Monday, March 28, 2011

Ashcroft brings charisma and Verve to solo set

Richard Ashcroft performing at Villa Victoria Center for the Arts on Thursday. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)


The response to “United Nations of Sound,’’ the new record from Richard Ashcroft, has been overwhelmingly poor. But for Boston fans, Thursday night’s performance from the erstwhile frontman of the Verve — best known for its 1997 hit “Bitter Sweet Symphony’’ — was nonetheless a long-awaited treat.

“Treat’’ may be an understatement — euphoric surprise, perhaps? One of only two dates on a brief album-release jaunt, the Boston stop found Ashcroft, all slender angles and be-mopped cool, stripping down for an acoustic set that spanned his solo career and leaned heavily on early Verve material, including “History’’ and “On Your Own’’ from 1995’s “Northern Soul,’’ and nearly everything off of 1997 classic “Urban Hymns’’ (“Sonnet,’’“Weeping Willow,’’ “Velvet Morning’’).


The decision to perform solo seemed a curious one, especially considering how enamored Ashcroft has been of the group of players he has assembled for the new record. Then again, many critics have pointed to its bloated instrumentation and incongruous hip-hop production in reviews, saving praise for the more traditional Ashcroft-style acoustic ballads such as “She Brings Me the Music.’’

Perhaps a solo set was the best outcome then, a chance to showcase the tunes at the heart of the record and Ashcroft’s iconic, heartrending croon. The chapel-like environs of Villa Victoria — vaulted ceilings, swooping balconies, and stained-glass windows — framed both the soulful songwriter himself in a worshipful position, and his giant voice in a reverberating embrace.
“They said people of my generation wouldn’t write songs that would last and be timeless,’’ he said, three songs into what was already turning out to the crowd’s shock to be a greatest hits set. “I thought we’d prove that wrong.’’
The gorgeously anthemic “Space and Time’’ promptly did just that, with the entire room swept up and singing along. The gravitational pull of his beloved material placed newer songs, such as “Are You Ready?’’ and “This Thing Called Life,’’ in an enviable context, and obliterated any lingering new-album indifference. By the time Ashcroft began the familiar opening chords of “The Drugs Don’t Work,’’ there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

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