When Weller reemerged in 1983 as half of The Style Council along with keyboardist Mick Talbot, suddenly the loyalty Weller had been blessed with from his legions of fans started to dwindle. Opinions were split as Paul threw himself into a light jazz/breezy pop sound with his new project. Trading in his skinny ties and art school getup for floral pattern shirts and capri pants was more than the angry punters could stand. While some stuck with him, most of Weller's disciples jumped ship in search of rougher, more authentic waters. On a personal note, I gladly made the leap from following The Jam to supporting The Style Council from a curious, intrigued standpoint. I'll still argue that plenty of songs from the Style Council catalog ("Strength Of Your Nature," "Walls Come Tumbling Down!," "Money Go Round") are every bit as relevant and politically charged as the best of Weller's Jam output.
Eventually The Style Council fizzled out as Weller's interest in the project dwindled. He seemed relieved and content to put this chapter behind him in 1989, ending with bad blood coming to the surface within the band and their record label, which flat out refused to release their final release Modernism, a full-blown acid house dance album.
At the dawning of the 1990s, Weller seemed to be in limbo. For the few who still cared to see what his next move would be after his last debacle, his career and future were admittedly up in the air. Showing tremendous resilience and learning from his shortcomings, Weller reemerged in 1992 with the first of his many subsequent solo albums. The self-titled eponymous debut was a massive comeback for Weller to say the least. Boasting several hit singles in his native England, the album not only re-established him as a driving force in popular music and culture, it was a culmination of all the musical styles and genres that Weller had running through his veins. All pretense and gloss was stripped; this was Paul Weller at his rawest and most honest. And luckily, he's managed to keep this momentum alive and has steadily continued to release several great solo albums since then. His latest LP, Wake Up The Nation (released in April 2010) is every bit as fresh and timely as anything Weller has ever put out. Always breaking new ground and pushing his own personal boundaries, Weller once again has bragging rights for establishing one of the most loyal and dedicated fan bases of any musical genre.
Which brings us to the herd of fans who assembled in New York City two weekends ago for a pair of live Weller shows, his only U.S. appearances on his current tour (save for a single Los Angeles show just prior to these two NY dates). Mostly ranging in age from mid-30s to mid-50s, the faithful Weller-ites (myself included) flocked to New York to see their musical mentor perform at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem as well as the cavernous Best Buy Theatre in the heart of Times Square in Manhattan.
Seeing Weller perform at the Apollo was quite a thrill as he's always made his love of soul music very well known. Weller has often included covers of soul classics in his live performances as well as committing several to wax as far back as covering Arthur Conley's classic "Sweet Soul Music" as the b-side to one of The Jam's earliest singles. Rising to the occasion and in reverence for the sacred stage he was performing from, Weller chose to cover Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)." That was the sole cover of the night; the rest of the set was devoted to selections from all stages of his long illustrious career. There were Jam nuggets, plenty of solo material (drawing heavily from his latest album and his previous, 2008's psychedelic soul masterpiece, 22 Dreams) and a solitary Style Council tune. For the significance of the venue and of seeing this great student of those who've graced it's halls throughout the years getting his chance to perform there, I thought the crowd reaction at The Apollo was a little uninspired. Most of those in attendance sat motionless for the first half-hour of the show. Ironically, it wasn't until the sole Style Council number was performed that Weller got a reaction. "Shout To The Top!" inspired the bulk of the audience to come to it's feet. Seemingly a bit surprised, Weller commented after the song's conclusion, "That one wasn't even a hit!"; no doubt he was reacting to the ambivalence that's always been felt for that stage of his career.
Most of the Saturday night Apollo attendees found their way to the larger, more centrally located venue the following night. After all, so many had traveled from great distances for the chance to see a pair of back-to-back shows from a man who rarely ever visits our shores, as evidenced from a group of other loyal Weller followers that I got to hang out with after the first night's show. Trading Weller stories all night long over many (many) drinks, I felt a bond forming with others of similar ages who shared similar accounts of the highs and lows of Weller's colorful career. It's this type of camaraderie and exchange that I longed for growing up as a teenager who loved The Jam. It was hard enough to find anyone else who knew who Paul Weller was in my circle of friends back then let alone owned Jam albums like Setting Sons or All Mod Cons, so it was nice to hang out with other like-minded people who share a love of all things Weller.
Night two benefited by playing to a general admission, standing room only crowd who were far more emotive and responsive than the previous night's crowd. Weller fed off the energy in the room and opted for a more energetic, frenetic setlist that went over like gangbusters with the tightly packed audience. Jam classics like "Pretty Green" and "Start!" turned into loud sing-alongs to which Weller visibly seemed a little surprised at. Long after giving up the challenge to score a hit single in America, Weller must still be shocked to find that he's got so many faithful followers over on this side of the pond. But, as mentioned earlier, most of his fans are loyal and have stuck with him through the years for which I have to believe the man is grateful for.
As the weekend drew to a close, my new friends and I gathered again, after Sunday night's show, and exchanged more stories and discovered other musical commonalities we shared besides all of Weller's work. So, besides getting to witness two rare American Weller appearances, I made some new friends along the way with whom I traded e-mails and became Facebook friends. Instinct tells me that when and if Weller decides to come to America again for another of his short tours, my new friends will be in attendance again, still opting to support the man who has remained a constant in their record collections for the better part of three decades. I know I'll be there. Again.