The Verve Kick Crippled Tour Into First Gear

Band emerges from series of setbacks with an opening-night performance in Chicago.

CHICAGO -- Despite the crises that have befallen them in recent months -- from illness to losing their lead guitarist and then their opening act to show cancellations -- Brit-rock act The Verve hunkered down Tuesday night and put on a short but bittersweet rock show to open their tour.

The British act finally got its long-anticipated North American tour off the ground at the Aragon Ballroom after weeks of speculation as to whether the band would actually make it to that point. Though The Verve chose to avoid songs featuring recently defected guitarist Nick McCabe's handiwork, they managed to concentrate on the music from their breakthrough LP, Urban Hymns.

Still, before the concert even began, some fans were bracing for the worst.

"It won't be the same, but it'll be good enough," said Joe Ghumstrom of

Eau Claire, Wis., who had driven six hours to get to the show, which had been moved to the Aragon from a venue nearly four times the size due to slow ticket sales.

Despite the problems, the set -- which opened with "Space and Time," off Urban Hymns -- went off without a hitch. However, there clearly were points where lead singer Richard Ashcroft struggled to fill in for McCabe's solos. But there were also songs such as "The Drugs Don't Work" (RealAudio excerpt) where steel guitarist BJ Cole, who was added to the lineup during the final weeks before the tour, really made his presence felt.

"He's no hack," concert-goer Davin Kolderup said before the show.

The show's highlight was, not surprisingly, The Verve's biggest hit,

"Bitter Sweet Symphony" (RealAudio excerpt). The group ended its brief, 80-minute set with a soaring, eight-minute rendition of the symphonic rock tune as Ashcroft seemed to channel the energy of his own composition. Adding to the atmosphere, Cole exploded with occasional bursts from his lap-steel guitar.

And by the end of the show, The Verve had awed some and disappointed others, particularly their longtime fans.

"They left out all the songs that really featured McCabe," said longtime

The Verve follower Clancy Folay. "There were so many other good songs they

could have played," he said, referring specifically to songs such as

"Butterfly" and "Blue," off The Verve's 1993 full-length debut, Storm In Heaven.

Still, he said the band sounded pretty good, regardless of the revamped lineup.

Shortly after McCabe's defection -- which was reportedly due to the stress of touring -- there was the additional blow that opening act Massive Attack were dropping off the tour, having decided instead to headline their own tour of the States. "It was a double whammy," said Becky Willis, who had driven from outside South Bend, Ind., for the show.

While the band lost its guitarist and support act, its ambitious plan to play large arenas also began to vanish, with many of the stadium-sized venues being scaled back. The Chicago show, for instance, was downsized from the 17,000-

seat Rosemont Horizon to the 4,500-person Aragon, which The Verve were able to sell out.

To replace Massive Attack, The Verve led off their trip by substituting a disc jockey who simply spun records. Hoping to appease the crowd, Ashcroft, who had earlier apologized for not being able to dance much while he filled in on guitar, made a conscious effort to drop the instrument now and again and strut for the excited but civil crowd.

Nonetheless, the setlist -- which featured only one song that wasn't on Urban Hymns, namely Storm in Heaven's "See You In The Next One (Have A Good Time)" -- left a lot to be desired for some die-hards.

"I'm mighty pissed off that Nick [McCabe] wasn't here," said Adam Thompson

of Chicago.