Armed with a brand-new album and a same-old attitude, Richard Ashcroft resurrects the 1990s with some old-school Northern swagger at Camden’s Roundhouse, a venue once home to the Gallic gaudiness of Cirque du Soleil. Ladies and gents, welcome to the Cirque du Salford.
And it suddenly occurs, like some occurring thing that was standing in front of me all along in a pink Ben Sherman: the middle-aged are taking over.
The queue outside the Roundhouse is like a biscuit tin of Rich Tea-type middling – fresh enough to dunk, but liable to go floppy and break apart if left to linger. Tonight, the going-stale assortment of 40-somethings are gathered to unfurl the red carpet for Sir Richard of Ashcroft – the grand Garibaldi of rock (chewy, misshapen, and apparently immune to decay) – who’s here to herald a much-needed distraction from lives that have accidentally become like a box of biscuits: you know exactly what you’re gonna get.
And sometimes it’s heartening to know what’s coming. Strutting onto the stage like he’s just nipped out for a piss, Richard Ashcroft sashays back into the spotlight as if he’s wandered in off the set of the Bittersweet Symphony video, a bulldozer with cheekbones on a headlong collision into anywhere a face happens to be. You can almost hear the refrain of “No change, I can’t change” punctuating each footfall.
It’s all a little anachronistic, you think to yourself sniffily, having since grown up and become a citizen. Meanwhile, you’re surreptitiously wanking at the cartoonish arrogance with a Red Bull mixer and the words ‘Come ON!’ punchbagging your epiglottis.
Decked out in impeccably tailored suit (and a gas mask, for some reason), shaved head and aviators, Ashcroft looks like a grim approximation of Liam Gallagher interviewing for Top Gun. With a gas mask. And thus feeling the need for speed (and alcohol and anything else on the table (a gas mask?)), he blasts into album opener ‘Out Of My Body’ with sentient authority, his ventriloquist-puppet vocals still averse to the odd diphthong but brooding up a nice alphabet all its own. “Aahhdaahvemahbahdayy,” goes the song’s title, coursing eminently from a jutting kingfisher jugular that swoops upon every note with glottal alacrity. “Feeelainyeeknoorrh/Eezwhaanbeeegllaayyiiee,” and so forth.
On the evidence of new album ‘These People’, Ashcroft has eschewed the diffident route to middle age in favour of building big massive choruses, standing atop them and golden-showering sincerity all over everyone. A mere two songs in, and the exalted one whips out a colossus in the shape of ‘This Is How It Feels’, a massive arm-waver that seems to be just one perpetual chorus woah-yeahing its way into oblivion atop the Glastonbury Tor.
As a measure of his square-mile reach, Ashcroft is a ley-line ordinance survey, still headlining in his head at the End Of The World festival, and this is the lullaby that lighter-waves humanity through the apocalypse and beyond. Almost immediately it becomes clear: this ‘Lucky Man’ is not counting his blessings while ploughing through some old faves, nor is he invoking some jazz-flavoured, doo-wop-shoo-bop nodding appreciation in the back of a pub. No; Richard Ashcroft is back TO RULE THE FUCKING WORLD.
“Thank you for sticking with me,” he says, humbly, unconvincingly. His appreciation may be genuine, but there’s no way Ashcroft was expecting anything less than the adoration that’s swelling in this packed arena, even before any of the old tunes kick in. If he were cryogenically suspended for a million years, he’d defrost with his arms in the air, going “come on!” and expecting what’s left of humanity to join in. Time is simply not a factor for this man.
In fact, RA (as his album cover declares him to be) is less a human condition than a geological one; he is pure rock. Even as he’s easing himself out of his suit jacket to reveal a waistcoat tailored to James Bond proportions, he’s possessed of a certain immovability that almost dares time and trend to come square on. As if to prove this, the hymnal Science Of Silence unfurls its call-to-arms mantra with unashamed echoes of Bill Withers’ philanthropic classic Lean On Me, and suddenly a paean for black oppression becomes a hymn for the plight of the (middle aged) indie kid.
