Better than Bittersweet.
As the strains of David Axelrod's 'Holy Are You' pumped out over the P.A. system and smoke and red light filled the stage, its tempting to think that very little changes in music. The same intro tape and the same set-up may have been an indication that The Verve werent going to mess about with their formula for their reunion show but it seemed as though they werent going to provide many surprises, which is fair enough for what was a nostalgia trip for the audience. The band may be talking up their new material but with one track on show and an audience with a passion for the old numbers, there was no great desire for the gig to be an evolution of sorts.
Yes, the band they said would never reform have done exactly that and Richard Ashcroft has looked to put down the cardigan and slippers and get back to his former ways. Opening with 'This Is Music' allowed the band and crowd to slip back into top gear and its hard to imagine a better start. The song may be over twelve years old but it stands as one the bands better moments, the song that defines their belief and swagger, the song that reaches to the higher planes that music that should be taking you to, the song that is The Verve. Bigger commercial hits were to follow in the wake of the tracks release but to catch a glimpse of the true heart of The Verve, 'This Is Music' should be your first stop.
Given it was the first night of the reunion show, there was always the chance of problems and when 'Sonnet' had to be started three times, it was no great surprise but no one seemed to mind much. Unfortunately, and perhaps it was due to the earliness of its appearance but the track came across as leaden and lumpy and certainly a reminder of the depths that The Verve sank to. It had to happen at some point but the sight of Ashcroft strapping on that acoustic guitar was always going to elicit some groans, and although some songs benefitted from his playing, there was a marked difference between the freak-out tracks and the sombre acoustic moments.
When Nick McCabe is giving a free run to utilise his skills and effects pedals and Mad Richard gets on with the business of singing and gibbon-dancing then The Verve are still that sky-scraping band of the early 90's. When the tempo is slowed down and you see the crowd digging out the mobile phones and that massive acoustic guitar wailing about at the front of the stage, the thought that Ashcroft might just take a funny turn and launch into 'Money To Burn' is a sobering concern. Maturity and the passing of time comes to us all and no doubt the band will say that they couldnt maintain their early spirit all the time (given that it nearly killed them in America, you cant blame them for that) but when a band matters to someone, you never want to see them lose that vigour and special-attitude that made you fall in love with them. To give the band their due though, 'Space and Time' was brilliant on the acoustic guitar and the vocals came across brilliantly, not just from the space-cadet frontman but the crowd found their voice, filling in the backing vocals with aplomb.
The one new track was a bluesy riffing number and was met with polite applause and chin-stroking but new material was never going to the selling point of the evening, it was about what gone before, and all in fairness, there was a better mix of older material than what may have been played. 'All in The Mind' and its B-side 'Man Called Sun' made an appearance which slightly flummoxed the crowd members who believe the band started with Urban Hymns but these two elicited much nodding from the older members of the audience. This reviewer is a bit let-down that 'One Way To Go' from the same single package was left out of proceedings but you cant have everything and when 'History' and 'On Your Own' failed to make an appearance, its hard to criticise the omission of an early B-side.
A few numbers from 'A Northern Soul' were dropped in and these allowed the band to get down to their jamming and improvisational ways, with 'Lifes An Ocean' being the murkiest and darkest song of the night.
As the evening inched onwards, the set was building towards the bigger numbers and when 'Bittersweet Symphony' launched into life, the strings were bouncing off the walls. They may have never made any money from it, thumbs up to Allan Klein, but in this track, The Verve have created one of the modern eras most enduring songs. The bellowing "Have you ever been down?" was one of the high points and as the band trooped off-stage for their encore, they were safe in the knowledge their job was done, no matter what occurred next.
'Rollin' People' was immense, the thundering drum intro being the loudest point of the evening and the final song 'C'mon' was close to capturing the band at their earlier peaks but sadly 'Lucky Man' received the biggest cheer of the night and promptly summed up the audience in one go. If you're looking for a song that justified why The Verve had to split and the track that would indicate the horror to come from Ashcrofts solo career, then thats the number. A turgid track that appealed to the lowest common denominator and was the only downpoint of a night that exceeded expectations and fears.
Its certainly not the best gig that this reviewer has seen The Verve play (there were some absolutely legendary moments between 94 and 97) but its definitely the best they've been in the past ten years and if it stops Richard Ashcroft releasing solo material, then The Verve reunion must be hailed as a good thing.