Symphony of Setbacks

Let's start with the old news: The Verve broke up for more than a year and then re-formed, only to have the songwriting royalties from their biggest American hit, "Bittersweet Symphony," go to Keith Richards and Mick Jagger because of an errant sample. Nike used the song in a commercial, which gave the group a huge sales boost. But what you probably don't know is that on a good night, the Verve is the best rock and roll band on earth. And like all British bands, it seems the Verve have been making that claim ever since rock rags across the pond began featuring the group on their covers. With a Stonesy swagger, post-punk guitar heroics and singer Richard Ashcroft's mad (as in, crazy) antics, the Verve can reaffirm the power of rock and roll in even the most cynical. Over the course of three releases, the group has flaunted its ability to squeeze fresh colors from the genre's limited palette. Their latest release, Urban Hymns, combines the drugged beauty of the band's early recordings with a hefty stadium-rock bombast.

Now for some fresh news: Guitarist Nick McCabe (whose previous departure was responsible for the group's breakup) is no longer touring with the Verve. Officially, he's still a member -- just one who stays home while the other guys bed down in hotels. That leaves the future of the group in a tenuous position; Ashcroft has said there is no Verve without McCabe, and the U.K. press has been speculating that the band will disband post haste. Adding fuel to the speculation, Verve management recently stated that it didn't know whether the group would ever record again. What's more, the group has been booked into smaller venues because of slumping ticket sales, prompting opening act Massive Attack to drop out. Indeed, fans should consider themselves lucky if the Houston show actually comes off. In the event that it does, steel guitarist B.J. Cole (T. Rex, Garth Brooks) and a new percussionist will fill out the sound in McCabe's absence.

-- David Simutis

The Verve perform on Monday, August 9, at the Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas. Doors open at 7 p.m. Sold out. 629-3700.

Martin Zellar -- Martin Zellar's career curse has always been rotten timing. The gifted singer/songwriter's late-'80s stint as the leader of Minnesota's Gear Daddies anticipated the Midwest's alternative-country explosion with a pair of brilliant releases, Let's Go Scare Al and Billy's Live Bait. But after six tumultuous years, the band succumbed to the weight of dashed commercial expectations and a boatload of booze, finally calling it quits in 1991. Zellar responded to the breakup by lying low and sobering up, presumably looking on as the No Depression army swelled. By 1995, he reasserted his presence with a low-key solo release, Born Under, but by then it was too late -- the movement he'd helped nudge to prominence had already passed him by. Ah well, that still leaves some reasonably fine music. These days, Zellar surrounds himself with players sympathetic to his roller-coaster emotional makeup. Appropriately, that group -- which includes former Gear Daddies bassist Dominic Ciola -- is called the Hardways. Their latest release, The Many Moods of Martin Zellar and the Hardways, befits its title, boasting some of the most whimsical and tragic roots-rock ditties to come out of Zellar in years -- though nothing of quite the same caliber as vintage Daddies. But hey, what's done is done. Opening for Wayne Hancock Friday, August 7, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets $6. Doors 8 p.m. 869-COOL. (Hobart Rowland)

Mary J. Blige -- If there's an overriding problem the reigning queen of contemporary R&B has to address as she continues her now Usher-less national tour, it's living down her recent live CD, The Tour. A sluggish, lackluster affair, The Tour is definitely no Live at the Apollo -- but then concert albums, by their very nature, deprive the listener of the rush of being there. So take a hint and go see Blige in person. On Friday, August 7, at Houston Arena Theatre, 7326 Southwest Freeway. Showtime 7 p.m. Tickets $35 and $40. Jagged Edge and Sam Salter open. 988-1020. (Craig D. Lindsey)

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