Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Stay Thirsty reviews United Nations of Sound

“That was for the gentleman in the front, he’s been shouting it out since the start of the show. That was improvised. It’s been eight years since we’ve played that.”

Strumming the closing notes for “On a Beach”, Richard Ashcroft began one of two encores for a sold-out show at Bowery Ballroom in New York. The devoted had come early, literally running inside once the doors were open. With Richard you always feel you’re hearing something special. As Matt Pinfield introduced, “he never plays the same show twice.”

It’d been three years since we’d seen him. The Verve broke up (again) after a massive 2008 comeback. They released “Forth”, and monster single “Love is Noise”, then went their separate ways. United Nations of Sound has him evolving - hip hop producer No I.D. lends beats and arrangements - but he’s still doing what he does best. Lush, beautiful ballads and songs that become anthems when played live.

“Are You Ready?” is classic Ashcroft. A big, sweeping hymn of a song right at home in the World Cup, it’s made for the stage. The Ballroom could’ve been Glastonbury, but seeing him so close, beats the festival any day. He places the microphone over his heartbeat, takes his shoes off, lies on the floor and rests against the drum kit. New York is his favorite city. For at least one night, this is home.

“Jealous Guy” piano opens “This Thing Called Life”, Richard’s favorite on the LP. “Six string, three chords, big dreams” and an ode to a good friend, it’s the song he’s known for writing. Like “Song for the Lovers” and “You On My Mind in My Sleep” before it, “She Brings Me the Music” is an ode to Ashcroft’s wife, Spiritualized’s Kate Radley. Though Richard says acoustic writing is getting too easy for him, it’s what the fans love. I’ve seen videos of crowds singing along, but actually being in the room with “Sonnet” is unbelievable. By the end, it’s us carrying it out, Richard’s just strumming the chords.

It’s surprising just how much the stage transforms these songs. “Good Lovin” opens like “Science of Silence”, yet quickly veers in different territory. Ashcroft asks the lights to be dimmed, then gets low to the stage, his eyes closed and microphone held close. It’s the part of the night when you grab who you came with and don’t let go. “America” takes the backbone of “The Rolling People”, speeds it up, rubs it in tribal beats, and throws it back out with a whole hell of a lot more to say. It might be the best track on the album, Ashcroft’s answer to Strummer’s “Radio Clash”. Are you tuning in?

Though Boston got “The Drugs Don’t Work” and “History”, New Yorkers heard “Lonely Soul”, Richard’s brilliant 1998 collaboration with DJ Shadow. Trip hop beats and strings enveloped the dark room while Richard pulsed onstage. All hands faced forward keeping the beat, the drums kicked back in as he took it out with that haunting refrain - “God knows your lonely soul.” A good friend passed that song onto me years ago. My friend isn’t here anymore, but I felt comfort knowing he was listening somehow. That song was his, and I finally heard it the way we’d always wanted.

It’s no secret the critics have it out for Richard, especially those in the UK. But he sells out venues around the world every time he releases an album. This man belongs to his fans. United is impressive, giving us just a glimpse of how he’ll keep changing. But strip it all away and you have that infallible voice in a room with six strings. Alone with everybody after all.