It’s a warm July evening and the O2 Brixton Academy is filling up rapidly as the door staff clinically execute their searches. This great venue is brimming with anticipation, a fever is in the air. A feeling that something remarkable is about to happen. The fans and revellers here tonight know that this artist is more than capable of bringing the house down, as he has proven before on more than one occasion.
Richard Ashcroft is something of an enigma. He stays out of the limelight and is very much a family man. A Mancunian at heart, though from Wigan to be precise, his solo career has been one of consistent revival and comebacks. To good effect he has managed to inspire a younger audience. Many have journeyed with him from his time as the front man of The Verve, one of the most unlikely icons of 90s Britpop, through to his current incarnation as a shaven headed, gas mask wielding provocateur of electro-synth-pop ballads. I say provocateur because the messages hidden amongst the romance-laden electronica are those of a mistrust of the media and political elite. It seems Ashcroft has been keeping an eye on situations whilst away and is now using his skills as an artist to communicate his feelings on the matter at hand. The gas mask clearly a metaphor of sorts for his concern in a perceived toxic political climate.
Shaun Ryder and Black Grape provide support before the main billing and warm the crowd using solid 90s anthems ‘In The Name Of The Father’, ‘Nine Lives’ and ‘Reverend Black Grape’. Mr Ryder was on good form providing on stage hi-jinks, bouncing off close buddy and band member Paul Leveridge (AKA Kermit). The band continued to play for some time after the set has finished, hyping the crowd to much effect with some femur-rattling tempo-driven rock, that would not look out of place at the end of a Monster Magnet gig, though that would be a different place altogether. So it’s back to reality.
Richard Ashcroft appears on stage to huge rapturous applause. He is wearing what can only be described as a diamante-laden MA2 bomber jacket. He swings that WW2 gas mask in one hand and gestures to the crowd to raise their hands. He grabs the mic and dives into the first number, the electro-dance beat-driven ‘Out Of My Body’. Before a mesmerised crowd can recover Ashcroft slips a guitar strap over his shoulder and begins to strum his Gibson J-200 and immediately the recognisable melody of ‘Sonnet’ rings out. This would be the first of seven Urban Hymns numbers performed and rightly so, Ashcroft having solid writing credentials of almost all the songs on that album. The crowd go wild and throw their hands in the air, singing the 90s ballad back to their hero. You can now feel the love growing in the venue as he then slows the tempo slightly with ‘This Is How It Feels’ a recent single from his latest solo outing These People. Ashcroft’s timing is perfect as he throws a second dose of nostalgia into the mix with ‘Space and Time’ again from The Verves seminal and now monolithic 90s milestone album. Urban Hymns has gone 11 times platinum in the UK alone and is rightly considered a modern classic of its genre. 90s indie music was realised and captured amongst the rolling people in a neon wilderness and laid bare through the bitter sweet symphony that’s life! Urban Hymns spoke to a generation and offered them an explanation as to how they could change from being “stuck in their mould” with the use of dreamy psychedelic funk, then brought them round by grabbing hold of them and screaming “Come ON!!!”
The set continues. ‘A Song For The Lovers’ was Ashcroft’s debut solo single and again the Brixton masses lap it up and sing every word with commitment. Then the apt ‘They Don’t Own Me’ drives its message home. ‘Science Of Silence’ from his second solo album Human Conditions gently sways the crowd with the chorus line “We are on a rock spinning silently” as the song progresses so the Google Earth graphic behind our northern troubadour zooms in ever closer to the O2 Brixton Academy and in doing so ushers in a certain harmony with the audience. There was a definite Carl Sagan “Pale blue dot” moment before ‘Break The Night With Colour’ rocks us all with an added climatic finish. Ashcroft is confident on stage, he looks well and full of vigour. The band ralling their troops in the audience before Ashcroft sweeps his hands into the air and once again beckons us to join him. We reciprocate with cheers of delight. ‘Velvet Morning’ and ‘Music Is Power’ keeps us on a high before Ashcroft delivers an ace with ‘Lucky Man’ and the venue erupts to another level entirely. True showmanship and an absolute classic 90s anthem prove Richard Ashcroft is still at the top of his game.
After a short break Ashcroft returns for an encore beginning with three acoustic numbers ‘Weeping Willow’ ‘These People’ and ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ all of which are executed by a hardened, lonesome spirit emerging from the dry ice to conjure up feelings of hope in all of us. Halfway through ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ the band remerge to join Ashcroft in lighting up the stage and move swiftly into ‘Hold On’. With its pulsing dance beat it’s difficult for the crowd to stand still and they are soon moving back and forth, up and down like a huge swell at a harbour side. Naturally the moment is seized as ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ plays out. The song needs no introduction and Ashcroft is barely heard singing above the ocean of avid fans. This has been another Ashcroft comeback and these people here tonight have made sure it was not bittersweet.