In 1982, fresh off the buzz of his band’s first number one album in the U.K., Paul Weller broke up the Jam. That he moved on to further commercial success with the blue-eye soul of the Style Council is hardly the point, at least in this context: Paul Weller is unafraid of shaking things up and going against the grain.
The Best Buy Theater in New York City is a deceptively large space in a terrible part of town for live music. Leaving a show is like getting knocked off a surfboard by a massive wave, the sea of tourists moving in all directions in the heart of Times Square, and if you want to avoid being pulled by the undertow into Madame Tussaud’s or Toys R’ Us, you’d better steel yourself for a struggle. Outside, it seems as unlikely a place on earth as any you might find for an artist to perform his latest album in full, especially when that album is Sonik Kicks.
Paul Weller has been around a long time, and if you’re a fan from the Jam through the Style Council on up through his many years as a solo artist, you know in your heart that his generally accepted title – the Modfather – is more an honorary degree than a testament to his having stayed in one place for all this time. Weller may be known for writing classic songs, but they’re hardly all cut from the same cloth. Even so, Sonik Kicks, if not a difficult album, is possibly one of the most sonically adventurous of Weller’s entire career. And while it reached the toppermost of the poppermost in the U.K., it’s not exactly tearing up the charts over here. So opening a 2 ½ hour concert by running through the album from start to finish, while not a revolutionary concept, is still a daring proposition.
Up front, on the rail, the fans were out in full force. Weller performed just two shows in the U.S. on this visit, both at the Best Buy Theater on consecutive nights one weekend in mid-May. As such, Weller-heads (or whatever they call themselves) have traveled for the show. They might have done that anyway, but then again maybe not. Would the fan from Boston who claims to have seen the Jam and Style Council way back when, who aggressively bellows “Oi!!!” and “Are you ready?!?!?” in a phony Cockney accent have made the trip down if Weller was playing a little closer to home? Maybe. But with the tour really more of a two-night stand, there is the air among the fandom of something special, something worth riding the rails in a t-shirt from some past Weller tour or other.
If Weller was going to play all of Sonik Kicks in this manner, he at least had two things going for him. There was a fairly partisan crowd on Friday, May 18, at least in the first pit closest to the stage. It also helped that Sonik Kicks is so fucking good.
If he has any interest in shaking off the Modfather mantle, Weller shows no signs on the surface. He’s still sporting a mod hairstyle and is still dressing to the nines, his suit a sharp number that might have been crafted for a nearby production of Guys & Dolls. Weller’s band – some of whom have been with him for years, including Ocean Colour Scene guitarist Steve Cradock – is also sharply dressed, but it’s clear from the moment he hits the stage that the Modfather is the coolest motherfucker in the room.
The Sonik Kicks set was killer, and while I went in familiar with the material, I still got the feeling that those who hadn’t yet found their way to the album were captivated, especially by the high-energy numbers like “Kling I Klang” and “Dragonfly”.
The band returned for an acoustic run through some of Weller’s back catalogue, taking the front of the stage on a row of stools like a sharper, less hirsute, Crosby, Stills & Nash along with a string section. It opened with a rapturously received “English Rose”, the first sign that the Jam were not off limits in Weller’s repertoire, and closed six songs later with a stunning “You Do Something to Me”.
Weller plugged back in for a final run through more of his timeless tunes, with “22 Dreams”, “Stanley Road” and “Wake Up the Nation” highlights in the first run through. One fan who’d yelled “Town Called Malice!” at least 100 times over the course of the night was rewarded in the encore, which also included the Jam’s “In the City” and “Art School”.
On the street, actually in the city, fighting through a million people craning their necks to figure out where the ball drops each New Year’s Eve, the air was still crackling. Weller is more than just an institution, but an active genius still capable of creating vital music. On one night in May in New York City, Weller’s sense of adventure was more than matched by a terrific performance with his band.