With most of his contemporaries doing reunion tours or playing decades-old albums, Paul Weller is one of the few claiming his right to be a still-evolving artist.
By Brett Milano
Saturday at the Paradise, Paul Weller played a set that stretched all the way back to the beginning….of the solo career that he launched in 1992. Not a thing from any earlier until the third encore, when he dusted off the Style Council’s “My Ever Changing Moods” and the Jam’s closest thing to a US hit, “Town Called Malice.” Otherwise the set bucked the notion that older rockers have to do nostalgia. With most of his contemporaries doing reunion tours or playing decades-old albums, Weller is one of the few claiming his right to be a still-evolving artist.
Fortunately, what he’s evolved into isn’t much different from what he’s been all along. His music is still steeped in British soul and his stage manner still projects cool confidence; not for nothing have the UK zines dubbed him ‘The Modfather.’ The Jam’s frenetic energy may be in shorter supply, but he’ll still let rip with the occasional big guitar solo. As a songwriter he’s traded the sweeping social commentary for more personal reflection, but was already going that direction on the Jam’s best album, 1980’s Sound Affects. (If Weller has a recurring lyrical theme, it’s the imperative of living life fully).
The current album, Saturns Pattern finds him comfortable in his stage of life—there are songs called “Phoenix” and “I’m Where I Should Be”—but there’s intrigue there as well, with its spacey harmonies and spooky tapeloops. Plus a token rocker, “White Sky” (also Saturday’s opener), which proved he can still do the classic Brit-pop thing whenever he pleases.
It takes a true fan to fully absorb Weller’s solo albums—eleven regular ones plus various compilations and a covers album—so his live shows do the service of separating the gems; and Saturday’s set managed to hit on nearly every album. The night’s musical peak happened toward the end of the regular set, with a trio of songs that got zero US airplay. “Brand New Toy” (released last year on a hits compilation) had a music-hall feel with Weller playing piano and, because it accented his London accent, it made his kinship to the Kinks even more pronounced. This led to “Empty Ring”, the kind of deep-blue ballad he couldn’t really pull off in his Jam days (it’s on his most adventurous solo album, 22 Dreams). Finally, “Peacock Suit” (from the relatively unloved album, Heavy Soul) was the guitar-slinging release, showing what a fully-lived life sounds like.
The Paradise is the smallest local venue Weller’s played since the ’70s but the show sold out months in advance and the crowd was mostly true believers; nobody was unhip enough to shout for “In the City” or the other oldies. The night was above all a case for Weller’s songwriting, and there was enough here to send you back to those 11 albums to see what you’d missed. By the time “Town Called Malice” came around it wasn’t the big moment, just a little singalong after the main event.
Incidentally, a few hours before the show, Weller became the second British rock star (after Jimmy Page last spring) to go record shopping at In Your Ear down the block from the Paradise. Joined by his wife and a bodyguard, Weller posed for a couple of photos and walked out with a bootleg tape of himself from a previous Boston show. And he insisted on paying for it.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.