Wild Mercury Sound

The Verve at the Roundhouse

John Mulvey

Which comeback is this again? As The Verve mooch onto the stage at the Roundhouse, I’m reminded of a night at Glasgow Barrowlands maybe ten years ago. Nick McCabe had just rejoined the band, and I guess “Bittersweet Symphony” was about to be released. The lights went down, and the impeccable DJ played David Axelrod’s “Holy Are You”. Then the band came on: Simon Jones lunging at the crowd triumphantly; Ashcroft imperious, transported; McCabe a self-effacing figure consumed with his work. Men spilled beer and hugged each other. They’re back!

I’m reminded of all this because at the Roundhouse, it all happens again. Only Peter Salisbury, the drummer, appears to have aged much, and only reserve guitarist Simon Tonge is missing, spirited away to become Damon Albarn’s henchman in Blur, Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad & The Queen and God knows what else. The DJ follows Yoko Ono with Can, then takes off “I Want More” halfway through to cue up “Holy Are You”. The Verve materialise, begin with “This Is Music”, then spend the next two-odd hours playing what may well be a near-identical set to that Barrowlands show. As revivals go, it’s rather eerie: The Verve don’t seem to be revisiting past glories, merely continuing them.

If there is a change, it’s a good one. The Verve’s reunion is necessarily predicated on the return of McCabe and, consequently, the band’s silvery, psychedelic side is in the ascendant tonight. This is what I always loved most about the band – I wrote a mildly hysterical cover story about McCabe for NME when he left the second time, lauding him as the band’s key figure. I guess, given Ashcroft’s subsequent humdrum solo career, I was right about that.

Backed by a superb rhythm section – their airy, gravitational funk has got better with age, I think – McCabe drives the aqueous jams that were at the heart of the band’s early glory: “Already There”, “Life’s An Ocean”, “Stormy Clouds”, a transcendentally lovely “Gravity Grave”. It’s McCabe’s gift that he can switch so effortlessly from delicate, impressionistic curlicues to thunderously heavy stomp (what on earth has he been doing for the past decade?), and it’s a powerful context in which to place Richard Ashcroft, always more convincing as the holy fool than the earnest balladeer.

Indeed, this music is, in places, so unanchored, it seems a miracle how this bunch of effete, tasteful hippies became a blokey institution, second-favourite band of every Oasis fan. That becomes clearer when Ashcroft straps on his acoustic guitar and relegates McCabe to a sort of background colourist. Obviously some of these ballads (“The Drugs Don’t Work”, “Space And Time” especially) remain quite brilliant, several classes apart from the mawkish gunk they influenced and which now fills the 25+ sector of British indiedom, from Coldplay on down. But by the time “Lucky Man” is rolled out for the encores, I’ve had enough of this path, and it’s a tremendous relief when McCabe puts his foot down for the “Whole Lotta Love”-style freakout of “Come On”.

He’s allowed to spatter “Bittersweet Symphony” with feedback, too, after waiting patiently for a couple of lyrics while that memorable string loop asserts itself. It remains a great song, one of those occasions where Ashcroft’s everyman mysticism is alchemically transformed – by a great tune, I suppose – from platitudes into rallying cries. There’s a new song, too, “Sit And Wonder”, not quite in the featherlight class of “The Thaw Session”, which I wrote about the other week. It’s still good, though, not least because there isn’t actually much of a song there. Ashcroft reads a few lyrics from a paper, while the band lock into one of those grooves that they discovered early in their career – a way of making something cosmic out of baggy, ostensibly.

Soon, though, Ashcroft puts his shades on, and McCabe loses himself in one of those unravelling, unthrusting, magnificently subtle solos at which he has always excelled. More of that, and this might really be a comeback with a future.


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