NEW YORK -- The Verve's lead singer, Richard Ashcroft, behaved like an artist with something to prove on Thursday. It was the second show of the British rock band's two-night stint at the Hammerstein Ballroom, and the wiry frontman was riveting.
During the most explosive performance of the set, "Come On," from The Verve's smash album Urban Hymns, Ashcroft suggestively mouthed the song title for a good minute without singing. He didn't have to say a word. The crowd was enraptured.
Maybe Ashcroft was so earnest in order to counter-balance the unsettled nature of the band's current tour. The Verve are in the middle of an American concert swing that has weathered the absence of guitarist Nick McCabe, due to stress of touring, and the defection of erstwhile opening act Massive Attack.
But Ashcroft needn't have been too concerned about Thursday's Hammerstein show. The band drew hordes of fans -- including many Europeans and rocker Lenny Kravitz -- to the midtown Manhattan venue.
Not that the show was perfect. The tuneful ensemble, including bassist Simon Jones, guitarist Simon Tong and drummer Peter Salisbury, was so powerful during some songs, such as "Come On," that you couldn't help but wish they performed as a unit throughout the set. When they did, the drums crashed and the guitars screeched together amid criss-crossing blue, green and silver lights and the effect was stunning.
"They're amazing," said Alex McGregor, 23, originally from County Mayo, Ireland, and now living in the Bronx.
"[The Verve] are the best band in the world right now," McGregor's friend Colin Dunne screamed in a heavy brogue.
These fans were pretty much on the mark. The Verve, despite the temporary loss of McCabe, are still in very good shape and are quite able to rock a packed concert hall. When the band was allowed to let loose, they lived up to Dunne's hyperbole. But Ashcroft's control over the performance made it seem, at times, like one of the solo gigs he performed a few years ago, during a period of Verve inactivity.
He was dressed in jeans, a black zippered top and white undershirt, with dark sunglasses covering his eyes during the early part of the show. As he puffed on the butt of his cigarette and coolly stared down the crowd, Ashcroft sang, "Gonna rise straight through the light in or out of time," from "This Time" (RealAudio excerpt). His clear, ringing voice alone justifies his clout in the band. And with his shaggy, unkempt hair, lanky build and drooping features, he certainly looks the part of a rock star.
The wild kids in the audience were ecstatic when Ashcroft was at center stage, highlighted by a shining white light, singing compositions such as "Sonnet" and "The Drugs Don't Work" (RealAudio excerpt) -- some of the most beautiful rock songs in recent memory.
"I just love their words," said Helen Smith, 25, a native Dubliner now living in Manhattan. She was given tickets to the show as a birthday gift from her friends. "The Verve's lyrics are very original, very today."
"I worship [The Verve]," said Christine Murphy, 22, a Bronx resident who works at a New York advertising agency. "No one here knew about them [until recently] ... I turned people at work on to them."
Fans even cheered Ashcroft during older songs such as "On Your Own" (RealAudio excerpt), from 1995's A Northern Soul album. He dominated the stage on that number, strumming his guitar, while lap-steel guitarist BJ Cole augmented the sound brilliantly from the darkness.
At one point, Ashcroft's own guitar malfunctioned so badly that the rhythm section had to ad-lib a funk workout for a good six minutes before the band could resume the show. During the mishap, the barefoot Ashcroft sang, "New York City, there'll be a short intermission while I fix my appliance ... " Unfortunately, the evening's momentum suffered.
By the time of the set-ending "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (RealAudio excerpt), things were back on track. Referring to a copyright tiff with the Rolling Stones over the composition, Ashcroft proclaimed, "Even though it's been f---ing pillaged, this song is still alive!"
As Ashcroft ended the show, yelling "Long live Muhammad Ali! Long live James
Brown!" to deafening applause, it was also clear that The Verve are still alive.