The Modfather at Midlife

Paul Weller at the Best Buy Theater
May 18, 2012

Weller in Belgium, 2009
Photo by Marcelo Costa

The Modfather took the stage clad in a double vent, charcoal grey suit, white shirt and royal blue cravat tied in a 1970s-Roger-Moore-as James-Bond oversized knot.  If it weren’t for the Telecaster and the Rod Stewart hair (well, if Rod Stewart’s hair was completely gray) one might mistake him for a banker rather than a rock star. Paul Weller, ever the fashion plate, may be the only rocker committed to the sartorial as well as the musical.

Last week Weller played 2 nights in  New York on one of his sporadic visits to North America. Tour really isn’t the right word since he tends to appear in a handful of cities and quickly decamp for Albion. For many years my Spring peregrinations have kept me and Weller apart but this year the scheduling Gods allowed me to catch up with my Modish near-contemporary.

Was it worth the wait? The answer is a qualified yes. But those qualifications are key. Weller is supporting a new album, Sonic Kicks, and the long set (30 plus songs and 2 plus hours–you certainly got your money’s worth) is divided in to three parts. The first showcases songs from the new album including the single, “Klang Klang.” I have this sneaking suspicion that Weller grew up listening to more than rock n roll based mostly on these lyrical games he plays. Almost twenty years ago, on 1993’s Wild Wood, he referenced Cole Porter with “the lonely traffic’s boom.” This time it’s Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s Academy Award-nominated  “The Trolley Song.”

To be fair–and I don’t think this is just a familiarity issue–the new songs were the weaker part of the show. Weller is famously proud of his British heritage and that extends to the music. It’s been 30 years since The Jam broke up and almost from the get go he’s borrowed liberally from The Beatles and covered bands like The Kinks. The former punk has moved on chronologically and the prog rock of the 1970s seems to have gotten on his radar. As has dub.

The latter was, perhaps, most surprising and not just for the sight of Weller playing a melodica. “Study in Blue” is a 6-minute plus excursion that sounded like the bastard offspring of Black Market Clash  and Beats InternationalThere was a string quartet playing for some of the songs, a member of which came forth to sing. Too much sounded like Led Zeppelin outtakes and were about as endless. Quite a destination for a guy who’s first album featured songs that barely averaged 3 minutes. It’s never a good sign when the songwriter has a music stand with his lyrics in front of him.

An hour in, the band took a short break and reemerged for the acoustic part of the set. Suit gone (the balance of the show was played in jeans and a tee shirt–probably not from The Gap), Weller sat amid more acoustic guitars than a CSNY reunion or Last Waltz-like, everybody- in scrum. This portion began with the old Jam song, “English Rose” and worked through a good half-dozen numbers from the early solo years.  ER aside (we always though it execrable treacle; the Saturday show featured “The Butterfly Collector,” a song I’ve always loved), there wasn’t a dead song in the bunch.

Then the electrics came back and the band ripped into almost ten songs drawn from more recent albums.  By far the highest energy part of the show, the band was tight and even the jam-band-like extended pieces worked. It’s odd to see a punk gone sorta muso but we’re all different now and the essence of punk is being who you are, everyone else be damned. On that front the entire show stood as  testimony to Weller’s insistence on that premise.

The evening concluded with a double encore. The first, 3-song  appearance ended with “A Town Called Malice,”  the Jam’s Motown tribute and biggest hit. That one got the audience pogoing–the wrong dance style for the wrong band–but memory is a tricky thing and pogoing is barely dancing so we’ll let it go. The final encore reached back to the first Jam album and featured “In the City” and “Art School.” And that’s the way to go on out on a high note.

VIDEO BONUS

Here’s his nibs out-doing Judy Garland on the Jools Holland show this past April.

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