Richard Ashcroft @ O2 Academy, 27th April 2019

Hailed as one of the UK’s leading songwriters thanks largely to his time as frontman of The Verve and their all-time classic album ‘Urban Hymns’, Richard Ashcroft returns to Birmingham tonight armed with his fifth album under his own name, ‘Natural Rebel’, yet largely ignores it in favour of a crowd-pleasing set heavy on singles and tracks from his former band. With an hour-long DJ set from frequent touring buddy Wayne Griggs in place of a support act, the audience are chomping at the bit by the time he appears on the stage.

Making a big entrance dressed in a glittery jacket complete with his trademark sunglasses and bucket hat combo, the disco-orientated ‘Out Of My Body’ from 2016’s ‘These People’ album sees Richard twisting across the stage like a cross between Mick Jagger and Liam Gallagher and serves as a great visual introduction to the night, but when he then picks up his acoustic guitar and strums the first chords to ‘Sonnet’, the energy picks up tenfold as the crowd sing every line back at him.

“It’s a pleasure to be here in Birmingham on a Saturday night!” he shouts over the loud cheers as he introduces ‘Break The Night With Colour’, which is extended out into a lengthy instrumental jam which not only features an electrifying solo from his touring guitarist, but also sees Richard picking up an electric guitar of his own and using his sunglasses as a slide.

All of The Verve’s songs in the set are taken from ‘Urban Hymns’, with ‘Space And Time’ and ‘Weeping Willow’ sounding glorious, the former in particular pushed in a heavier direction that lets the rest of the band show off their individual talents, whilst Richard can’t seem to decide whether to keep his hat and sunglasses on or off, replacing them variously throughout the evening.

‘Surprised By The Joy’ is one of only two songs aired from the current album tonight and fits in nicely amongst the older tracks with country-inspired guitars and further proof that Ashcroft’s vocal performance is still top level. It’s probably fair to say that there have been a few patchy moments in his solo career, and 2010’s ‘Glory’ does create a bit of a lull before ‘A Song For The Lovers’ and ‘Velvet Morning’ get the audience back involved again and a triumphant ‘Music Is Power’ ends with Richard throwing his hat up into the air at the end following some clunky but spirited dance moves. Ballad ‘That’s How Strong’ and the poppy ‘Hold On’ follow before the crowd are asked if they’re “ready to sing the roof off” to a huge-sounding rendition of ‘Lucky Man’, to which they oblige.

After a short break, Ashcroft reappears on his own with an acoustic guitar, performing a stripped-back version of ‘C’mon People (We’re Making It Now)’ and reminiscing about previous shows he’s played in the venue including one where he fell off the stage and broke his rib. “Thank you for taking these songs into your hearts” he says before a poignant ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’, and the atmosphere for the closing ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ is amazing. With the tightest backing band he’s had in years and a little bit of appreciative humility, it’s good to see Richard Ashcroft back at the top of his game tonight.

Review: Ian Paget
Photos: Marc Osborne

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