Live Report: The Verve

Arrowhead Pond, Anaheim, Calif., August 14, 1998

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They say hindsight is 20/20, and the Verve have learned that lesson in spades. For a band that was nearly unheard of in America just over a year ago, setting out on a stadium jaunt around the U.S. was a tad too ambitious, if not downright foolish. The Verve's music doesn't even really belong in arenas, popularity notwithstanding. It's much too orchestral, too subtle, too cerebral. Moreover, the band has only had one hit in America. Bands with one hit don't play places like the 19,000-capacity Arrowhead Pond, but somehow it was one of the few venues on the Verve's tour that was not downsized due to poor ticket sales and the loss of original tour supporters Massive Attack. Despite this cloud hanging over the band, lead singer Richard Ashcroft proved the optimist on this evening, no doubt preferring to consider the Pond half-full, not half-empty like the rest of us.

Donning a fishing cap, khaki trousers and a white island shirt, Ashcroft swaggered proudly onto the giant stage -- setting the tone for a night when, despite an uncertain future and the indefinite loss of guitarist Nick McCabe, the Verve would shine. The show began like a pleasant, paralyzing drug trip, as "Space and Time" bounced off the arena's walls with beautiful, psychedelic grace. Although the lack of McCabe's guitar genius was a sizable gap in the band's sound, temporary additions B.J. Cole (pedal-steel guitar) and percussionist Steve Sidelnyk helped fill out the sound admirably. Bassist Simon Jones and guitarist/keyboardist Simon Tong, along with drummer Peter Salisbury, rounded out the wounded lineup.

McCabe's absence did open an otherwise closed door for Ashcroft, grounding the singer and forcing him to step forward with just an acoustic guitar on the painfully brilliant "The Drugs Don't Work," the effulgent "See You in the Next One (Have a Good Time)" and the aching B-side "So Sister" (which features the magical line "I wrote your name in dust on a truck as it rolled out of town/just in case my love for you might be found"). Despite the obvious beauty of it all, the songs, along with the accompanying kaleidoscope of trippy lights and acid-test visuals, would have turned a magnificent moment at the Pond into a mind-altering epiphany at a smaller, more manageable venue. On the other end of the spectrum, "Come On," with its thunderous baseline, and "Weeping Willow," with its weightless, wah wah guitar trip, burst forth as the only two songs actually fit for a venue this size.

That didn't stop Ashcroft, however, who wallowed in his own brilliance before "Lucky Man" by visibly lighting up a joint and ranting about rock & roll being a hard life and needing the joint to get through it. When the band finally launched into "Bittersweet Symphony," the irony was lost in the moment. The Rolling Stones may take the credit for the song's gorgeous riff, but the Verve are the ones smoking to it -- half-baked or not.