SAN FRANCISCO -- Richard Ashcroft is freaking me out.
The Verve singer is dipped in radioactive waste, standing on stage at the sold-out 2,500 capacity Warfield Thursday night, performing a sort of tribal dance that's part simian and part certified lunatic (RealVideo excerpt or QuickTime excerpt).
In the lights, his wraith-like skull glows green and blue as if dipped in a barrel of toxic glop. The stage is bathed in an otherworldly vibrant sodium florescence that makes the spidery Ashcroft look like a cross between Happy Mondays' bug-eyed dancer Bez and A Nightmare Before Christmas' Jack Skellington.
The Verve are pounding away at "The Rolling People," off their new album, Urban Hymns, attempting to knock the audience of head bobbers onto their backs with wave after wave of fuzzed-out, stun-gun guitar and drums. Ashcroft is shouting something at me, waving his arms around, looking pissed-off and excited all at once. He's mouthing something like "too much exposure," but I can't be sure because he's put down his microphone. I'm trying to understand him, to read his lips but it's all too weird.
Still, whatever he's shouting at the sold-out San Francisco crowd, he seems to mean it.
It's the last night of The Verve's U.S. tour. Having taken the stage customarily barefoot, brown flares dragging on the ground, sheer short sleeve shirt barely hanging on his impossibly thin torso, Ashcroft opened the set by tossing a paper airplane into the crowd before beginning his monkey dance. Mimicking primeval man at the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, he crouched on the floor, bobbing his head to the bombastic "A New Decade." As if by osmosis, the crowd quickly absorbed the appropriate response to The Verve's rolling-thunder Bittersweet Communion Revue.
Some of the fans packed up near the front spent the first few songs with their eyes closed, lolling their heads in circles, lost in the druggy grandeur of "Catching the Butterfly" and "Slide Away," as the sounds oozed off the stage in a forceful gale more appropriate for a bigger hall.
Mad Richard, Sad Richard, Bad Richard. It's clearly all about Richard. Ashcroft is the center of attention. There are no other microphones for backing vocals that might interrupt his mesmerizing groove. His phrenologists drill of a voice bores into your skull like a drunken bee. He stalked the stage, strapping on an acoustic guitar for "Weeping Willow," dedicating a somber, angelic acoustic "Sonnet" to a dead friend. And, what's more, he doesn't look at the audience so much as look through them, beyond them.
Maybe it's the shaggy hair. But in the right light, Ashcroft bears a passing resemblance to Oasis' frontman Liam Gallagher after, say, he's been stretched on a medieval rack. But while his strut and pissed-off expressions are the same, Ashcroft doesn't bore you with the unimaginative foot-planting tactics his British contemporary favors.
As I watch him now, a spooky specter, all nose and sideburns, Ashcroft appears to be almost blown sideways by the blinding flashpot light intro to the show's first apex during "The Rolling People," a sludgy, overpowering morass of Zeppelin drums and Charlatans-like English funk.
A woman next to me, her face painted with glitter, who just 45 minutes ago was bellowing "Richard, get your fucking ass out here! We've been waiting an hour," is roughly elbowed aside by an overzealous fan in a furry old man's winter hat. The buzz killer just happens to be right under Ashcroft's shadow-casting shnozz during "Bittersweet Symphony." She yells into my ear "I work for VH1! I just started Sunday and I'm supposed to talk to Richard after the show!" Her vigorous dolled-up booty-shaking brings looks of disdain from a trio of young fans who arrived early to secure their spot up front, at the feet of slit-eyed guitarist Nick McCabe, who is producing wall after wall of sound with his Gibson Les Paul.
Among the very few in the house who seem oblivious to Ashcroft, McCabe is busy tending to a scorched-earth policy of guitar-playing, his eyes barely open, his fingers sliding up and down the neck chopping out oversized bar chords. The fuzzy hat beats a hasty, if expected, retreat after the anthemic hit -- the group's only song thus far to get serious play in the U. S. on commerical radio and MTV -- draws to a close.
McCabe is the only other real presence on stage besides Ashcroft. For moments my eyes drift to him, focusing on his fingers as they pull unreal sounds from his guitar. His blast furnace riffs range from bloated and wanky to screaming peals of squelchy feedback that rain down like more radioactive showers. A guy up front yells "I love you Richard!" The crowd snaps out of their nod to chuckle for the first time all night.
Several songs later, as if punching out and in a rush to leave, Ashcroft puts on his jacket and walks off the stage.
He returns for solo acoustic encores of "On Your Own," off of A Northern Soul, and "Lucky Man," from Urban Hymns. And for the first time I can hear his voice as it climbs high above the over-heated wall of sound to its purest, most engaging form. The melodies unravel as Ashcroft, eyes closed, seems to drift away somewhere. He is alone now, bathing in a deep red glow and listening to the sound of his own voice.
He is the center, holding the audience in place. And the music revolves around him.
After nearly two hours and more whispered taunts of "come on!," or maybe it's "shine down!," Ashcroft does his final skeleton puppet dance, moving as if manipulated by invisible strings.
The band returns to play a few more before it all swirls to an end-of-the-world melt-down psychedelic jam of "Come On." Here, for the first time all night, the band pulls out all the stops.
Ashcroft bounces around, McCabe cranks out a symphony of distorted, squealing notes, drummer Peter Salisbury pounds a syncopated dance beat, while second guitarist Simon Tong (who has spent most of the night on keyboards) strums along and, strangely, bassist Simon Jones looks like he walked onto the wrong stage, savaging his bass as if pretending to be in a punk band.
After nearly 10 minutes of millennial madness, Ashcroft grabs his shoes, zips up his jacket and struts off with but a backhand wave, the guitars still feeding back well after he's gone.
Ashcroft's gone, yet I can see his afterglow, mouthing words to me. And I still have no idea what he's saying. [Fri., Nov. 21, 1997, 5:30 p.m. PDT]