Under the glow of harsh white light, as the song weaves its way to a typically grandiose finish, Ashcroft’s foreboding chock-full-o’cheekbone face looks like an Easter Island edifice.
And in such a timeless state he delivers the perennial ‘Sonnet’, the true ‘urban hymn’ from said album, and a transcendent moment tonight as the Roundhouse is compelled to time-travel back to days when arm-waving was acceptable. And while I blame my unapologetically retro plus-one for my involvement, there’s something to be said about holding one’s hands aloft without wielding an LCD monitor. It feels free.
Thus emancipated, another newbie squeezes its way into the free zone, the defiant ‘They Don’t Own Me’ a mellifluous protest that soars with taut strings (sans string section) and tauter heart (avec Ashcroft beating his bespoke chest), all marinating in a rolling mantra that typifies Ashcroft at his loftiest.
And while he’s undoubtedly on top form, rock music’s Alexander The Great is rarely content with those laurels of his – sometimes to his detriment. Even when he’s standing atop the most mountainous song in Chrisendom – in this instance, the grandiose Music Is Power – the breadth of his domain is seemingly never enough, prompting an outro so overblown it loses itself up a labyrinthine tunnel of its own intricacy, then farts itself out.
Having said that, much of what’s played tonight – especially the new material – points the way to Ashcroft regaining whatever mantle was left in his wake. By the time Lucky Man puts a full stop on the main set, the sheen that adorned Ashcroft in his highest pomp is back, even though most of his sartorial refinery has been refashioned into that of the most pissed man at the wedding.
Thus in tatters he leaves the stage… for an encore, presumably.
Yes, an encore surely. Any minute now…
(Anyone seen an encore around here?)
(Joke to unsoliciting +1: ‘Hey. Encores – they’re coming back!’)
He returns after an age, looking for all the world like he’s had a shower, a shit, a shave… and a Shawshank redemption. (It’s been that long.) And thus, arms aloft, he plunges back into the spotlight like a man emancipated, with no apologies for the delay whatsoever. Whether he really was performing ablutions backstage or just milking up the adulation is soon forgotten – an acoustic version of ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ perfectly contradicts its subject matter by instilling the sedative that works wonders on a restive crowd. And while its sparse evocation leaves a vacancy where the strings of a full-blown version reside, the ghostly rendition just makes the absence more palpable – and the heart fonder. Truly, Ashcroft’s voice has never sounded so fibrously vulnerable.
Not a trait you commonly associate with the big I-Am, but if there was ever a doubt Ashcroft wasn’t here to take on the world, the biggest and brightest surprise comes with the dancefloor ripper-upper Hold On. An obvious highlight from the new album, tonight it’s delivered as a commandment from on high that thou shalt move thy arse to the groove. What Lord Ash of the Croft didn’t reckon on, however, was London crowds and their own collective commandment of thou shalt always be a chattering, posturing gobshite.
Atop Mount Olympus the song pours its utterly infectious hook onto an utterly egregious crowd, but it hardly matters: sooner or later, as with most things involving Richard Ashcroft, the world will catch up. The look on his face at the end of a rousing Bittersweet Symphony says as much.
“I can change, I can change” goes the crowd eventually, echoing Dickie as he conducts the root-taking, middle-aged, utterly hip floppy-biscuit crowd into a grim paradox. And even though the performance is starting to invoke visions of King Richard pedalling it out in a Vegas swansong decrying his kingdom for a hearse, the song itself is a reminder that, even when time catches up – as middle-eights become middle-aged – there are some things you’d never want to change, even if you could.
As for Richard Ashcroft, he’s here in his mould – no change, he can’t change. He is a rock, and that’s how he rolls.
Out Of My Body
This Is How It Feels
Science Of Silence
They Don’t Own Me
Music Is Power
Break The Night With Colour
The Drugs Don’t Work (acoustic)
A Song For The Lovers
Lonely Soul (UNKLE cover)
Bitter Sweet Symphony
* An edited version of this review appears in Record Collector magazine