Wigan, England, 24 May 1998
"The greatest day of my life…." - SIMON JONES
"By now 'Bitter Sweet Symphony' should be as pallidly commonplace as an Athena postcard, chewed up by the world of radio and advertising, yet the moment those iconic strings pitch in, it's given a whole new charge.
"This song has been stolen," says Richard gravely beforehand. ("Not by us though", he adds.) "This is a song for the people. This is a modern day blues song."
It's this communication that saves The Verve - no longer lost on their own mysterious planet, nor yet bleached on some exclusive desert island, they give fresh credibility to the messy idea of unity through music.
Forget all the inevitable bleating about Spike Island and Maine Road, all those precedents creakingly wheeled out as validation, as 'classic' perspective. Thankfully, tonight never deliberately set out to grab at history - instead concentrating on taking another little piece of the hearts and memories of those singing along with 'Bitter Sweet Symphony'….No stormy clouds here, just new horizons." - NME
"…. Ashcroft looks remarkably together (for the first time in ages, he's singing with open eyes, as if he has to stare at the occasion to believe that yes, it's all real), but even the glimpse of pop's new dark prince can't top the sense of revelation that accompanies this band live."
"The Verve are more focussed, angrier and
yet, conversely, more positive than ever. In one last moment of drama,
a violently shaking Richard follows a turbo-charged 'Come On' by grabbing
the microphone, ironically chanting "Rockin' all over the world" and throwing
it to the floor, as a backdrop shows the city lights of Wigan that the
band used to gaze upon. But this wasn't just a perfect circle, it
"When he sings 'The Drugs Don't Work', something truly amazing happens: thousands of people sing along to the sad, sad words, all the while toking on their joints. Ashcroft sings: 'Like a cat in a bag, waiting to drown/This time I'm coming down.' Everybody joins in with the chorus: 'The drugs don't work - they just make you worse'. Then they grin sadly and pass the joint around." - THE OBSERVER
"Just like the Stone Roses at Strike (sic) Island, the concert at Haigh Hall, Wigan took The Verve back to their roots. It felt like Oasis at Knebworth, but this show was smaller and ultimately more enjoyable." - THE SUN
"Musically, this was a show that sagged in many places. Their playing was more focused and controlled than when I saw them earlier this year; nevertheless there were just four very good songs in the set. The rest were mainly aimless, tuneless dirges, each one a splurge of lumpy rhythms, meandering guitars and shapeless vocal lines….But when they are good, The Verve are very, very good. The aforementioned good songs - Sonnet, The Drugs Don't Work, Bitter Sweet Symphony and History - contrasted starkly with the bulk of thee show." - THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
Fantom Fingers Reports....
It was a time for skewed theories and confused band histories. The local media had been digging around, dissecting personalities and venerating Wigan boys made good. It was alternately a triumphant homecoming, a not-forgetting-their-roots extravaganza or a chance to show those who'd written them off as losers how wrong they were. Perhaps it was all three? That's not important. What was important was the fact that everyone concerned was so almightily 'up for it' and that the overcast sky refused to rain on the parade. Nothing this big had rolled into Wigan before and like the band the event was greater than the some of it's parts. It's not just that The Verve were good (they were magnificent), it was that the spirit of the day was right, generating more adrenalin and excitement than the modest little mill town had ever experienced.
Just after three p.m., as prime Northern Soul boomed across the arena, the orange-clad security army opened the gates and a flood of rabid punters streamed full tilt towards the stage to take up positions they would guard jealously until the arrival of The Verve. For the next three hours the crowd and their anticipation grew. Beer was supped, jazz woodbines did the rounds and still more beer and streamers of toilet roll liberated from portaloos were lobbed about.
At six, John Martyn shuffled on-stage and fired up his Echoplex. For the first few numbers, including a fine version of 'I'd Rather be the Devil', he was comfortably enveloped in his playing and his distinctive slur and barely decipherable lyrics were quite well received by the masses. Then it all went a little sour. While he was experiencing difficulties with his guitar, the crowd lost patience, began to jeer and thereafter were largely indifferent to his efforts.
Next up was Beck, playing his only British date of the year. Predictably he got a much more positive reception. He and his band enthusiastically rattled off his chart hits - 'Loser', 'Devil's Haircut', 'The New Pollution', 'Deadweight' et al -, tracks from 'Odelay' and the odd new tune. The little showman ran through the full gamut of his crowd-pleasing antics with undeniable aplomb. Just as he was coyly fluttering his feather fan around, word filtered through that a posse of Wigan Athletic fans had stormed the Hut Recordings tent to gain access to the free alcohol therein. Bottles were thrown, VIPs cowered and a portacabin bathroom facility was tipped from its moorings before police and security reinforcements stepped in to quell the commotion. As Beck finished, the sun briefly cracked the cloud cover to take a look for itself and the thought that a glorious sunset might stretch out behind The Verve as they played crossed our minds. But nothing in life has any business being perfect and it ducked away again.
As the suitably huge, orchestral groove of Eumir Deodato's seventies take on 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' washed over the arena, The Verve gathered stage left before striding out to an awesome reception. The crowd were instantly galvanised by This is Music and the wait was over. The heavy surge of Space & Time, added to the set this summer in chunky electric form, came next and the band were rolling out one of their best ever performances.
Bassist Simon Jones attacked his guitar, lurching into his freaked-out, two-step shuffle and saluting the crowd between songs. Pete, face furrowed with exertion, seemed to be belting his drums even harder than normal. Simon Tong was cool and impassive as usual while providing the gorgeous strings and keyboards that fill out the sound and stepping forward to strap on his guitar and insouciantly rock out. Nick, fringe in face and also characteristically calm, choked and coaxed his instrument to give up the goods. It duly complied, propelling the songs into the cosmos with huge sheets of riffs and intensifying the emotion with delicate, filigree picking. In the midst of all this, Richard, arms outstretched clutching a tambourine in each paw and jacket zipped up under imperious, chiselled features delivered a most heartfelt performance. Inspired, adored and in control to the end.
Ticketless fans scaled the fence and tried their luck against the sea of orange jackets. A sprint into the hordes was rewarded for some. Others found vantagepoints in the trees to the right of the action. Portaloos were commandeered as platforms for a better view and the whole place throbbed with a palpable sense of goodwill.
For such a large venue the sound was a marvel. Highlights, if it was possible to distinguish them, were Catching the Butterfly, which crept out and swamped the masses in it's eerie groove and Velvet Morning which was as anguished and moving live as on record. Grown men got teary-eyed to a majestic Sonnet and History and Bitter Sweet Symphony were everything they've ever been and then some more. The Rolling People was a stirring, rancorous assault. Ditto an extended Come On that finished the show, whereupon Richard flung his microphone to the ground, gathered his gear and he and his friends trooped off.
Looking around at the empty field half an hour later, everything was calm but for the rustle of paper bags and foil that contained pies, crushed plastic pint pots and tatters of paper tissue. What a day. A day that had delivered all it's promise and from which memories will be filtering back to stay with those who were there for a long long time. What a band. Casually, yet forcefully cementing their reputation as Britain's premier rock 'n' roll outfit, and doing it in their own backyard. Magic.
IMPORTANT STATISTICS Wigan Infirmary treated around 120 minor casualties (including 6 security guards), caused by anything from asthma to alcohol. One person was arrested for assault and another for suspected drug offences. No babies were born and it is not known whether there were any bad trips.
Other areas of interest:
A Northern Soul - Wigan's heritage, culture, and The Verve
A Climb to the Top - interesting article by the BBC
Wigan History - a history of Wigan, plus The Verve