Richard Ashcroft, King's College, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

This could have been a simple warm-up for his Coldplay support slots or a showcase of new material, yet the former Verve front man turned it into a long thank-you note to his fans. Almost every dedication was to loyal supporters, who had stood by Richard Ashcroft through the "hard times", caused by critics that had accused him of donning "pipe and slippers" since he left his former band. Which was a little unfair, given that he rarely suffered a negative live review.

His problem has been a series of solo records that have failed to reach anywhere near the triumphs of The Verve, namely the bland country soul of 2000's Alone With Everybody, then two years later the domesticated Human Conditions. Next year, he releases Keys to the World, his first for Parlophone.

Coincidentally, this is also home to Coldplay, with whom Ashcroft sang "Bittersweet Symphony" at Live8, his high-profile return to the fray. Chris Martin maintains he is not worthy of giving Ashcroft a leg-up in a similar way to Embrace, for whom he wrote much of the comeback single "Gravity". Still, the suspicion remains that the man who once combined the roles of the common people's spokesman and crazed shaman needs all the help he can get.

Not that this showed as he swaggered on stage in trademark oversized shades and tight leather jacket to the strains of "Belfast Boy", the song about George Best. To maintain the theme, Ashcroft started with "Lucky Man", one of The Verve's finest anthems. Immediately the crowd of twentysomething men were singing with hands aloft, causing the singer to smile back in bashful surprise, a grin he maintained for much of the set.

It laid down, though, a formidable marker for more recent material. Ashcroft has tended to overproduce his music, smothering melodies in unnecessary orchestration. A stripped down, five-piece backing band, though, suggested Ashcroft had taken matters in hand.

If he had not listened to criticism, perhaps he had listened to his hero, the cult Sixties producer David Axelrod, with whom he sang last year.

This tactic added extra punch to the singer's solo work. "Song for the Lovers" remained one of his most disarmingly positive moments. It hardly mattered that often the strings and harmonies remained on backing tracks, not when his musicians could rough up the tunes in such a hair-raising manner.

With its epic sweep and subtle shifts of mood, the new power ballad "Words Just Get in the Way" came closest to promising a return to form. Most extreme, though, was the intense "Why Not Nothing", where Ashcroft jettisoned his middle-of-the-road leanings for a primitive, Velvet Underground rhythm that Doves might have used. With newfound gravitas, the singer growled: "Let's get some of the God squad in the dock" in an impassioned attack on Christian neo-cons.

Other numbers, though, showed he had not learnt from previous mistakes. "Music is Power" had a funky lilt, but like many of his solo efforts aimed for anthemic status while forgetting to include a chorus. On the new album's title track, meanwhile, Ashcroft was still in stoner philosophy territory. "I've got the keys to world," he promised, without explaining what he would do with them.

Any slack was picked up by a finale of huge contrasts. He performed solo The Verve's majestic "History", the lyrics maintaining their righteous power. Then his band re-emerged for "Bittersweet Symphony", causing Ashcroft to pump the air with righteous fury.

He looked like he was thinking ahead to his Earls Court dates later this month. The singer, though, had other plans, segueing the number into the chorus of "Thank You for Letting Me Be Myself" and another wild finish. You knew then that tonight was meant for the faithful.

14-16 December, Earls Court; 18 December, Newcastle Metro Radio Arena, 19 December, Manchester Evening News Arena

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