Sunday, May 15, 2016

Review: Richard Ashcroft at Manchester Albert Hall

Thomas Ingham watches as the former Verve frontman gets a hero's welcome as he returns with new material

Given the unpredicted and runaway success of 1997's Urban Hymns, Richard Ashcroft could have indulged his status as one of the greatest British songwriters with a series of headline shows at Heaton Park, but he's always been a bit more humble than that.

The unshakable assurance he has in his songwriting abilities have allowed the Wigan-born songwriter to brush off ‘mad Richard’ comments and put out a new politically-charged record, These People.

Six years on from the eclectic United Nations of Sound and the unmistakable rich timbre of his voice is supported by an altogether more electronic and breezy ensemble of instruments, offsetting his bleak outlook on international conflicts and issues surrounding freedom of speech.

Manchester’s Albert Hall is the dream venue for Ashcroft; big enough to soak up the anthems but bijou and esoteric enough to cement his position as an outlier in the music industry.

Swaggering onto the stage with arms outstretched, he’s greeted by the kind of reception usually reserved for an FA Cup final. His trademark shades are accompanied by a gas mask which he wears around his neck, mirroring his latest album cover.

Wasting no time, he blasts through new single "This is How it Feels" and Verve classic "Sonnet," pounding his chest and gesturing to the adoring crowd after every chorus.

The confidence in his new material is well placed; "Hold On" and "These People" feeling like instant classics with their infectious hooks and shimmering production.

Throughout the set Ashcroft seems vitriolic; thanking fans “one of the best nights of his life” before shouting out Mancunian icons Shaun Ryder, Stone Roses and The Smiths during "Music is Power."

The tone ranges from acoustic balladry to fuzzed-out psychedelia, a transition which highlights his abilities as a bandleader. "Lucky Man" draws one of the biggest receptions of the night, with Ashcroft taking two swipes at the intro “It’s too good of a song and it’s been too long, let’s start that again”.

After a long encore, he ditches the waistcoat and comes out in more traditional 90’s Brit-pop regalia, performing a solo rendition of "The Drugs Don’t Work" and bringing a tear to the eye of many as he dedicates it “to those who can’t be with us tonight”.

His natural gift for coupling depressingly frank lyrics with uplifting and euphoric music is demonstrated perfectly by the majestic set closer "Bitter Sweet Symphony."

Being the seldom-seen rockstar that he is, the night seems equally as overwhelming for Ashcroft as it is for the fans. The conviction with which he delivers this career-spanning set couldn’t be sustained over a more extensive UK tour, and nor should it be.

As much as he adores the crowd and performs a large chunk from Urban Hymns, this is ultimately catharsis for a true musical enigma and British master - a fleeting glimpse of his genius.

Setlist:
  1. Out Of My Body
  2. This Is How It feels
  3. Science of Silence
  4. Sonnet
  5. They Don’t Own Me
  6. Music Is Power
  7. Break The Night With Colour
  8. These People
  9. New York
  10. Lucky Man
  11. Black Lines
  12. The Drugs Don’t Work
  13. Space And Time
  14. Lonely Soul
  15. Hold On
  16. Bitter Sweet Symphony