The number of bands reforming in the last few years has ballooned. It’s a roll call of rock that’s encapsulated the good (Pixies), the bad (The Police) and the ugly (Happy Mondays). Uniquely though, tonight marks The Verve’s second attempt at a dramatic comeback. Even Christ only managed to come back from the dead once and he didn’t have to contend with fistfights and solo records before his resurrection.It’s no surprise, then, that the atmosphere in Glasgow is equal parts celebration and anxiety. After all, very few bands can pull off a reformation with dignity intact and, for a band who meant so much to so many people, a poor performance could be the final, ignoble nail in The Verve’s coffin.
Not that they’re nervous. Exuding pure confidence, they bowl straight into the antagonistic glory of ‘This Is Music’ from classic second album ‘A Northern Soul’. Clearly, this isn’t about paying a mortgage; no, this band want to burn as brightly as in the past. Tonight they’re reborn and, as a statement of intent, Ashcroft’s shoes are tossed aside as he marches onstage. Just like he used to.
Drummer Pete Salisbury’s bald pate aside, it looks like it’s been nine weeks rather than nine years since they last appeared together. However, tonight transcends the rancorous past of 1998 as, unlike then, they are now fully united in purpose and spirit. They’re reaching back to the unique chemistry of the early-’90s that made them one of the greatest live bands of that decade.
Nick McCabe’s guitarwork is coolly brilliant, moulding the delicate soundscapes of ‘Man Called Sun’ or blasting out ‘A New Decade’’s powerchords to rib-shaking perfection. Simon Jones’ bass, particularly on the churning ‘A Northern Soul’ and Saturday’s airing of ‘A New Decade’, seems to have more in common with feet-bothering ’70s funkateers than the arhythmic leanings of most indie bands. What’s more, he’s clearly so thrilled to have the gang together again that he can’t resist singing every word in a way that galvanises the crowd into even louder exertions.
And for those who’ve seen Ashcroft solo, tonight is a shock of the best kind: gone is the dead-behind-the-eyes wannabe MOR soul-singer. The indie messiah in a grandad shirt stalks the stage confidently frying thousands of minds, whether it’s with an anthemic holy reading of ‘History’, a teary ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ or a celestial version of twinkling space-cadet hymn ‘All In The Mind’. Even the doubters can see why Noel Gallagher was driven to write ‘Cast No Shadow’ about this singular, totemic figure.
He urges the crowd to “Come on!” again and again; bounces down to his knees Russian Cossack-style; punches out imaginary adversaries with glee. As ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ rolls majestically round he stands with his arms in a Christ-aping pose, bathing in the relentless waves of adulation from a crowd eagerly roaring every word back at him, blowing him into eternity. Evidently, this is a blissful experience for all involved.
If proof of this band’s depth of greatness were needed then the radically different setlists across the two nights is it. Their first night in Glasgow is characterised by a sense of them getting musically reacquainted in front of a baying crowd, while the second sees them confidently enjoying their range of abilities, especially on ‘Already There’, whose chorus erupts like a supernova.
The enormity of the reformation is thus confirmed. But the question is, of course: what kind of reformation do we have? Is it the final conquest of acoustic balladry over the space rockers as it was in ’98? Or have the shimmering loose grooves the band were born with reclaimed their souls? It would seem the answer is both.
The two extremes that pulled the band apart in ’98 are balanced to perfection. For every expansive, soul-searching journey to the outer reaches of the senses (‘Gravity Grave’, B-side ‘Let The Damage Begin’) there’s a lighters-aloft, crowd-bellowing classic (‘Lucky Man’, ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’). Ashcroft and McCabe, the twin lightning conductors of the band, are finally in accord and the results are nothing short of astonishing.
This balance is illustrated in the one new song played both nights. ‘Sit And Wonder’ boasts an almost dub-heavy rolling bass, and, just as McCabe’s somersaulting guitar can’t contain the tension any more, the song turns on its heel and becomes a stunning anthem,
as Ashcroft emotionally intones, “I should have warned her/I’d fall to pieces”.
At the end of the second night, just as a monumental ‘Come On’ threatens to fade out, there’s a sudden harsh crunching that sounds like the Academy buckling under the weight of the emotional release both onstage and in the crowd. It feels louder than thunder – louder than war.
It’s almost certainly a chance mis-wiring of the sound desk, but perhaps God’s at the controls and he’s cracking a smile at their born-again nerve. Whatever, The Verve are back – literally – with a bang. This is music? This is seismic.