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The Verve – Live in London (Gig Review):

British rock music in the mid to late 1990’s was pretty good in my humble opinion, and 1997 was a pinnacle, not only because of the release of Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ and Oasis’ ‘Be Here Now’ (ahem) but also because The Verve had reformed (initially splitting in 1995 after the release of the under-rated ‘A Northern Soul’) and released their third album ‘Urban Hymns’ and the genius single ‘Bittersweet Symphony’. But things were not going smoothly for The Verve. Tensions and power struggles between singer Richard Ashcroft and lead guitarist Nick McCabe had caused the original split and were now reawakening. After a truly awesome homecoming gig for 40,000 delirious fans in May 1998 at Haigh Hall in Wigan (it’s easily in my Top 3 gig list), McCabe left and the accompanying tour limped on, with B J Cole filling in on slide guitar duties. I remember seeing The Verve when they headlined V98 in August and it was like seeing a different band. The performance, to put it generously, was lacklustre and muddled, and they sadly split up a few months later.

Ashcroft embarked on a somewhat successful solo career accompanied by drummer Pete Salisbury, guitarist Simon Tong went on to play with Damon Albarn’s The Good, the Bad & the Queen, bassist Simon Jones released an album with new band The Shining that sank quickly, and Nick McCabe simply disappeared from public view. However, recently in the UK, a lot of bands have reunited: The Police (ho hum), The Spice Girls (shit), Led Zeppelin (sweet) and The Verve (shock horror). The strange thing is that, even as recent as February this year, Ashcroft had reportedly stated that The Verve getting back together was highly unlikely. Then, when the news of the reunion broke out, he said that this highly publicised return wasn’t for the money (do The Spice Girls think we’ll believe it when they say that?), but for the music: “People think we’re on the gravy train. Give a fuck”.

NME.com recently scored a world exclusive mp3 download of the fruits from the band’s first forays back into the studio – a 14 minute jam that harkens back to their psychedelic debut album ‘A Storm In Heaven’, swathed in misty guitar pedal noodlings and Ashcroft’s high-pitched wailing. It’s been unanimously seen as an amazing return to form, especially since they hadn’t set foot in the same studio together for nearly decade. Their new album is greatly anticipated, as is tonight’s gig; their final date of the tour, before they retreat to the larger arenas later in the year. The London Roundhouse is an intimate venue (capacity is limited to 3,000 lucky people) and the audience is clearly feeding off the communal buzzing atmosphere. Then it’s actually hits you: there’s Nick McCabe! Playing guitar next Richard Ashcroft! It’s a rewarding sight. The fact that just under 10 years has passed since The Verve last played is a possible tongue-in-cheek reference when they start to play show-starter ‘A New Decade’: “A New Decade / The radio plays the sounds we made / And everything seems to feel just right”.

One song down and Ashcroft’s chants of ‘This Is Music’ break into the song of the same name, all rumbling bass and McCabe’s trademark feedback momentarily hovering before that crashing riff and those aggressive lyrics boom out: “I stand accused just like you / Of being born without a silver spoon”. Early single ‘Gravity Grave’ is giving the 6 minute treatment (no radio edit versions tonight!) and then a vengeful ‘Weeping Willow’, with its repeated coda mantra of “Weeping Willow / The Pills under my pillow” ending the rocky first section of the concert. The show then settles into a disconcertingly subdued section, with a liltingly melancholy ‘Life’s An Ocean’ and ‘Sonnet’, and then the real treats roll out. First single ‘All In The Mind’ is played in its 8 minute splendour, and then new song ‘Sit and Wonder’, which is met with slight indifference, merely because it’s not familiar territory. It’s nice to hear that they’re actually working on new material though, a relief even.

Then it’s a few more early tracks from their discography, starting off with ‘Stormy Clouds’ (complete with extended reprise), followed by a floaty rendition of ‘Already There’ and ‘Let The Damage Begin’, a B-side from the ‘This Is Music’ single. Genuine fans are bellowing at this point, because the set list thus far has been an aural wetdream. Casual fans who are only familiar with ‘Urban Hymns’ and got lucky enough to grab a ticket for tonight’s show look either bemused or bewildered by all these loooooong space-rock jams, and the passion of the “real” fans. There’s a palpable excitement that the fans are generating that seems to feed the band. Ashcroft looks ecstatic, Simon Jones is notably energetic, jumping around and mouthing the words and rocking out and, miracle of miracles, even McCabe is cracking a smile.

A beautifully stripped down ‘On Your Own’ (complete with searing “Lies / I’ve gotta get rid of this hole inside” outro vocal. And on another point, Ashcroft’s voice has improved drastically with age) is followed by a poundingly relentless ‘The Rolling People’, the intensity of which proves that the band can still rock the casbah 10 years down the line. As the slow bridge gradually climbs, Ashcroft’s behemoth intonation seems to threaten the colossal music (“I hope you know which way I’m gonna fly / I said thank you for my life / I said good night, goodbye”), and you realise just how much The Verve have been sorely missed from the live arena. The band members turn around to each other and have a celebratory hug and then the strings of ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ filter through the speakers and people go apeshit. Well, more apeshit. It’s a glorious 10 minute rendition, with the world-weary maxim “I’ll take you down the only road I’ve ever been down” over and over again repeated by the crowd. It’s a great end to a great gig.

A review of the Glasgow gig earlier in the week said that they had played an alternate set list, with a few more tracks from ‘Urban Hymns’ (namely ‘Space And Time’ and ‘Velvet Morning’), but ditching the all-important single ‘History’. Being that it’s one of the finest songs that The Verve has ever committed to record, we’re thankful that it’s played tonight in the encore. Not only is it included in all its beguiling honesty, but it’s partnered with ‘A Northern Soul’, an uplifting ‘Lucky Man’ and a spiteful ‘Come On’. It’s one of the greatest encores I’ve ever seen, only possibly matched by Haigh Hall 9 whole years ago. Days later, McCabe will declare on his myspace page (no longer the public hermit of the band!) that the whole tour was “the most enjoyable ever” and the London gig was “officially my favourite gig of all time” because of the crowd: “Every minute pure joy. No audience = no band”. High praise indeed, but we can’t take all of it: you were great too.
(By J. M. Ross)