In a bit of a twist, our headliners this evening don't do the big grand entrance normally expected. Instead they shuffle onstage while their DJ is still playing, pick up their instruments and after saying hello, are into 'A New Decade' before anyone in control realises they're there. It's a strange start, but then again it's a strange night. For a start the band appear to be friendly and enjoying themselves, with no signs of the legendary tension between twin creative forces Ashcroft and McCabe. Indeed, McCabe even cracks a smile at points. And then there's Mr. Ashcroft's hair. From being one of the iconic rock front-men of the 1990s, he has (and please let there have been a bet or charity involved in this) gone from the shaggy-haired Wigan Spaceman to a close-cropped bleach blond. Once we get over the resemblance to anyone from Bowie to Marc Almond, Judas Priest or even Eminem, we realise it is still him, and his voice is still fantastic.
Of course most people are there for the big hits, and indeed the show is heavy on tracks from 'Urban Hymns', but thankfully they raid their back catalogue for gems such as 'This Is Music'. Unfortunately, in a rather soulless arena with a pretty dead crowd this lost masterpiece fails to reach the heights that they were capable of in their initial early 1990s peak. Indeed it takes 'Gravity Grave' before we get a proper glimpse of the driven soaring twisted space-rock that they did so well, but it does seem that age has caught up with them as we no longer have 'Mad Richard' as some prophet here to take us away on the music, but more like an uncle dancing at a wedding. The fire seems gone.
'Sonnet', which sees the first real crowd reaction and singing of the evening, is dedicated to a Belfast legend, George Best, and ends with Ashcroft singing the chorus to the old hit 'Belfast Boy'. New track 'Sit And Wonder', our cue "to dance on ice", according to the band, hints that this may not just be a reunion to top up the bank balances, as they seem more energised than at any point of the evening. It's classic Verve - big, expansive, daring to chase comets, and perhaps as a reflection of the time and what has gone on between them, slightly darker, edgier and with a hint of paranoia about it.
And then it's back to the crowd pleasers, lifting 'Some Velvet Morning' and 'Lucky Man' from their biggest album - something they acknowledge by introducing 'Stormy Clouds' as something "off 'A Northern Soul'. You should go out and buy it". Again, this more expansive material seems to make them happier than the hits, although 'The Rolling People' probably wins out as song of the night. It's huge, manic and controlled, powerful and delicate, and weak and strong all at the same time, and represents the one time that their ambition caught the public's imagination when it was hidden away on 'Urban Hymns'. The fire has not dimmed.
Finishing their regular set with 'The Drugs Don't Work' and 'Bittersweet Symphony' keeps the public happy, the latter ending in a speeded up finale - it's not the 18 minute epic version from Slane ending in fireworks I remember, but it'll do. The encore is pretty short, but very sweet, 'History' showcasing Ashcroft's still wonderful voice, while closer 'Come On', maybe without the youthful fire and anger, still lets McCabe demonstrate why is he one of the best guitarists of his generation, ending with him alone on stage.