Don't try this at home, Ronan

Richard Ashcroft | Rolling Stone, Milan
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While his contemporaries seem content to tiptoe through the tabloids, Richard Ashcroft has always guarded his privacy more zealously. A few paparazzi-pleasing shots with celeb arm-candy might have boosted Alone With Everbody's sales, but the clue that such tactics were off-limits was right there in the album's title.

While his contemporaries seem content to tiptoe through the tabloids, Richard Ashcroft has always guarded his privacy more zealously. A few paparazzi-pleasing shots with celeb arm-candy might have boosted Alone With Everbody's sales, but the clue that such tactics were off-limits was right there in the album's title.

Easy for him to take the stage with his mystique intact, then, and tonight he looked as coolly untouchable as a proper rock star should. His skinny upper torso was sheathed in black leather, and huge shades blacked out half his face. Every Northern lad's dream haircut had been trimmed, and each guitar he strummed was of such beautiful vintage that the swap-overs seemed like costume changes. Circa Milan's fashion week, it was all very fitting.

Many of the reviews of A.W.E. complained that its endless overdubs suffocated Ashcroft's writing. Pleasing, then, when songs like "Brave New World" and "I Get My Beat" were afforded more breathing space tonight, their subtle but powerful melodies finally shining true.

In truth, Ashcroft's voice is such an effortlessly classy instrument that it needs little in the way of accompaniment; at times it crackled with the warmth of a young Neil Diamond, or radiated Glen Campbell's worldly-wise authority. Don't try that at home, Ronan Keating.

It was certainly a set that catered for Verve fans, Ashcroft and co treating us to "Space & Time", "Lucky Man" and "Sonnet" before we were even halfway through. "Sonnet" was magnificent, it's only failing the hole in the arrangement where former Verve guitarist Nick McCabe's guitar solo once took over. For me, it was a reminder that, although pedal-steel virtuoso BJ Cole has enabled Ashcroft to go Gram Parsons in style, the singer is unlikely to make an exceptional solo record until he finds another foil who can challenge and inspire him like McCabe did.

Closing the main set with the leaden and repetitive "New York" proved to be a mistake. Like tonight's other trough, "C'mon People", it's one of the tunes on A.W.E. that lowers Ashcroft's batting average, and the crowd - with him all the way up till that point - were rendered a little less eager for the encores than they would have been otherwise.

Fortunately, he'd held back some top cards, and if "A Song For The Lovers" was a Mexican trumpet-bolstered jack, "Bittersweet Symphony" was the ace which made it pontoon. Like me you've probably lost count of the times that you've heard Ashcroft sing "I need to hear some sounds that recognise the pain in me", but the potency of that lyric, tied to that string-hook, is undiminished.

Some say that Ashcroft is too cosy to cut it now, but didn't Lennon have a few bob when he wrote "#9 Dream"? Come to think of it, John's first solo record wasn't great, either. Watch this space.

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