Returning Verve hero brings The Big music back to the capital
The first time Richard Ashcroft stepped onstage in the capital, way back in July ’91, he didn’t take long to make an impression. Fronting the psychedelic freakouts of Verve (the ‘The’ would come later), here was a rock’n’roll singer of the type that time had forgotten. We’re talking a thinner, androgynous, bare-footed Jim Morrison; a super-spiritual creature seemingly beamed in from outer space to blow the minds of anyone who’d listen. By the time he’d departed – or rather, been dragged, screaming from – the stage that night, NME was declaring him “a superstar”.
After that, ‘The’ Verve split in a haze of drugs and ego, got back together to bring the string-laden grandeur of ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ to a scene obsessed with dirgy guitars, became massive with the album ‘Urban Hymns’ and then split at the peak of their powers in a haze, again, of drugs and ego. Ashcroft’s super-commercial solo debut ‘Alone With Everybody’ was met with a lukewarm reaction, and by the time his second, ‘Human Conditions’, landed laden with even more (at the time unfashionable) strings in a post-Strokes landscape, he’d been discarded by all but his most faithful supporters. Discarded, that is, until now.
Of course, the fact that Chris Martin dragged him onstage at Live8 and declared him “the greatest singer in the world” didn’t hurt, but tonight it takes about 30 seconds of the opening ‘Lucky Man’ to quash any thoughts that this is some Embrace-esque, Coldplay-buoyed revival.
Firstly, Richard Ashcroft can sing, blessed of a larynx of Elvis proportions you feel privileged to be in the same room as; secondly he’s still utterly beautiful and thirdly he has songs so gargantuan in scale that stadiums would struggle to contain them, let alone this tiny students’ union. Newie-wise, the country-tinged ‘Words Just Get In The Way’, the juggernaut groove of ‘Keys To The World’ and the whiteboy soul of ‘Music Is Power’ are all stunning, while the emotional poignancy of ‘History’ and ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ hardly needs reiterating. At times, Ashcroft himself seems overcome, arms aloft, eyes closed, grinning, lost in this sound he’s put his faith in for so long – nothing has changed and his guns have been resiliently stuck to. Indeed, what makes this returning hero so wonderful tonight is the sheer conviction and self-belief that fills his every word. Never one to write lyrics about girls looking good on dancefloors when there’s mysteries of the universe to be addressed, it takes a special kind of singer to make phrases like “corridors of discontent” and “the lonely search for truth” sound heartfelt and meaningful rather than snigger-inducingly ridiculous.
So as he brings his first show in London for three years to a close with a version of ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ that’s as full of fire as it was on the day it was first aired, tonight, nearly 15 years on from the first time we clapped eyes on him, NME would like, once again, to declare Richard Ashcroft “a superstar”.