Each month Our Sound writer Mark Slade takes us back to one of the many famous and historical gigs he has attended in the last three decades. The sights, the sounds, the atmosphere, the day, the music. In this first feature, he takes a look at The Verve at Haigh Hall in 1998.
“I stand accused just like you,
For being born without a silver spoon,
Stood at the top of a hill
Over my town, I was found”
Could they have started with anything other than ‘This Is Music’? This is them, stood over the hill of their home town Wigan, just over the road from the pub that they first played, now in front of 33,000 people, in the wave of Urban Hymns and its unstoppable force since its release late in the year before, this was finally The Verve’s moment……
The buzz around The Verve, brought on by the commercial success of Urban Hymns, drove demand for this gig, all 33,000 tickets sold out within hours. I was lucky enough to have got two tickets along with travel from a ticket travel company in Hull, who in previous years I had seen Oasis at Loch Lomond and Sheffield Arena with. Ticket and Travel was located at the top, of what was then the relatively new Princes Quay shopping Centre. The top floor of this shopping center was set out like the wild west, no shit, floor, walls, props, the lot. It was like Dollywood.
On the wall of the small shop were basic black and white A4 adverts, everything from A1 in Dundee, to Pulp in London. Best thing was, you could pay weekly, few quid here and there, perfect. Ticket and travel had a growing reputation of large gigs, Knebworth, Phoenix Festival, Reading, etc. Tickets bought, roll on the day…
I think we were picked up around 10am, armed with a newspaper and some cans, we were ready to go. The coach was typical of the time, filled with 80% lads, all with either Clarks Wallabies or some sort of Adidas on their feet, check shirt or polo, and jeans. Standard 90’s lad gig going uniform, plus always one kid with an Ian Brown £50 t-shirt on, that guy is standard at every gig, even now.
Cans all the way to Wigan, a cassette on the coach stereo of Urban Hymns for the first half, mix of Oasis and Roses for the rest, cassette supplied by a girl, always a prepared girl.
The coach arrives at Wigan, in the car park of Wigan Rugby Club, Central Park. We are told to be back swiftly after the gig, anyone late will be left behind, off you go. That’s it, customer service, piss off and get hammered, hopefully find your way back, or not. Fair enough.
Streams of people walking down the road, drinks in one hand, fag in another, marching in unison toward the entrance of Haigh Hall. As we are walking down there was a pub just adjacent to the entrance to Haigh Hall, filled to the rafters, music blaring out of the open windows, people outside enjoying the sun.
No time to stop, Beck was on the support bill, I could not miss Beck. Through the large stone wall/gate into Haigh Hall, into a tunnel of trees, massive trees, this track went on forever, up, down, under, over, each corner thinking we were there, seemed to take forever. Then we were in, ticket check, done.
We hang around the back near the bars for the next hour or so, the surrounding trees of the country park where full of people, mainly youngsters, 12-13, hoping to catch a glimpse. Later, some of them managed to push over a section of fence, allowing 30-40 people to come rushing through, disappearing into the crowd, the security giving up on chasing anyone. Very amusing…
First on the bill was John Martyn, I had never heard of him, and did not until a few years later hearing the sublime ‘Solid Air’ LP. He came on, looking like a homeless guy, just a guitar, and a chair. The crowd waited, he strummed, then… TWANG! A string snapped, the guitar came off and was passed to a roadie That is when it started. Someone in the crowd sang ‘You Fat Bastard, You Fat Bastard’, then half the crowd did, it was a little funny at first, but then a little sad for John. He continued to play, 1 or to songs later he stood up off his chair to play then, horrors of horrors, his fucking strap fell off his guitar, he caught the guitar and nearly fell over on came the roadie again to swap guitars, on came the chant again. He swiftly finished and went off. I bet he’s had better gigs. Later, in the Verve set, Richard Ashcroft alluded to Johns misfortunes, telling the crowd they were out of order. We were...
Next up is Beck, place is packed, Beck plays a blinder, brilliant set, still a year away from Midnight Vultures LP, I do remember some tracks played at this gig, maybe I am wrong. He played Loser, Devil’s Haircut, Novacane, Where It’s At, all the hits. He was on top form.
