Paul Weller has been touring the UK for the past few weeks and played the Cambridge Corn Exchange on Friday, 13 March. Our good friend Tony Allen was in attendance and filed this wonderful review for us. Cheers Tony!
WELLER ‘EXCHANGES’ 2014 SET FOR NEW MATERIAL!
Paul Weller carried on his tour of smaller UK venues on Friday 13th March in front of a packed crowd at Cambridge’s Corn Exchange. However, the day did not turn out to be unlucky for the throng who were treated to a fantastic airing of five of Weller’s new songs alongside some old classics picked out from the Modfather’s extensive back catalogue, who described tonight’s gig as one of his “favourites” so far on this tour.
Weller was preceded on stage by tight Manchester four-piece The Gramotones a band with a cult following in the north, who played a short set featuring whiffs of their wide ranging influences including the likes of The Kinks and Frankie Miller. The band had previous form with Weller and his band, having supported the Modfather and guitarist Steve Cradock’s solo band last year. Their set tonight included songs like the early single ‘A Soldier’s Kiss’ alongside newer material.
Singers/guitarists Jake Fletcher and Sid Cooper explained to David Brown on the website Louder Than War* last year: “We really like the fact we don’t have a front man. We like to have a laugh on stage”. Speaking to the pair after the gig this rings true to me, their enthusiasm for what they do is infectious as they happily chat to new and old fans alike as they sign copies of last year’s simply-titled ‘EP.’, recorded at Weller’s Black Barn Studios in Ripley, Surrey, produced by drummer Steve Pilgrim, and mixed and engineered by long-term Weller collaborator Charles Rees.
After The Gramotones’ impressive performance, Weller was greeted warmly by the now-packed crowd. Fans were treated to a number of selections from the early solo-Weller canon with no fewer than ten trips back into the 1990s during the evening. The set began with Weller storming through revitalised live renditions of three songs from his eponymous debut LP: ‘Kosmos’, ‘Uh Huh Oh Yeh’ and ‘Into Tomorrow’, the latter replacing ‘Sunflower’ from last year’s sets as perhaps Weller’s strongest riff.
‘Long Time’ followed this, the first of Weller’s new songs to be played tonight. The execution of this seemed pretty flawless and had the crowd listening, rapt, to the different vocal parts started by Weller, and backed by his band as many in attendance heard this punchy, lively riffed song for the first time, with the promo video released online the same day. This short, sharp blast has all the hallmarks of a Weller (Modern? More Modern? Modernist?) classic.
‘When Your Garden’s Overgrown’ interestingly came next, perhaps not the most obvious live choice from ‘Sonik Kicks’, but it worked, with an excellent extended ending. The upbeat ‘I’m Where I Should Be’, on first listen at least, was introduced next by Weller as “a song off the new album which comes out in May”. This is a strong, guitar driven song where Weller wisely sings in the chorus “I know exactly why/I’m where I should be!”
These words of wisdom rung true for the next song too. ‘Come On/Let’s Go’ was, for me, the evening’s highlight. I have seen Weller perform this song a number of times live, and even more on record, but tonight’s performance was for me the best I have ever heard it sound. The tune bounced around both sold-out sitting and standing levels of the auditorium to create a special ‘Floorboards’ feeling that those in attendance will struggle to forget in a hurry, the kind of momentary surge of energy that the song’s album-mate was written in homage to.
For ‘The Attic’, Weller took up his now regular acoustic guitar for live performances of this modern-day crowd pleaser. Once again, the live version was a vast improvement on the recorded version. Next, the new album’s “title song”, the third tune in a row to be given a brief introduction by Weller, was played. Weller moved to play keys on a separate instrument to keyboardist Andy Crofts for this, on the far left of the stage. This song was arguably the pick of the new material played, with some impressive vocal harmonies between Weller and his band.
The audience joined in with ‘Above the Clouds’, the fourth song in the opening ten from 1992’s self-titled ‘Paul Weller’. The 56-year-old’s stage manner was as energetic as ever, with Weller showing no signs of slowing down just yet. He tore through the newly-usurped highlight of last year’s gigs, the aptly chosen ‘Friday Street’, with aplomb that belied his advancing years and, importantly to note, a smile on his face.
‘White Sky’ followed, the recently released first track from the upcoming ‘Saturns Pattern’. This new song, played with an old guitar, is classic Weller in almost every way. Similarly to ‘The Attic’, a relatively washed-out and weak studio vocal was smashed to pieces live with a fantastic rendition. However, during the song, bassist Andy Lewis appeared to be having some trouble with his instrument.
