After releasing their near-perfect self-titled debut in 1989, The Stone Roses weathered a nasty legal battle, labored over a disappointing second album, and petered out at the height of the British rock renaissance they’d largely inspired. It was a lousy end to the story, but it built the myth that led to the reunion that produces shows like the one the band played Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
The MSG stop marked both the Roses’ only U.S. appearance of 2016 and their first time in New York since 1995. Although many East Coast fans probably traveled to Coachella to catch the group in 2013, as the newly reformed Manchester foursome began making the festival rounds, Thursday’s performance had the feel of a long-overdue homecoming. Everyone in the place knew what song would come first, and yet a shock went through the packed arena as bassist Gary Manny “Mani” Mounfield picked out the aching bassline that begins “I Wanna Be Adored.”
As frontman Ian Brown sang the opening line — “I don’t have to sell my soul / he’s already in me” — the house shouted along like a happily doomed congregation. Maybe they’d seen video of reunion gigs and wondered whether Brown would struggle to stay on key — especially with those hushed vocals that are tough to project in such a large room. No problem there: Brown was solid, a simian stage prowler with graying mod hair and a serious tambourine fetish, and his bandmates — especially the rhythm section of Mani and drummer Alan “Reni” Wren — were something to behold.
Not surprisingly, the Roses stuck closely to their first album, playing all 11 songs on the original tracklist plus “Fools Gold,” the gelatinous slab of wah-wah-dappled dance-rock that landed as a standalone single in 1989, forever linking the group to the “Madchester” scene in their hometown. Watching the band move through tunes like “(Song for My) Sugar Spun Sister,” “Bye Bye Badman” and “Shoot You Down,” the magic of the Roses’ early years became all the more apparent. Funky, flowery blues-rock mixed with silly hats (Reni still rocks the buckets) don’t always make for great music. Let us not forget the Spin Doctors were also active in 1989. But these guys somehow folded ‘60s music into jangly ‘80s indie in a way that’s still lemony fresh three decades later.
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Guitarist John Squire shone on those Stone Roses songs, what with their tumbling, cascading riffs, and he really got to wig out on the handful of tunes from 1994’s Second Coming, the blues-stuffed sophomore effort he wrote the bulk of. With the benefit of colored lights and the extra volume of a concert hall, the psych-blues rave party “Begging You,” the overlong head-nodder “Breaking Into Heaven,” and the cosmic bar-band marathon “Love Spreads” worked better than they do on record. Coming cockeyed at classic rock with Les Paul in hand, Squire weirdly evoked another guy bending notes in a reunited band with “Roses” in its name: Slash. (To wit: “Breaking Into Heaven” contains the line, “Listen up, sweet child of mine.”)
The sturdy-rocking new song “All For One” also took on new life in the live setting, though it’s hard to gauge the demand for new material. The Roses closed, as they must, with “I Am the Resurrection,” a rapturous eight-minute anti-religious recasting of Jesus’ message in the Book of John: “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” Believers or not, the Roses know the drill about vanishing from the earth and letting others preach your gospel. There’s not really a blueprint for what comes next.