Promoting the 2016 ‘These People’ album Richard Ashcroft called into Birmingham and the cavernous Barclaycard Arena (NIA to the locals). Supporting on these dates is Black Grape, which given they’ve had no recorded output for twenty years raised an eyebrow out of curiosity alone. However, fear not, all was soon revealed as during a 45-minute set they played four new songs which we are told is from a new album called ‘Pop Voodoo’ and to be fair they sound great, easily sitting amongst the old classics such as ‘Reverend Black Grape’, ‘Tramazi Party’ and ‘Little Bob’.
Shaun William Ryder was on form exchanging expletives with the crowd, notably when someone shouted that he had a fat head, “a fat head, I’m a pescatarian, how can I have a fat head”. There are no details of the new album or releases and I’m unsure if the new stuff tonight is still a work-in-progress but with lyrics such as “you left me naked in my socks, you left me holding all the rocks, you put a joint out on my cock” you know that a new album can’t come quick enough. We need Black Grape, and they appear to be back on form.
Taking to the stage less than thirty minutes from the departure of Black Grape, Richard Ashcroft enters wearing a diamante jacket that wouldn’t be out of place on Dame Shirley Bassey, but thankfully after the opener ‘Hold on’ it’s soon removed before, what could be argued, is one of his greatest songs, ‘Sonnet’. It’s apparent Ashcroft is in the zone, he thanks the people of “Birmingham, West Midlands” for coming before treating us to ‘Song for the lovers’.
It’s hard to pick out a highlight from his set, as each song is passionately delivered, and whilst there’s not the euphoria seen at, say a Noel Gallagher gig, there is mass adulation, sing-a-longs and just a general warmth. It goes without saying the key songs from the Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’ get greeted like old friends, and it is a stunning album, indeed I believe the aforementioned Gallagher was more than floored when it was released comparing the masterpiece to his (then) latest album and concluding it was better than his. That’s a matter of personal opinion, but the fact those songs sound as good twenty years on says something.
The new songs also exude that confidence that Ashcroft appears to have in excess, such as ‘They don’t own me’ and ‘Out of my body’, rising in power, coaxing you in, before carrying you along. Then before you know it the set closer is with you, another Verve classic, ‘Lucky man’. The gig could’ve ended there and we’d have been happy but instead an encore which was simply magical. Playing an acoustic alone, Ashcroft plays ‘You on my mind in my sleep’, ‘The drugs don’t work’ and the expected ‘Bittersweet Symphony’. It could possibly be one of the best encores seen.
Richard Ashcroft has a voice like few others, and as he ages it gets better, tonight was simply brilliant. Were there any down points? Well the only thing that did baffle me was the keyboards and strings, which it would appear were pre-recorded, unless there was a keyboard maestro hidden off stage, and whilst this didn’t detract from the gig, it just makes you wonder how much is pre-recorded. Certainly, when I last saw him at the Manchester Albert Hall all keyboards were live, maybe they were tonight and I just couldn’t see them??
Finally, it wouldn’t be normal to attend the NIA, sorry Barclaycard Arena, without something to moan about and tonight was no exception. The parking has gone up again, by a whole round pound, and the beer had also crept up, and it seems staff are incapable of filling a pint glass to the top.
So, to summarise, this was a master-class in songs by Richard Ashcroft, and as he explained ‘These People’ is currently on iTunes for less than a packet of ten cigarettes, “what a bargain”.
Richard Ashcroft Set List
This is how it feels
Space and time
Song for lovers
They don’t own me
Ain’t the future so bright
Music is power
Break the night
Out of my body
You on my mind in my sleep
The drugs don’t work
Reviewer: Glenn Raybone
Photographer: Stephanie Colledge