Pop Music: The Verve: one group, two souls

The Verve, Manchester Apollo
With nominations for five Brits Awards, the record industry is anxious to promote The Verve. But, says John McCready, the group are perplexing and often unfocused ... and do they ever talk to each other?

It looked like a flyer for an after-gig party: Don't suffer in silence. If you have a problem, talk to us about it: C.A.L.M. - The Campaign for Living Miserably. The top dogs at C.A.L.M. had obviously been reading the glowing reviews for The Verve's recent Urban Hymns LP.

Here was the voice of the zeitgeist, a soundtrack for confused, introspective youth looking for help. Like Radiohead, but with shorter singles. The club-style flyers being distributed outside the concert among the paper- thin T-shirts and over-sized posters were quickly dropped on the floor as potential suicides realised it wasn't a party after all.

Noel Gallagher referred to their A Northern Soul LP as "the second-best record of 1995" and helped to swell their audience with football casuals and the kind of kids who hang around bus stops asking for your Saver ticket. Waving a plastic pint glass aloft during vocalist Richard Ashcroft's soul- searching solo take on "Space and Time" is surely no conclusive proof of a lack of sensitivity, but there are plenty of people here at the second of two sold-out nights who would have been just as happy at Manchester's G-Mex stadium late last year bawling along to "Roll With It".

An all-spending roadside billboard/TV ad marketing campaign combined with a truly great record has made for a smooth transition into the major league. That they have got this far and caused this much fuss is a marvel in itself. Having split in 1995 following the release of A Northern Soul with guitarist Nick McCabe in effect ousted beforehand, nobody could have dreamt that The Verve would be able to achieve near Gallagher-sized sales figures. Musically always ahead of their peers, the sense of triumph at what is almost a homecoming gig should have been apparent. Surprisingly, the whole thing is almost uniformly low-key and nearly 100 per cent joyless, with even the triumphant, near life-affirming "Bitter Sweet Symphony" fizzling out like an expensive defective firework.

Something else is wrong here. The Verve never were the kind of group who were always just good. They have always been over-ambitious, attempting things that other groups wouldn't dream of trying.

A core of fans have stayed with them for the moments when they simply rise above the ground. Tonight we almost get there during older tracks like "A Man Called Sun" and a beautiful "Life's An Ocean", but these Old Verve, Old Danger tracks are completed with subdued applause. The man in front of me in the pounds 200 sailing anorak shouts loudest for the singles, "Lucky Man" and "The Drugs Don't Work". The latter now seems stripped of its title-shocker resonance and like "Lucky Man" now ranks among the urban hymns also-rans. Regardless, to the man in the anorak, these are key songs in the New Verve cannon.

It's here that Ashcroft, that 60-a-day Wigan blues voice never faltering, holds sway. And it's here that guitarist Nick McCabe looks most redundant, fiddling with his effects rack, making what can best be described as speculative noises. Nobody is expecting a Bowie/Ronson interplay here, but I can't recall a minute when Ashcroft and McCabe even exchange glances, let alone look each other in the eye. As Ashcroft batters his acoustic guitar during "History" the two men appear to be playing against each other. Doggedly experimental in his approach, he plays as if he is constantly trying to work out new parts for himself. Only during the opening "Rolling People" does McCabe play anything close to the recorded versions. It is clear from the records that he is a gifted guitarist with an imagination the likes of which super-slick fretboard swot John Squire would kill for, but it seemed more a case of can play but won't play. Bass player Simon Jones and drummer Pete Salisbury have that fluid late-Sixties groove down pat, just like on the records, but there are many huge gaps where the often heroic guitar parts are painfully missing.

Halfway between the perpetually unresolved psychedelic sprawl of songs like "Stormy Clouds" and the hardbitten romanticism of "Sonnet" you realise you are watching two groups - The Verve, and Richard Ashcroft And The Verve. You can't blame the man for his growing ability, but there seems little chance at this stage of the five of them finding a quiet corner to close the gaps between the two.

The Verve are at Brixton Academy, London, tonight and tomorrow.