Wigan Haigh Hall
“We’ve been saving it all up for this moment right now,” shouts Richard Ashcroft, his voice splintering with emotion. “Eight fucking years and here we are.” Oh yes. Here they are. No-one could deny that tonight, The Verve are making their presence felt, all eight years crammed into one significant show. The Mayor Of Wigan has come out in support of them, announcing even he – and he’s 61 years old, you know – likes ‘Urban Hymns’.
The boys in the button-down shirts and punch-up boots, the kind of kids Richard Ashcroft probably spent a Wigan lifetime ducking blows from, they love The Verve, too. The few die-hard indie kids who remember a time when it was just them and a copy of ‘A Storm In Heaven’, they aren’t so proud that they’re going to miss their band’s day of glory. From the BBC cameras filming the show with the urgency usually befitting royal weddings, to Nick McCabe’s little daughter, sitting on her beaming grandad’s shoulders, validation has been granted to The Verve. This is how it is now – they have nothing to prove, and accordingly, everything to lose.
No-one believes that they’re hapless star-sailors floating peacefully through some warped inner galaxy any more – you don’t sell six million albums and remain languishing on the shelf marked ‘Bloody Impossible Dreamers’, that’s for certain. Yet the cautionary tale of Oasis – disintegrating in a splurge of self-belief and half-digested fame – must cast a shadow over The Verve. Organising such an enormous gig is dangerous enough, as subtle an attempt at epoch-defining as tattooing ‘Zeitgeist’ on your head – but the danger multiplies when it’s a hometown show. It just demands accusations of hubris, an open invitation for thunderbolts to streak down from the sky. There’s a very thin line between triumphalist crowing and sharing the moment. This is undoubtedly an audience packed with personal associations – kids whose brothers were the year above Richard at school, who know someone who was Nick McCabe’s dinner lady.
From a local paper perspective, it seems like a tribute, a thank you, handily forgetting that for all the good times, there have to be bad. That this is a time for vindication as much as generosity, for the success stories to rewrite the unhappy endings of the past, laying waste to all those who failed to believe as hard or fast enough. Most of ‘A Northern Soul’ seemed bitter, disappointed: “I was walking to the train /This boy won’t come back again” sang Ashcroft on ‘Stormy Clouds’, hardly a sentiment sending fond glances to his hometown. These might be Northern Souls finding their way home, but now they’re here, pumped full of fame, home might not be enough to hold them.
Despite largely ignoring or harassing John Martyn, The Verve’s attempt at musical instruction for the young, the audience here would do anything to share in this moment of victory. Bizarrely, that means watching Beck from the other side of a Sahara-sized aesthetic gulf. The only dainty foot he puts wrong here is supporting The Verve – it’s not quite right that this glossy US hipster should be in a field, for a start, and every old cultural stereotype is undermined when you realise it’s the American on speaking terms with irony and the British contingent who are utterly serious. Yet from the second he appears in his tight leather trousers and hyacinth bob, he flips Wigan’s wig, informing the crowd, “Y’all look like you’re ready to be sexed-up,” and generally being such a showman, Barnum & Bailey would be dismantled their big top in shame.
It’s all too easy to see Mr Hansen as some disposable art cherub; after all, he’s ever so pretty, sending the audience cooing with delight like girlfriends with baby pictures, and he’s been overexposed to the point you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s been churning out band-clones off the coast of California. For all his ubiquity, the cultural antibody he sent flooding through pop’s bloodstream, he still seems very far out tonight. It’s not just the way he subverts those decrepit old festival codes – charming the sun out of an overcast sky, asking the crowd to move back because people are getting crushed, but more importantly because, “This is the kinda jam y’all need some elbow space for.”
Maybe it’s because of the almost operatic trill of ‘Loser’, a song that sounds vacuum-packed fresh despite being four years old, or the bleak and bruised harmonica blues of ‘One Foot In the Grave’, an autopsy performed on a still-living Dylan. Maybe it’s the new song he insists is called (a tribute to quaint British idiom, this) ‘Diamond Bollocks’, a diseased cha-cha-cha. Or maybe it’s just the way his falsetto and feather fan dance send out signals that have even the butchest Gallagheralikes blushing and shivering. Tonight, everyone is Beck’s special lady. And the strange thing is, no-one even thought he was their date.
The headliners offer a different kind of togetherness, an empathy that stretches beyond a glance across a crowded room. What Beck doesn’t realise is that as he highkicks his way through ‘Devil’s Haircut’, a huge gang of people are kicking down the perimeter fence. Bottles are thrown. One offender is pinioned to the ground by six policemen. Security paranoia breaks out. No-one would do this for Beck. This is The Verve’s constituency, and as Richard materialises on stage like a fury, arms flapping, mouth contorting in his magic incantation ‘Come on!’, it’s easy to see why.
From the opening ‘This Is Music’, raw and raging, to Richard’s gleeful trouncing of TV’s swearing and smoking rules, this is a show of fierce defiance. It’s soon clear that any bloated hubris has been quickly deflated – there’s no tedious indulgence, no 37 minute versions of ‘Slide Away’, nothing to make you feel that this is a vicious endurance test as punishment for all those copies of ‘Gravity Grave’ left languishing in chart return shops all those years ago. Richard might look as if he’s ready for a fight, but this audience aren’t the enemy – he’s just checking they’re onside, that they love this music enough. Unlike, oh, Oasis, say, there’s still a gentleness at the heart of these songs, a sense that to belong you don’t have to be like the band, just unlike the people that harm them.
‘Space And Time’ admits as much, the words, “I just can’t make it on my own” hovering over 33,000 people all too happy to offer a shoulder to cry on. There’s no mistaking Richard for Everyman, though; rapt, one hand in the air like he’s missing a bible, he’s testifying up there, pulling the prophet trick of seeing something no-one else can see, yet encouraging belief. For all the undeniable anthems – the translucent purity of ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’, the incipient hysteria of ‘History’ – the songs also take a step beyond. It’s unsurprising that tonight focuses on ‘Urban Hymns’ – not only because of the Manics’ like old-fans-new-fans divide, but because those songs need more space to unfold. Less specifically personal, they fit a vast audience – the oilslick surge of ‘Catching The Butterfly’, the small epiphanies of ‘Velvet Morning’, the venomous tang of ‘The Rolling People’.
By now, ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ should be as pallidly commonplace as an Athena postcard, chewed up by the world of radio and advertising, yet the moment those iconic strings pitch in, it’s given a whole new charge. “This song has been stolen,” says Richard gravely beforehand. “This is a song for the people. This is a modern day blues song.” It’s this communication that saves The Verve – no longer lost on their own mysterious planet, nor yet beached on some exclusive desert island, they give fresh credibility to the messy idea of unity through music. Forget all the inevitable bleating about Spike Island and Maine Road, all those precedents creakingly wheeled out as validation, as ‘classic’ perspective.
Thankfully, tonight never deliberately set out to grab at history – instead concentrating on taking another little piece of the hearts and memories of those singing along with ‘Bittersweet Symphony’. Before ‘History’, Richard declares: “It’s about love. It’s about you lot making this one of the greatest days of my life. Come on!” As long as The Verve reach out like this, the people will keep on coming. No stormy clouds here. Just new horizons.