By Mike Finkelstein
As last week passed by I felt my anticipation build for Paul Weller‘s show at the Greek Theatre Friday night. Weller is a legendary performer, collaborator and a revered influence on the English and Continental popular music scene since the late ‘70’s. Curiously, he has never come to much commercial prominence in the US. He has been more of a cult figure here, and those who were digging below the surface layer of FM radio for their music in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s know and stand with his work. I realized I would probably not recognize many of his tunes by name, but I understood that Weller doesn’t perform in LA very often so that this was surely one must-see gig.
Paul Weller began his career as a bit of a throwback, starting The Jam as a dyed-in-the-wool Mod several years after the Mod movement had pretty much fizzled in England. But the Jam caught on big in the U.K., straddling the line between new wave and the hard edge of punk music. They caught the ear of bands like the Clash as they were both coming up and even toured with them. In classic Mod style they set themselves apart by dressing in sharp suits with tight haircuts and playing super crisp, concise energized pop hits. Drawing on influences from the Beatles, Small Faces, and the Who to West Indian ska and American soul singers, Weller’s songwriting prowess grew steadily. He next formed the Style Council in the mid ‘80’s, and continued to rack up the hits. But still, not much happened in the US mainstream. Here in LA, if you weren’t listening to KROQ or reading about what was going on elsewhere, you wouldn’t likely have heard from Weller. Weller’s solo career is over ten albums long now.
On Friday there were quite a few English accents to be heard in the audience as well as a noticeable row of stylish Vespa and Lambretta scooters parked outside the Greek. It was a Mod event, which made for some good people watching. Although the Greek was perhaps 80% full, the crowd knew the music and many dressed the part.
Hitting the stage in dyed blonde hair, stylish jeans, a button down knit shirt, and a double-breasted jacket, Weller and the band had an updated bit of the Miami Vice look going for their outdoor show in LA.
Beginning with Style Council’s “My Ever Changing Moods” and cycling through a well-paced balance of his material, this show was all about letting the music do the talking. He and his band — including Steve Cradock – guitar , Steve Pilgrim – drums, Andy Lewis – bass, and Andy Crofts – keys — played four songs from the Jam (“Just Who is the 5 O’clock Hero?” “Carnation,” “Start!” “Strange Town”) and four more from the Style Council catalogues ( “MECM” “The Cost of Living,” “Long Hot Summer,” and “Shout To The Top”), with the rest of the set drawn from his solo career.
Even to my uninitiated ears, I could hear the progression in his songwriting and arrangements from the tightly wound conciseness of the Jam numbers, to airing the arrangements out for a smoother more soulful feel on the Style Council songs. His solo material gave stylistic nods to his past but also gave us some gorgeous moments of stretching out musically. There was no better of example of this than the beguiling “You Do Something to Me,” which featured Weller on piano and singing slow, powerfully, and convincingly. Towards the end of this song and several others, like “Carnation,” and “Foot of the Mountain,” the guitars were brought out above the mix and really allowed to dance. Both guitarists favored a refreshingly clean, shimmering sound bathed in reverb and delay. Their approach to the vibrato arm was also noteworthy. Instead of dive bombing with the low strings, as many modern players do, they chose to waver and slur their entire chords gorgeously, nodding to a style of electric guitar rooted in Duane Eddy, surf, and country music. Subtle as the effect was, it added layers of cool to the sound.
Weller’s voice is its own versatile entity. Depending on what any phrase of a song might require we could hear him touching on David Bowie’s low spoken murmurs, Joe Strummer’s boom over the loud parts, and at several times you would swear that it was a young Elvis Costello behind the mic. His ability to choose the spots to change his voice on a dime was seamless, natural, and never prolonged … quite like a chameleon.
Having had the distinct pleasure of Paul Weller giving me a tour through some of the high points of his career, I’m headed to Amoeba to pick up some choice morsels.
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings opened the show with a pumped up tight set of horn-driven, shaking and shimmying, revved up soul numbers that got the place energized in a hurry.