Iconic frontmen of once iconic bands are all the rage at the moment. Noel Gallagher’s two solo albums are an established part of the landscape. Tom Chaplin (voice of post-britpop housewife’s favourites Keane) played a blinding support to Jeff Lynne (another iconic frontman of another once iconic band) at Wembley last weekend. Hell, even Phil Collins joined the party with a headline in Hyde Park during the week.
It seems entirely appropriate therefore that Richard Ashcroft, iconic frontman of The Verve – surely one of the most iconic bands of the last thirty years – should be getting in on the act. Of course, Ashcroft is hardly ‘getting in’ on anything. These People, his fourth solo album was released in 2016 and tracks from it are all over sound-minded radio stations. Hits from his previous solo outings and of course his work with The Verve is ubiquitous. Ashcroft has never really been away.
Last year I saw him fill the O2 Arena and can honestly say it was one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. The intensity of the performance and the crowd reaction were in equilibrium; a truly special night. I was very much looking forward to a repeat in the more intimate (well, less cavernous) environment of the Academy, and Ashcroft’s performance didn’t disappoint.
Appearing in a sparkling Diamanté jacket and with now trademark gas mask draped around his neck, Ashcroft received the kind of hero’s welcome he not unreasonably expects from the adoring faithful. The mask first appeared in the artwork for These People and is a metaphor for a number of issues the album addresses: love and death; insecurity, depression and civil unrest. Ashcroft these days has abandoned the mop-haired look that fronted The Verve in favour of a close crop and pair of Ray-Ban Aviators that appear to be welded to his face. He retains cheek bones so sharp he could probably use them to open envelopes.
Lit by a searing light from above, the sparkles in Ashcroft’s jacket reflected back into his neck and face – delivering a rather pleasing personal mini-light show. In fact, the staging in general was excellent. A number of remote cameras were filming the band and the images were projected back into a representation of giant vintage TVs behind the stage. The resultant visual feedback made your head spin.
Ashcroft opened with Out Of My Body, first track from the new record – though anybody concerned that he might be going down Radiohead ‘we’re not playing any of the back catalogue we know you’ve all come to see’ Boulevard would have been consoled when he followed it up with Sonnet, one of a few tunes played from 1997’s Urban Hymns; the album that launched The Verve into the stratosphere.
After three songs, I made the walk of shame from the photo pit back through the crowd. The lower level of the Academy has a rake so steep you can ski down it and sightlines are as good as from any floor in London – but it was absolutely rammed and there was nowhere from which to adequately watch. Fortunately (or not) I had kindly been given a ‘VIP Lounge’ wristband so I made my way there to discover you watch the show from behind what looked like three inches of bullet proof glass. It was a strange experience to have such an excellent view and yet feel so detached from the emotion of the performance.
Even so, there were clear highlights and despite the best efforts of the glass I was still able to feel the intensity build. A Song For The Lovers, They Don’t Own Me and Music Is Power were all excellent. The main set closed with a beautiful rendition of Lucky Man – mobile phones shone and pint glasses flew – but for me the apogee of the first half was Break The Night With Colour, which built and built and closed with an epic instrumental outro.
When Ashcroft returned, it was for a five-song encore that was initially performed solo under the light with just an acoustic guitar. You feel that despite the musical pyrotechnics delivered by his excellent band, this is when Ashcroft is at his best. Weeping Willow and These People were brilliant. During The Drugs Don’t Work, the crowd screamed the words and the other musicians crept back on to the stage. The full band closed the song and I’d defy anybody on the floor not to have been at least a little dewy eyed. Hold On, a particularly energetic track from the new record followed. The balcony above me must have been going bananas because the VIP Lounge suddenly started bouncing up and down.
To nobody’s real surprise the show closed with Bitter Sweet Symphony. From behind the glass it was sadly impossible to hear Ashcroft’s interactions with the crowd, but I remember at the O2 he introduced it simply as “The National Anthem”. It takes balls to make a proclamation like that, but to be fair this song registers with the public consciousness at least as much as the real one and at least everybody seems to know the words to the second verse.
Review & Photography by Simon Reed. Richard Ashcroft at O2 Academy Brixton on 1st July 2017.
Simon has his own music photography site here: http://www.musicalpictures.co.uk