Former Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft has been the beneficiary of some free publicity as he traverses North America on his first-ever solo tour of the region. “I’ve gotta get rid of this last name,” he said with a laugh last night (Jan. 28) in New York, referring to the oft-discussed controversial appointment of Senator John Ashcroft to U.S. Attorney General. “I’ve been all over the papers.”
The truth is, “Alone With Everybody,” Ashcroft’s solo debut for Virgin, hasn’t come close to equaling the success of the Verve’s final album, 1997’s acclaimed “Urban Hymns.” Indeed, Verve favorites appeared to get the best responses from the rapturous, sold-out audience over the course of the artist’s 15-song set. Ashcroft himself seems a bit unsure of how to present his new material, as he alternated between solo acoustic cuts and backing by a three-piece band.
The distinction between past and present was muddled from the show’s early going. Doffing a fur coat and staring out into crowd from behind tinted glasses, Ashcroft stood onstage by himself for the first song, strumming “Brave New World.” He was promptly joined by his wife Kate Radley on keyboards, Craig Wagstaff on percussion, and horn player Jim Hunt for two consecutive “Urban Hymns” ballads, “Sonnet” and “Space And Time.”
Although the presence of the other players injected welcome variety into Ashcroft’s chosen format for the show, a number of the new songs ached for the fuller band accompaniment afforded them on “Alone With Everybody.” When a few dragged on far too long, it was hard not to imagine former Verve guitarist Nick McCabe kicking the jams into the stratosphere.
Still, one has to be impressed with Ashcroft’s willingness to strip his music — once overpoweringly psychedelic — to its most basic elements. He managed to get endless mileage out of a few simple chords, allowing the overarching themes of love on his new album to radiate sunshine through “On A Beach” and the longing “I Get My Beat. The onstage presence of Radley on “You On My Mind In My Sleep” made its sincere declaration of emotion all the more poignant.
Ashcroft also engaged the crowd in friendly banter, in stark contrast to his near complete between-song silence on the Verve’s final U.S. tours. Noting the abundance of English expatriates in attendance, he joked that he should have just stayed home and played. A number of rarities also surfaced, including the b-sides “So Sister” and a few lines of the U.N.K.L.E. collaboration “Lonely Soul,” which were tacked onto the beginning of the edgy “New York.”
The encores returned to the Ashcroft-only setup for old-school crowd favorites “Lucky Man,” “History,” and the new set’s first single, “A Song For The Lovers.” Egged on by an audience member’s request, Ashcroft got about half way through the Verve b-side “Lord, I Guess I’ll Never Know” before stopping and admitting he couldn’t remember the rest. Instead, he ran through the ending of the non-album track “(Could Be A) City Thing, Country Thing, Blues Thing,” which segued into a show-closing rendition of the Verve’s breakthrough international hit, “Bittersweet Symphony.”
It’s nice to see that Ashcroft has not turned his back on the songs that gained him widespread acceptance as one of the most compelling figures in recent modern rock history. While the show lacked the visceral thrills of the Verve’s most memorable material, Ashcroft’s ability to connect on a universal level is tough to deny. His continuing evolution will be very interesting indeed.
Here is Richard Ashcroft’s setlist:
“Brave New World”
“Space And Time”
“On A Beach”
“I Get My Beat”
“You On My Mind In My Sleep”
“On Your Own”
“The Drugs Don’t Work”
a few lines of “Lonely Soul,” into “New York”
“A Song For The Lovers”
portions of “Lord, I Guess I’ll Never Know” (stopped), into “(Could Be A) City Thing, Country Thing, Blues Thing”