Sunday, April 27, 2008

Live Review: The Verve

The Verve

4.23.08 The Warfield
San Francisco, CA

Ten years.

For ten years I've kicked myself over not going to see English space rockers The Verve at the Pond in Anaheim, CA. When the band last toured the states in 1998 behind their album Urban Hymns, circumstances out of my control contributed to the decision to skip the show: First openers Massive Attack dropped off the bill (strike one), then guitarist Nick McCabe left the band mid-tour (strike two) then the remaining members hired two scabs to replace McCabe and kept touring (strike three, yer out!).

Now against all odds, The Verve have reformed with all four original members for another go.

Like a champagne supernova, The Verve returned to orbit in the US Wednesday night at the Warfield as part of a brief tour surrounding their appearance at the Coachella music festival in Indio, CA, and treated longtime fans to a setlist of songs from their back catalog, as well as a preview of two dynamic new songs from their upcoming album.

Despite prolonged technical difficulties, The Verve took the crowd on an emotional ride through the band’s brilliant songbook and reminded the crowd and this writer why they are one of the top bands to emerge from the 90s Brit Pop era.

Combining the cocksure swagger of Oasis with the shamanistic theatricality of The Doors, vocalist Richard Ashcroft was the crowd’s anchor and guide, as a kaleidoscopic sound of guitar feedback and trance-inducing rhythm erupted from guitarist Nick McCabe, bassist Simon Jones and drummer Pete Salisbury respectively.

Opening up with “A New Decade”, Ashcroft’s lyrics were apropos for the evening: “A New Decade/ The radio plays the sounds we made / and everything seems to feel just right”. From there, the band jumped between songs from second album A Northern Soul and the better known third album Urban Hymns, including “Sonnet”, “This is Music” and “Space and Time”.

With its drifty guitar scrapes and rolling bassline, fan favorite “Life’s an Ocean” brought some promise that the band would not be solely relying on the more commercially known songs from Urban Hymns and instead give a nod to their debut album and self titled EP as they had on their Fall 07 tour of native England.

The Verve gave the crowd an early surprise with the new song “Sit and Wonder”. Sounding closer to the shoegazing guitar squall that the band perfected on their first album A Storm in Heaven, guitarist Nick McCabe was able to lose himself in waves of reverb and white noise as drummer Salisbury and bassist Jones locked into a tribal groove and Ashcroft stalked the stage pleading “Give me some life” as if his own life depended on it.

Sadly, technical problems marred guitarist Nick McCabe for much of the set, to the point that his guitar tech was onstage as much as the band was, giving the evening a bit of a Spinal Tap moment and causing Ashcroft to remind the crowd they were just like them – human, playing “live music”.

With the technical bugs fixed, the band roared back to life with “The Rolling People”, a rocking number whose initial notes detonated into the acoustics of the Warfield like a pulse bomb, erasing any memories of McCabe’s guitar problems and refocusing the evening on what everyone had traveled to hear – the songs.

“The Rolling People” kicked off a long block of songs from Urban Hymns including “Velvet Morning”, the spaghetti western ballad “The Drugs Don’t Work” and the obligatory performance of their biggest hit, “Bittersweet Symphony”.

At the heart of “Bittersweet Symphony” is a looped sample from an orchestral version of the Jagger/Richard’s song “The Last Time” which in a live setting is also the song’s Achilles heal, as the band is chained to the pace of the loop for the duration of the song. Despite a stunning light show and mind-bending guitar notes from guitarist McCabe, a machine like performance could not be avoided.

It’s ironic that their best known song is one tied to a triggered sample while the better songs in their repertoire are born from free form jam sessions that allow the songs to breathe in the ebb and flow of a live setting. A song like the colossal “Come On” (complete with a seizure-inducing light show) that ended the main set on such a high note only seemed to highlight the flaws within “Bittersweet”.

Of course, this is 2008, and in an age where fans now thrust a cell phone in the air rather than a lighter, the majority of the crowd cared little whether or not The Verve played along to a sample and rewarded the band with rapturous applause as they sang along to the modern day blues lyrics of “Bittersweet Symphony”.

In fact, a good chunk of the crowd in the upper reaches of the balcony were near comatose in their response to any song not on Urban Hymns and seemed to recoil at the thought of actually standing up at a rock show. Shame on you SF. You're better than that.

The setlist placement of the band’s biggest song also seemed to indicate the end of the show was near and acted as an omen for the prospects of hearing deeper cuts like “Already There” and “Gravity Grave” from earlier albums, but the band had one final card up its sleeve.

Introduced as the first single from their new untitled album “Love is Noise” was a propulsive rave up that saw Ashcroft loop his own voice at the beginning of the song and then sing against it throughout the song. The club-like beat allowed McCabe to ricochet guitar notes off the rhythm as Ashcroft crooned the lyrics and the coda of the song built into a gospel tinged house song that left the crowd screaming for more.

“Love is Noise” also seemed to subconsciously answer the questions poised a song prior with “Bittersweet Symphony”. By harnessing aspects of new technology and creating an evolution in their own sound, The Verve seem poised to continue their long, on again, off again journey to the upper echelon’s of rock ‘n roll’s Mt. Olympus as well as garner well deserved hype for their new album.

Let’s hope we get a full tour later in the US this year.

A New Decade
This Is Music
Space and Time
Life's an Ocean
On Your Own
Weeping Willow
Sit and Wonder
The Rolling People
Velvet Morning
The Drugs Don't Work
Lucky Man
Come On

Bitter Sweet Symphony
Love is Noise

Photos courtesy of Google and this Verve fan on Flickr


Billy said...

There is no verve song called "almost there" ?? "Already there" perhaps ... Flickr

SRB said...

Thanks for the catch. Fixed the song title.