Into Creative Live review: Paul Weller (with Maxwell Farrington & Le Superhomard)
Große Freiheit 36, Hamburg
16th May 2023
When I was a child, I wanted to be a cowboy. I had my photo taken on stage with one during a family holiday at Margate in the late 60s. His name was Roy and he smelled of fags and booze and the aftershave of honest toil. Then, years later, when I realised Roy was merely a part-time Presto shelf-stacker in a hired cowboy outfit, I wanted to be Davie Cooper. This was slightly (but only slightly) more realistic as I was – or so I thought – decent at football; all left foot and swaggering, piss-taking dribbles. Easy, when it’s around immobile traffic cones, I guess.
However, it was not to be. So then, aged fourteen, I wanted to be Paul Weller. And if I’m being totally honest, forty-four years later, I still do.
Paul Weller has inspired me in so many ways. My debut novel The Last Days of Disco is hugely indebted to ‘Setting Sons’. But also politically, culturally, and in references to literature and fashion. I’m far from unique in that respect. The haircuts, the Lonsdale t-shirts, the boating blazers, Dennis the Menace button badges etc etc … there was an identikit army of us back in the late 70s and early 80s. ‘Spokesman for a generation’ is a title that sat uneasily with Weller but his influence on a largely male teenage demographic was palpable. And it principally came from an unmatched run of exhilarating 7” singles propelled by direct, identifiably personal lyrics about the pains (and sometimes the pleasures) of growing up in the suburbs of Thatcher’s Britain.
Then when no-one expected it, least of all Bruce and Rick, Weller broke up the band. He wanted to experiment with a less limiting musical framework. Undoubtedly the right decision for him, but it felt like a death in the family at the time. Although in hindsight it did prepare me for similar levels of grief when The Smiths passed away six years later. I coped better second time around.
In the early 80s, Weller’s shift in musical direction echoed a natural progression in my own life. He left the biggest band in Britain in the rear-view mirrors of his Vespa just as I left my teenage years behind. My girlfriend – now my missus and travelling companion for this and many other Weller gigs – who never got into the Jam, loved The Style Council. My mod mates were all still around, and we had the memories of the Glasgow Apollo, Newcastle City Hall, Hammersmith Odeon, and even The Magnum in Irvine to fall back on. But, if imperceptibly, we were all changing. Maturing. Developing different relationships. Attitudes. Values. No longer quite as thick as thieves.
For me, at least, Weller’s new emphasis reflected those changes. It was a natural evolution as opposed to a part of my identity being lost. And in the early 90s, at the dawning of Weller’s solo career, it happened again. Marriage, kids, emerging personal and professional responsibilities; all relatable touchstones beginning to work their way into his lyrics just as they became catalysts for my own altered priorities.
I’ve always considered Weller to be both derivative and simultaneously absorbent regarding the music that he’s been listening to at any given time. It’s a restlessness and passion that helps his music remain fresh and vital. As far back as the 80s, The Style Council weren’t given the credit for pop innovation and chameleon diversity that the songs deserved, especially those on those first two scintillating LPs.
So, where does that place Paul Weller now, on the cusp of 65? Well, understandably, his focus is naturally different. The overtly political lyrics are largely gone; anger often replaced by a more pastoral and reflective vibe. Age (or maturity) does that to you, I’ve similarly found. But the fire hasn’t gone out. The edge is still evident. His music is still grounded in the here and now.
The specific ‘here and now’ is Weller’s first proper European Tour in six years. Apart from a handful of UK summer festival gigs, the EU is where it’s at until October at least. Twenty-three dates, seven countries. This piece was written after the fifth gig; the seven on stage all properly warmed-up and most definitely in the groove.
A fair warning: if the preceding paragraphs paint a picture of man prepared to leap in front of a flying bullet for the subject, then you’ll have guessed that this review of his live gig ain’t gonna be impartial … it’s not the Guardian Music Column. And if an unbiased scalpel-wielded critique is your craving, you’re probably not my target audience. Now we’ve got that out of the way, here’s a summary of a truly brilliant evening.
I’ve seen Paul Weller on stage in one incarnation or another on close to thirty occasions. But in Hamburg on Tuesday night at the iconic Große Freiheit 36, it was the first time outside of the UK. Weller’s support on the initial part of the tour is Maxwell Farrington & Le Superhomard. A favourite recent LP of mine is ‘Once’, the first collaboration between ex-pat Australian Farrington and the French multi-instrumentalist Christophe Vaillant. It follows Le Superhomard’s equally excellent ‘Meadow Lane Park’ record. The music is sublime; rich and evocative of Burt Bacharach, Stereolab, The High Llamas, Lee Hazlewood, The Divine Comedy.
