Mad Richard Ashcroft has been notacably absent from, well, everything for the last half decade or so, save for the odd appearance in charity football matches and one-off gigs in places not exactly known for their love of string-laden Britpop.
The ex-Verve man’s last album, United Nations Of Sound, was universally panned (NME: 3/10, Guardian 1/5, Pitchfork: 3.2), although randomly Noel Gallagher popped up last month saying how much he loved it. It was the sound of a man unravelled, lost in the darker corners of his already fragile mind, although all those accusations of it being beige were far wide of the mark: here was a record so overblown that even on the most basic level you had to admire the sheer audacity of it all. Plus, when he popped up on US TV backed by The Roots and about 50 session players (plus the largest tuba ever) it was one of the all-time great/bizarre moments of music TV:
But this weekend, Ashcroft appeared at Mexico City’s 70,000 capacity Corona Capital festival, a two day extravaganza featuring headliners Muse, Calvin Harris, Pixies and The Libertines. And he totally aced it.
Here’s what went down…
1. Mexico LOVES Richard Ashcroft
First things first: nobody from the UK could have predicted how passionate the locals here would be about Ashcroft. There’s long been a rock ‘n’ roll crossover between British and US bands and the Mexican people – from Elvis in the ’50s to Morrissey in the ’80s, Oasis in the ’90s and Arctic Monkeys more recently – and in 2015 Ashcroft is getting his fair share of the action too. His crowd on the Saturday evening was easily as big as Spoon or Primal Scream’s, both acts who’ve visited here regularly over the years, and people aren’t just casually into it either: fans have come armed with massive banners (“Music Is Power” stretches across about 20 people close to the front), not to mention their own emotions. When, halfway through the gig, Ashcroft plays ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’, the outpouring from the crowd is electrifying. One person on the big screen buries their head in their hands before screaming every lyric back at the stage. A tender song always, the heightened collective outpouring here makes it feel incredible.
2. DFA 1979 hate Richard Ashcroft…
Pity the festival promoter who decided to let the Toronto legends onto the stage directly behind Ashcroft’s 20 minutes into his set. Ashcroft’s doing the solo thing at the moment – relying solely on a solitary Gibson acoustic and his own voice, which is ballsy to say the least. But when Sebastien Grainger and Jesse F. Keeler bring the noise he’s almost totally drowned out. It doesn’t stop, but then neither does he – instead he just gets more irate as the set goes on, and tries to play louder than them, like rock’s very own King Canute “I don’t know if you can hear what I can hear,” he shouts after ‘On Your Own’, eyes bulging as he reaches boiling point, “but who else here has got the bollocks to stand up on this stage, on their own, with their own tunes and their own guitar and play it from the soul?” He’s literally beating his chest now. Technically he’s right, I guess.
3. There’s something quite beautiful about the one-man band routine
All those mid-to-late ’90s Verve demos which Napster gave us proved how, shorn of the overblown strings and Nick McCabe’s stellar guitar work, songs like ‘Space And Time’ worked perfectly without backing. And so it remains – for around an hour here Ashcroft stands and plays, stands and plays, only stopping to shout about DFA a bit more or thank the audience. And in an age where bands don’t even need to tour with amps anymore (want to perfectly recreate a 1959 Elpico? There’s a sample for that…) there’s something humble about the simplicity of it all. It’s like a boisterous open mic set, performed on an absurdly large scale.
4. He seems to underestimate his own cache – and that’s a pity
‘History’, weirdly, is introduced with kids gloves, as “a very old song that only the hardcore among you will know”. He’s wrong of course – everybody sings along, just as they do on everything he plays, from ‘Sonnet’ to ‘Bittersweet Symphony’. Even when he pays tribute to his wife, his guitar, Mexico City, life, music and a long-lost auntie (somewhere in the audience, apparently), it’s oddly touching rather than sickly. Not to draw too lofty comparisons here, but seeing him play in this way, slightly bruised but with an air of defiance, makes me think of another great acoustic-based madman, Gene Clark. People spent years saying he was overty schmaltzy, too.
5. Like all the best rock stars, he’s still gloriously intense
Who else, I ask you, would ever have the balls to end a gig like this:
Come back to the fray Dickie, you’ve earned it…