands want to miss out a few of the building steps,” Cirzan said. He added he was confident Nick McCabe’s absence would make little difference to their popularity in the US.

Following Massive Attack’s withdrawal as support four weeks ago, The Verve are touring America without an opening act. Prior to their 8.30pm stagetime, their own DJ Wayne Griggs played records. The Verve took to the stage as the pertinent strains of Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Many Rivers To Cross’ boomed from the PA. As thousands of tiny electric stars twinkled above the Persian-style minarets of the main hall, Richard Ashcroft, fisherman’s beanie hat pulled down tight, brown jacket hanging loosely from his shoulders, strode onstage purposefully, closely tailed by new recruit BJ Cole. As he walked on, Ashcroft’s head was bowed but his fist was already in the air, his lips mouthing those trademark “come ons” more to himself than the crowd.

They began with ‘Space And Time’ and, though it may sound obvious, the initial impression was that something was missing. However, as the song lifted, the subtle treatment emerged and Ashcroft, electric guitar strung around his shoulders, discarded the beanie and nodded his approval to the cheering audience. The electric was swapped for an acoustic ‘Sonnet’. This was the first real sign that the band were missing McCabe’s guitar genius.

Any changes in dynamics, however, seemed lost on the Chicago crowd. One audience member told NME he was there solely to hear “the music from that Nike commercial”. Chicago Tribune rock critic Greg Kot attempted to put the band’s US status into perspective for NME: “It’s sad, but they are perceived here as one-hit wonders, and they’ll have to fight to really establish themselves,” he said. A quick vox-pop reiterated that most of the crowd were barely aware of Nick McCabe or why he was absent from the Chicago show. Meanwhile, ‘This Time’, newly stretched into a ‘Fools Gold’-era Stone Roses workout, backed up BJ Cole’s recent claims that the band have shuffled their sound for this tour.

‘Weeping Willow’ and ‘Velvet Morning’ also demonstrated a greater use of sampling and sequencers. ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ in contrast has been subtly transformed into a Gram Parsons-style epic. Cradled by Cole’s soft steel, the emotional lyrics seemed to be given added poignancy. Flanked by giant video screens on which birds hovered in a red sky, a staring Ashcroft seemed in no particular hurry to come back from wherever it was that fate had transported him. “I hope that the people who’ve seen us before think that we’re doing these songs justice,” he announced. At moments like these you remembered it was sheer gravitas that made The Verve so special.

Tonight, we’re just witnessing the latest instalment. Furthermore, while recent Verve shows have been noted for their lack of highlights, the Chicago show – granted, patchy on occasion – had them in spades. This was essentially a more static Verve, a probable combination of opening night nerves and Richard encumbered by having to play guitar. Local reviews in the following day’s papers seemed at a loss to understand the band. The two main papers, The Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun Times, were both unimpressed. The Tribune critic described the band’s style as “leaden”, and compared ‘Sonnet’ to “Style Council folk soul” and concluded that the band “minced around its music rather than lifting it to the heavens”. The Sun Times was equally damning, calling them “pleasant but thoroughly uninspiring” before going on to berate their five (sic) albums of “swirl and self-importance”.

A subtext suggested that they weren’t as good as the band the paper alleged they nicked ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ from. All of which misses the point. It would have been relatively easy for The Verve to cancel the American tour. Instead, they returned to the ring determined to take on whatever they encountered. The fact that without their guitarist and with only four days’ rehearsals they were at worst adequate and at best spellbinding, suggests they made the right decision. When they played Haigh Hall in May, NME noted they had nothing to prove and everything to lose. Tonight they lost none of their quiet dignity and proved it’s tempered with a bloody-minded strength of character. So, yeah, many rivers to cross and all that, but as Jimmy Cliff also said, you can get it if you really want.

The Verve play V98 (August 22 &amp 23) and Dublin Slane Castle (29).