Paul Weller at the Paradise Rock Club, June 13, 2015
In 1981, journalist Kurt Loder interviewed Keith Richards during Rolling Stones tour rehearsals. After the interview, Richards wandered over to a piano and began playing. Loder noted: “(Keith) began noodling around in the rolling, bluesy mode that seemed to fall somewhere between the style of Memphis Slim and Keith’s old favorite, Johnnie Johnson. Richards’ playing had a buoyant stride to it, transparently subtle – the music of a man tapped into the source.”
I’ve always loved that description, particularly the the last few words: “a man tapped into the source.” Through that description, you can imagine a musician – someone who has spent the better part of his life studying, learning, and loving his art – obeying his muse to the extent where it can be summoned at any given moment; plugging into it. Our best artists can do that, and I know that Paul Weller, a 57-year-old musician who’s been playing professionally since he was a teenager, has that ability. I’ve seen it onstage. I’ve heard it in his recorded works with the 1970s punk trio the Jam, the jazz/dance/pop combo the Style Council, and – perhaps more potently – in the dozen solo albums he’s made in the last 23 years.
Weller’s latest album, the brilliant “Saturns Pattern” (released last month), continues an experimental stretch he’s been indulging in for the past few albums. It’s the sound of a restless artist who isn’t scared to move beyond what’s expected of him, with results that are wild, spacey, soothing, noisy, and catchy – often within the same song. Over the weekend, he wrapped up a brief North American tour (the only kind of North American tour he ever does, as he enjoys a cult following on these shores and godlike status in his native England) in support of the new album, and Bostonians were lucky to be included on this brief Stateside sojourn, as he shook the floorboards of the Paradise Rock Club on June 13 (West Coast fans, cheer up: he’s hitting your neck of the woods in October).
After settling in with a somewhat regular crew of touring musicians for several years, Paul cleared the decks a few years ago and overhauled his band. Only guitarist Steve Cradock remains from the 90’s. Filling out the lineup was Andy Lewis on bass, Andy Crofts on keyboards, Steve Pilgrim on drums and Ben Gordelier on percussion. Paul mostly stuck with guitar, but – as he’s been doing for years – sat behind a keyboard on a handful of songs.
Hitting the stage (on time, which is so un-rock’n’roll), a beaming Weller and his band tore into the new album’s opening track, “White Sky,” a loud, bluesy stomper with a combination of heaviness and catchiness that sounds like the best song the Black Keys never wrote. From there, Paul and his band were off on a zigzag journey through the Weller (mostly solo era) songbook, playing a combination of high-energy rockers (“Come On/Let’s Go,” the new Stooges soundalike “Long Time,” the anthemic “Changingman”), midtempo earworms (the fuzzy, psychedelic “When You’re Garden’s Overgrown,” the soulful “Broken Stones”), and…well, as brilliant as Weller can be with a ballad, this show was largely devoid of “slow jams,” although the gorgeous “Empty Ring” fit the bill nicely.
As expected, the sold-out crowd was primarily of the middle-aged variety, likely holdovers from the Jam era, and more than a few expatriate Brits (a British couple standing in front of us were following Paul around the U.S. on this tour, like Britpop Deadheads). Six of the show’s 24 songs were from the new album, and despite a gradual stylistic shift in Weller’s music over the past years, new and old songs meshed extremely well.
Weller seemed pleased and invigorated with the relatively new band, often leaning over to Crofts’ bank of keyboards and letting out a blistering solo (an unthinkable scenario in his compact, “three chords and the truth” Jam days), trading licks with Cradock, and twice (TWICE!) giving Pilgrim the space to indulge in a brief drum solo. In fact, he seemed absolutely ecstatic while his 1997 single “Friday Street” rolled along and the crowd sang every word.
The show’s setlist seemed to have something for everyone, as album tracks were included alongside songs only available as singles (the b-side “The Olde Original” and last year’s Record Store Day exclusive, “Brand New Toy”). Weller didn’t seem to feel a need to “play the hits.” Anything was fair game, and the band handled it all deftly.
If anyone was bothered by the lack of songs from Weller’s old bands, they didn’t seem to show it, and while he did draw from that well, he waited until the third(!) encore for those nuggets. The Style Council’s “My Ever Changing Moods” (Weller’s only U.S. pop chart hit, by the way) sounded absolutely flawless, as if it were 1984 all over again. Gordelier’s percussion kept the song chugging along and Weller’s voice sounded better than ever. Somewhat predictably – not that anyone was complaining – the show ended with the Jam’s “Town Called Malice,” that pitch-perfect Motown tribute. Banging on a tambourine, Weller didn’t even sing the chorus, as the crowd took care of that for him.
After more than 30 years as a fan of this man’s work – through two different bands and a solo career as strong as ever – I still don’t understand why Paul Weller remains merely a cult artist on American soil. But I shouldn’t complain – this level of popularity is what allows me to be standing a mere few feet away from him, instead of suffering through nosebleed seats at TD Garden.