There was a temporary, unplanned intermission following this, just before the 45-minute mark, with guitar technician Roger Nowell shepherding Weller and his reluctant band mates off stage(especially Crofts, who incidentally used a guitar himself as he is used to doing in his own band on one song, who was particularly slow to leave his post). Nowell explained to the crowd they were experiencing “A slight technical problem” before attempting to troubleshoot on Lewis’ bass guitar with other members of the road crew, in the full glare of an impatient crowd. The perfectionism and absolute professionalism of Lewis, Weller and Nowell can’t be doubted as ‘White Sky’ to these ears anyway sounded superb.
Luckily, we didn’t have to wait a ‘Long Time’ to see Weller again. After less than a five minute break, the band returned, with Weller expressing his “sincere apologies” for the hitch. On the night of Red Nose Day, the singer then attempted to introduce some ‘comic relief’ by quipping “it was all going so well!” Next came his usual progressive ‘Porcelain Gods’, a masterclass of guitar playing from Weller and Cradock of interest to any players in the audience. This featured a faux-ending before the final blaze of noise.
“Hello everyone” smiled Lewis, asked by Weller to introduce and give some background information about the next song, controversial 2014 Record Store Day single ‘Brand New Toy’. Weller returned to his mini-piano while Lewis moved into the centre of the stage for this, with Weller playing a similar instrument to the one used in this song’s kaleidoscopic video. This jaunty song received a surprisingly subdued reception from the otherwise lively standing area in front of the stage. Weller stayed put here for the next song, too.
In 2008’s collection ‘Weller at the BBC’, long time friend and collaborator Noel Gallagher is quoted as saying that “as a… pianist [Weller] is on the verge of the virtuoso”. Whilst tonight’s performance wasn’t quite akin to The Style Council’s ‘Piano Paintings’ phase (though that was Mick’s job!), Weller put in an admirable shift on these tunes, leaving guitar duties to trusted Ocean Colour scene legend Cradock. It is a pity in my opinion that Cradock performed perhaps his most delightful piece of musicianship, the sublime guitar solo on the next number, ‘You Do Something to Me’ in part facing away from the audience and towards drummer Pilgrim.
This is not to say that Cradock, singer of ‘The Apple’ (a high water mark of the 45-year-old’s solo songwriting to date featuring Weller and both of the pair’s wives on backing vocals) was anything other than superb, nay, imperious all night as fans have come to expect in his 20+ years touring alongside the Modfather.
Percussionist Ben Gordelier, Crofts’ bandmate in Northampton outfit The Moons really came to the fore on the next song, a delightful rendition of ‘Empty Ring’, a like-for-like replacement of the rambling ‘Sea Spray’, culled from last year, but nonetheless allowing Gordelier and Crofts to combine well and create a different sound from Weller’s usual guitar led rhythm.
Bouncing live favourite ‘From the Floorboards Up’ followed (perhaps appropriate considering the flooring construction of the Corn Exchange’s rammed standing area), retained from his regular set last year similarly to ‘Come On/Let’s Go’, both songs coming from 2005’s ‘As Is Now’, whose tenth anniversary of release is currently being celebrated by this website.
And they were not the only songs kept on. In a change from last year’s running order, somewhat lethargic songs like ‘Going Places’ and perhaps chief culprit ‘Foot of the Mountain’ were replaced, however a number of the more up-tempo songs were kept on, with ‘Heavy Soul’ track ‘Peacock Suit’ among those retained, coming next in the set. ‘Whirlpools’ End’ closed, yet another ‘Stanley Road’ song, featuring some more fantastic guitar playing from Weller and Cradock, facing each other towards the end of the song with Weller seemingly challenging his younger friend to equal and better his own impressive efforts.
For the first encore, after a slightly longer wait than was strictly comfortable for the restless crowd, Weller pulled out new song ‘These City Streets’. This, despite being the most laid-back and soulful of Weller’s new songs played tonight, had a real fizz and energy to it with bassist Lewis swapping his huge, coveted red Rickenbacker bass guitar, now apparently working fine, for a different guitar for a second song this evening. Weller’s excellent vocal range in this song justified comments from previous reviewers on this tour that the song evoked memories of yet another 1992 song ‘Remember How We Started’.
Next, Cradock changed guitars again before, similarly to Lewis earlier in the evening, being entrusted to (more briefly this time) introduce ‘Wild Blue Yonder’, beginning with an uncannily similar riff to his own ‘The Clothes They Stood Up In’ from his seminal debut album ‘The Kundalini Target’. The song, as do many of Weller’s best works, took on a superb new life on stage tonight with both Weller and Lewis back to their more regular instruments to provide a spiralling guitar backing to Weller’s pitch perfect vocals on the superb song.