By the time we had gone for a beer and slipped our way to the front The Verve were ready, lights were up, the sight of the staged backdropped by the hills of Lancashire was something to behold, it was getting dark, I remember seeing this gig on NYE 1998 on the BBC, thinking how light it looked, but that was just the way it came across on film. The wind was getting up, and it was swirling around, a chill coming in, then on they came, Simon, Pete, Richard , Simon and Nick, not looking up they saddled up guitars, Nick sneaking a look up, plectrum in mouth, foot on pedal, looks over at Richard. Ashcroft was wired, totally wired, he drags the microphone lead, steps to the front of the stage and introduced ‘This Is Music’ at the same time making it a statement. Nick flies into the opening riffs, Simon Jones swinging his bass, thundering drums from Pete, this was a wall of noise, feedback, echo, distortion and magic, pure brilliance, hairs on the back of my neck stood up, beaming face, total joy, Ashcroft launches into the opening verse with as much vitriol as anyone I’ve ever seen, he means it, he is singing this song and he means it, the passion, the meaning, the sentiment, all of it.
Next track is Space And Time, Ashcroft surveying the crowd, McCabe, and his signature sound, beautiful. Ashcroft is so excited, chanting, urging the crowd to ‘COME ON!’ ‘Catching The Butterfly’ plays out, no great shakes from the crowd. ‘This song is called ‘Sonnet’ a crowd sing along, crowd with arms in the air, no phones, no lighters, just arms and people singing back at the stage. ‘The Rolling People’ BOOM, this song is a manifesto, from Ashcroft to the people, COME ON, HAVE IT’ Ashcroft riffing all over on this, chanting, channeling energy. Neon Wilderness is next, beer, fag time, chill for a few minutes. As Ashcroft wanders across the stage the band go from Neon Wilderness into Weeping Willow, no introduction. Next up is The Drugs Don’t Work, biggest crowd reaction yet, arms up, Richard, head up, Gibson Acoustic on, he strums the opening bars, crowd are in full flow, this is what they come to see, the big hitters from Urban Hymns, next track is Lucky Man, which is dedicated to Ashcroft’s wife, Lucky Man sing along ensues, big chorus singing from the crowd, lights, music and crowd in unison. Big finish ‘Oh My My’ repeats, strings ending the track beautifully. For the large majority of the crowd, the big hitters are all they came for, you can feel some of the crowd switch off during less known older track ‘Life’s And Ocean’. Nick McCabe slides in to Velvet Morning’ such a haunting intro, slide guitar into simple bass from Simon, Richards voice so soft and heartfelt, then as the song builds, Richard once again becomes possessed, overtaken by the music, kneeling and bending over, both hands grasping the microphone, such passion, such feeling, something I think Richard Ashcroft has never lost ,even in his solo gigs 20 odd years later. Now, the big one, the track that got The Verve the biggest commercial success, ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ a song for the people as Ashcroft calls it. The strings start, clapping from the crowd in unison, this is going to be euphoric, and it is, every person to a man sings the words with as much conviction as the band are playing it. Highest point since the opening song. The song ends with a massive crescendo, strings chants, riffs. Amazing.
More. More. More. More. The fake encore pauses, I hate them personally.
‘One Day’ slow and reflective, the ending picks up pace, but it is lost on most the audience. My personal favorite from the set, not on Urban Hymns, ‘History’ such a brilliant song, performed by a band at the peak of their powers, flawless. The last song, massive finish, Ashcroft telling the crowd for the 100th time to ‘COME ON!’ this time it is ‘Come on’, Simon kicks in the bass line, Ashcroft stalking the stage, McCabe with his head down, the song launches, lights, sound and noise, this is what The Verve did best, Ashcroft riffing lines, pumping himself and the crowd up, the band playing both tight and loose at the same time, the song has such beautiful quite moments that surge into thundering riffs and drums. That is how you finish a show, feedback, noise, more, lights, more, Ashcroft does not want this to end, he is riffing lines and keeping the band going, 10 minutes of pure rock and roll.
That was that, lights up, and we are off into the forest to find the coach, drunk, no fags left, no money, exhausted, sweaty, but completely satisfied.
This. Was. Music.
Mark Slade aka Mr G is a performing singer songwriter in his own right and can be found on Twitter here.