With the classic-rock-steeped solo debut he released three months ago, Harry Styles claimed rights to making the dad-rock album of the year. At least in theory, anyway. That potential audience of older dudes who share his newly revealed affection for 1970s Americana and ‘90s Brit-rock may still not have gotten the memo that they’d probably like his self-titled album even better than One Direction fans. They’re certainly not the types to have signed up in advance for Ticketmaster’s “Verified Fan” program so they could sell out his fall tour within seconds.
And so it came to be that Styles performed at L.A.’s Greek Theatre Wednesday night for an audience that was (by conservative estimates) 97 percent female, 95 percent 17-to-25, and 120 percent ear-piercingly shrieky. Narrowcasting doesn’t get any louder, so he can probably live with putting off the demographic expansion just a little longer.
The Greek is the second of 13 “intimate” venues he’s playing at this month and next — Radio City Music Hall being a similarly cozy stopover Sept. 28 — before ramping up to arenas like the Forum and Madison Square Garden next summer. (Also already all sold out months ago; sorry, again, we’re sure, late-blooming dude fans.) He already did a gig some time ago at the Troubadour, so he’s smart enough to know that it looks better to look like you’re working your way up, even if your natural habitat before going solo was stadiums, and could well be again before a world tour finds its final leg.
The more modest touring start may not all be for appearance’s sake, though. Styles may also know that reinventing his performing style as a lone frontman is something that won’t be completely mastered in a gig or two. At the Greek, you could sense Styles still sussing out exactly how to make the transition from boy-band ensemble player to rock star — not that, being the most debonair twentysomething in the western hemisphere, he’s ever going to let you see him sweat it.
He’s well on his way to having it down. There’s a lot of savvy to the way Styles has structured his relatively brisk 80-minute set. As the show began with some of the new album’s least ostentatious numbers, like “Ever Since New York” and the acoustically inclined “Two Ghosts,” Styles was nearly board-stiff as a frontman. You might have thought: Is this his rockist way of doing atonement for all those years of two-dimensional 1D video frolic? Even a revival of One Direction’s “Stockholm Syndrome” early in the set had him playing it reserved.
But when the glam-rockiness of “Only Angel” kicked in just shy of the halfway point, Styles traded in the Tim Buckley part of his neo-retro persona to start getting his Jagger on a little more, even giving the girls a frisky wag of the tongue. In a show that’s still this short, it was smart to start with a slow folkie burn and work up to a cocksure crescendo.
“Thank you for coming to see me when I’ve only got 10 songs,” he told the crowd late in the show, perhaps to diminish expectations that it would end with an epic reprise of One Direction’s greatest hits. He did expand the set list to 14 by throwing in not just “Stockholm Syndrome” but 1D’s “What Makes You Beautiful,” made far less cloying than its original smash incarnation by its transformation into a legitimate guitar-rocker. A revival of the song he co-wrote for Ariana Grande a few years back, “Just a Little Bit of Your Heart,” also lent the show some familiarity. Although Styles is known to have rehearsed a lot of covers, the only one he’s busting out at present is an encore of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” (Mick Fleetwood was in attendance, going unrecognized at length in the concession area as hundreds of young women passed by on their way to the epic merch line.)
Styles tends toward a poker face, but that does lend extra volubility to the mere breakout of an unexpected grin, as when he reacted with good humor to a microphone repeatedly going floppy during the Ariana Grande number. Even in the more grandstanding, hard-rocking numbers late in the show, there’s still a slight sense of reserve in his physicality, at times. But holding back a little may be a good instinct to have when you’re so iconic that the slightest twitch or unexpected vocal trill gets the kind of roar that’s usually only afforded a football touchdown. He’s still gaging exactly how to work the audience, in this new mode, and you’d be silly to bet against him getting it wrong.
There were few actual dads in the audience, since Styles’ One Direction fan base has aged up to the point where not many of them need chaperoning. But the ones who did get pressed into service may have had some of the most satisfied smiles of all: Getting to fulfill a teenager’s wishes and personally relive the Britpop glory years of Bowie through Blur definitely counts as killing two birds with one stone.
Special props are also due to whoever designed Styles’ very stylin’ turquoise flower-print suit, which looked like it might have refashioned from the greatest 1970s couch ever made. He’s a man who knows how to bring revivalist sexy back in all sorts of ways.