For reasons both understandable and not, Paul Weller is a prominent member of what we’ll call the Cliff Richard Club: Artists who are revered career superstars in Britain but cult artists in the U.S. While the default explanation that his music is “too British” is valid in some ways, Weller — a 40-plus-year soulful rock veteran, founder of The Jam and the Style Council — has recorded many, many songs that don’t sound particularly British at all, and he’s created a remarkably consistent catalog that covers several different styles while retaining the melodic flair, incisive lyrics and ‘60s influences that brought him to prominence in the first place. Whether he’s channeling The Kinks, Curtis Mayfield or Traffic — or presenting a series of acoustic-based songs embellished with strings, as he has on his latest album “True Meanings” — he still always manages to sound like Weller.
Something else about Weller is that he’s adored with an almost unsettling fervor by his fans, and two shows this week at London’s Royal Festival Hall — which found him performing acoustic, string-accompanied versions of most of the new album as well as songs from across his entire career — were packed to the brim with them. He responded with a set that was clearly aimed straight at them, presenting not just the bulk of “True Feelings” but also deep cuts reaching back to his days with The Jam and The Style Council — albeit in dramatically revised arrangements — as well as his earliest and more recent solo material. He didn’t bother with the hits that the fans had presumably heard many times: There was no “Town Called Malice,” “My Ever Changing Moods,” “That’s Entertainment,” “Long Hot Summer” or “Changingman.” Weller recently turned 60, and he’s said that contributed in part to the reflective nature of “True Feelings.” In many ways this set was a compliment to that album, being both introspective and retrospective in nature. (The shows were recorded and filmed, although future release plans were unclear at press time.)
Some six months in the making, this show will only be performed twice — Thursday and tonight — and since Weller is not taking it on tour, he went all in. Along with his usual five-piece band, there was an 11-member string section led by conductor/arranger Hannah Peele; a four-piece horn section; a harpist; a flautist; and for “Books,” the group was joined by three Indian musicians playing sitars and violin, as well as the evening’s opening act, British singer Lucy Rose. At two points during the show, 26 musicians were onstage (and they weren’t even all the same musicians); at others, there were four acoustic guitar players.
Oddly, despite the vast number of accompanists, the acoustic-based nature of the music meant that Weller’s vocals were much more prominent and exposed than they would be with a more rock-based (or at least louder) accompaniment, placing a much bigger focus — and pressure — on his singing. He rose to it and was in stellar voice on Thursday night: Strong, clear, powerful and subtle as the occasion demanded, stumbling only a couple of times on the knottier lyrical twists during the sprawling 25-song set.
Opening with “One Bright Star” from his 2008 album “22 Dreams,” Weller dipped into the new album before jumping way back to 1980 and The Jam’s “Sound Affects” album with a slower, dramatic take of “Boy About Town,” and then a jazzy take on the Style Council favorite “Have You Ever Had It Blue.” And so it went for the next 90-odd minutes: Mixed in with many songs from “True Feelings,” were deeper cuts like “Wild Wood,” the Style Council’s “Man of Great Promise” and The Jam’s “Tales From the Riverbank” and “Private Hell.” The latter was the oldest song performed on this night and in some ways the least successful: While the new arrangement was strong, the song, a story of a housewife’s unhappy life, seemed coarse in the context of the more refined rest of the set, and in that way showed how far he’s come.
Which, in a way, was the entire point of the evening. Weller’s never stayed in one place for long and obviously is no fan of nostalgia, but with these shows he’s moving forward while still allowing himself to take a brief look back.