23 June 2010

The United Nations of Sound, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, 3/5 stars from The Independent

"'Bitter Sweet Symphony' is one of the greatest pieces of modern art created by anyone," declared the ever-modest Richard Ashcroft during this month's tour of Australia with his new band, United Nations of Sound (UNS).

Granted, with five hit albums under his belt, two with The Verve, the singer-songwriter has a lot to crow about. Which would explain the bravado with which he showcases most of his forthcoming album, Redemption, at this long-awaited London gig with no fear of a mutinous walk out.

Supported by accomplished band and his wife, Kate Radley, on keyboards, Ashcroft swaggers on stage and launches into new track "Are you Ready?" Featuring lyrics like "Ooh, are you ready for the day?/ He's gonna come back down to earth/ I hope you're gonna pray", the newbie and its successor "Born Again" set an inescapably religious tone that intensifies throughout the evening.

"This is for anyone who's had a dark night of the soul. And that's not an exotic chocolate," quips Ashcroft as he introduces "Let my Soul Rest".

There is a distinct hip-hop flavour to the new material that the band soulfully upholds, but Ashcroft accompanies it with some cringe-worthy gangsta moves. Thankfully, he soon returns to the acoustic guitar for old favourite "A Song for the Lovers", which restricts his dancing and restores the appearance of his Verve-era nonchalant cool.

The gig continues as a set of two halves, one of which sees the band providing crashing drum and guitar crescendos that seem to make the crowd truly believe in song like Ashcroft's mantra "Music is Power". The other is Ashcroft's pre-UNS half. After the modern classics "Lucky Man", "Sonnet" and "Bitter Sweet Symphony", it's clear that no amount of hallelujahs in the new material will equal the incredible passion behind the emotive strumming and quavering vocals of his previous incarnations. Despite valiant efforts, joy just isn't Ashcroft's forte.