Blackpool Empress Ballroom
9th May 2006
It took a heroic drive up the M6 to get us to this one on time, flying through the miles to this iconic Northern seaside resort. Well done Stew, and all hail the mighty silver Ford Escort! We park and hit the gig with minutes to spare. The venue is packed to the gills tonight, although there is still opportunity to marvel at its over-the-top Victorian splendour, with its balcony, high vaulted ceiling and chandeliers. And a few moments on we are also able to appreciate the bouncy qualities of the wonderful sprung dance floor, once the scene of genteel tea dances and chaste romantic dalliances, now host to a hoard who roar with the lustiness of a football crowd for their Wigan god.
Richard Ashcroft takes to the stage to the strains of the current album’s title track ‘Keys To The World’. Dressed like Man At Milletts, he nonetheless roams about with the swagger of one who is all too aware that he is currently riding the crest of the wave of success. He is not, however, afraid to nod back to his earlier days with the Verve, following the opener immediately with a crowd-pleasing ‘Sonnet’, while an incredibly moving ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ is something of a show-stopper. The new album is thoroughly showcased: ‘Music Is Power’, ‘Cry Till The Morning’ and ‘Sweet Brother Malcolm’, among others, all making appearances. The audience is word perfect on every track. Ashcroft chats to the crowd between numbers, and dedicates the ‘Alone With Everybody’ track ‘New York’ to the heroes of 9/11, apparently his own birthday. He effortlessly strolls down the fine line between cocksure, mouthy scally and humble poet; for all of his arrogance, he can still turn out a gentle ballad like ‘Words Just Get In The Way’ that has the rowdy mob hanging on his every word.
A short break is book-ended with Verve songs, the band leaving the stage with ‘Lucky Man’ to return minutes later for the first of two encores with ‘Space And Time’. Ashcroft and his band seem to be revelling in the positive attention, and the second encore, commencing with ‘Break The Night With Colour’ winds up with an eagerly anticipated ‘Bittersweet Symphony’. Ashcroft leaves us on this high.
Ashcroft is currently experiencing a level of recognition that eclipses all but his greatest achievements with the Verve. With ‘Keys To The World’ a permanent fixture in the album chart and his singles regularly charting he has crossed over into popular success. The timing seems right for him to headline his own stadium gig – whether this will be remembered as fondly as the Verve’s classic Haigh Hall outing remains to be seen – but the forthcoming Lancaster Cricket Ground concert will certainly be a landmark in this much revered artist’s career.