Farrington’s baritone lends the songs a cool timelessness that could place them anywhere from the late 50s to the present day. That’s quite a unique skill to pull off. It’s pleasing to see the Reeperbahn venue packed to capacity in time for them. A rapturously received set is drawn from the album and follow-up EP, ‘I Had It All’, closing, ironically, with the brilliant ‘Good Start’. And if you check them out, which I would urge, this is indeed a good place to start.
And so to the main man. It’s a smaller, hotter, sweatier context than he’s been used to lately but that seems to suit him. There’s a relaxed vibe evident from the first walk-on wave. Maybe it’s the immediacy of a small stage and a front row only a few feet away from the band. And the visual connection with those at the back of a hall packed to the rafters.
The overall musicality is immaculate; tight as one of Steve Pilgrim’s drums, even as the flavour of the whole set is diverse. There’s funk and soul (Fat Pop, Saturns Pattern) mixed in with the sylvan mood of his solo years (All The Pictures On The Wall, Above The Clouds). The Style Council period covered brilliantly (My Ever Changing Moods, Headstart For Happiness, It’s A Very Deep Sea) and those riff-heavy modern-ist classics (Changing Man, Into Tomorrow, Cosmic Fringes, From The Floorboards Up*)
*written in a Glasgow hotel as a tribute to the influence of Wilko Johnson’s playing style.
There’s only one Jam offering (Start!) and one new song (Take, rumoured to be written with Noel Gallagher) which continues the guitar-driven energy of Fat Pop Vol:1
He’s on good form throughout the twenty-seven-song set. Apologising for his lack of German, joking about one of his (Rockets) having been rejected for the Eurovision Song Contest by the UK, but taken by Latvia, “who still fucking lost!”, and winking like a proud parent when newest recruit, bassist Jake Fletcher steps up to sing. Weller’s voice is as good as it’s ever been. Powerful and urgent at times, softer and more delicate at others.
There’s a couple of subtle acknowledgments of time – in the wider sense – passing. He prefaces the title track of Stanley Road by telling his audience that the album was released twenty-eight years ago last week. Introducing guitarist and right-hand man Steve Craddock, Weller says they’ve been a partnership now for thirty years. “We’re off to Tuscany on honeymoon soon”. It’s a reminder of how much his solo output dwarfs that of his former bands.
This gig is a phenomenal experience for a diehard devotee like me. Even Elaine admits to being a wee bit emotional. Songs that we’ve both heard countless times. Still sounding essential and indispensable and reminding me of how I felt – about myself, about life, about all possibilities – when I first heard them. And ultimately, isn’t that what we all crave from music: its power to lift us out of ourselves and transport us to times and places when we had the world at our feet, even if we weren’t entirely sure what to do with that realisation.
His new music isn’t going to change the world; he’ll know that. It’s unlikely to change opinions about its creator either. I suspect he knows that too. But Weller continues to make music that speaks to people who know what to look for in it. People who can often be surprised by its spirited freshness forty years after they first encountered it. Common people like me … who can hear surprising influences from interesting newer bands like TOY or Erland & The Carnival or, yes, Le Superhomard, as well as more obvious and enduring ones like Bowie or The Beatles or Curtis Mayfield. And in my opinion, that’s the dividing line between Paul Weller on one side of a vast creative canyon, and those on the other side, phoning it in, and playing it monotonously safe. But, as I was reminded by someone during a ‘chat’ about Weller the other night, it’d be a fucking dull old world if we all liked the same things, eh!? There’s a universal truth.
So, there you have it … a hundred and twenty minutes full of hope and optimism but grounded in the realities of Modern Life being – for many in the era of National Conservatism – Rubbish.
If you’ve read this far, and dig music as much as I do, but perhaps with a different principal object of that affection, just substitute Weller for your own hero/heroine and – if we get through for two minutes only – we’ll briefly share that often indescribable buzz that this piece is attempting to capture.
PS: as well as sharing the same space on Tuesday night, we (Paul, his band, Clem Burke of Blondie, and me) shared an afternoon pilgrimage to the iconic doorway where the cover shot for John Lennon’s ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll’ LP was taken. We’re all just music fans, falling in love with everyone … any guitar and any bass drum, aren’t we?
David F Ross
17th May, 2023