For a second and final encore after again abruptly leaving without fully introducing his band, Weller got through four songs, flipping his traditional longer-then-shorter encore structure from last year. Returning straight to the piano for ‘Broken Stones’, given new character live with the use of Crofts’ keyboard, Weller then introduced his players properly, especially Steve Pilgrim, who went on to deliver a superlative drum solo on ‘Heliocentric’ track ‘Picking Up Sticks’, with Weller topping and tailing the song with keys.
While ‘Sticks’ and ‘Stones’ may break Weller’s bones, the criticism of his fans will never hurt him. Style Council and Jam songs were conspicuous by their collective absence tonight until final number ‘Town Called Malice’, regularly used to close Weller’s live shows in recent years but not used in every date on this tour. This was preferred to ‘The Changingman’, printed on the actual set lists alongside ‘7&3 Is the Striker’s Name’, both songs which you imagine would have also sounded stunning in a small, enclosed space like the Corn Exchange. Perhaps Weller, with no guests tonight, felt it impossible to better the previous night’s performance of the 1995 hit with Mick Jones of The Clash.
A good way to summarise the gig would be to say that it was a good ‘greatest hits’ show for the, proper noun, ‘Solo Paul Weller’, but was not perhaps the best ‘paul weller the musician’ career retrospective, an approach which has already risked alienating some fans. But, Solo-Weller is what we have, this was not an unexpected set makeup, and if anything, a handful of fans may have left disappointed that Weller succumbed not to the ‘Beat Surrender’, but to any Jam songs at all. As it was, ‘Malice’ was performed well as usual with ample crowd-participation despite one false-start when the karaoke began before Weller had caught his breath.
For me this was really not an issue, especially considering the quality of the tributes to Weller’s past musical ventures, From The Jam and the recently emerged Style Councillors who recently graced the stage at the 100 Club. Weller is, and always has been the Changing Man, continually moving forward, progressing, evolving.
Weller donned a black long-sleeved jumper from his recently-launched fashion range ‘Real Stars are Rare’, adorned with the signature star emblazoned on the front in purple. This was matched with a pair of smart if understated grey trousers. Cradock sweltered in a similarly coloured dark top whilst Lewis donned a grey jacket over a black shirt. Crofts sartorially brought some colour to proceedings with a red and white patterned shirt. If the clothing was not outstanding, then the lighting was, with ‘Town Called Malice’, ‘Come On/Let’s Go’, ‘Friday Street’ and, particularly, new song ‘Long Time’ being expertly accompanied by a huge variety of stunning visual effects illuminating various parts of the stage and audience in perfect timing.
So, what did we learn from this exercise, ahead of Weller’s forthcoming spring European tour, dates in the USA and winter visits to larger arenas in the UK? Well, the man can still work a crowd, perhaps even more effectively at a smaller, more cramped venue like the Corn Exchange, where the fans “sway as one”. What’s more, those fans tantalised with the recently-released video for ‘White Sky’ went away from the Corn Exchange even more excited for ‘Saturns Pattern’ (“[will the] deluxe edition only… contain [an] apostrophe?” joked one fan on Twitter), especially its title track, having heard several totally new songs.
We can also gather that this truly is one of Weller’s best backing groups ever, with Pilgrim growing into the big shoes left to fill by Steve White every gig. This tour of smaller venues has so far seen many of the backing band (retained in full from last year) allowed a ‘local’ gig (Cradock in Plymouth, a little further West from his Torquay residence; Lewis a return to Watford Colosseum, where he last played as part of an orchestra in 1986!) The band, packed with respected names in British music, is led by one of the less well known in Pilgrim, providing a core, beating heart to the likes of Gordelier, Lewis and Crofts either side of him.
After the gig, once I am finished with the Gramotones boys, I pick up a ticket and end up being one of the last to spill out of the Corn Exchange (originally opened in 1875 for just that purpose of trading, with the original brickwork still seen tonight) into the chilly evening. Two men of not dissimilar ages to Weller walk by. One spots the poster (still, incredibly by this point, intact inside a plastic case), turns to his friend and observes “Paul Weller… from The Jam!” Based on tonight’s performance, that memory is very much his loss.
Weller’s journey roughly-north continues, after a temporary slide southwards the next night at Southend Cliffs Pavilion. After this 14 date tour concludes, UK fans next have the chance to see Weller later this month on the 27th in London, at the Royal Albert Hall’s Teenage Cancer Trust charity show where Weller headlines alongside Johnny Marr, and at Hyde Park later in the summer where he is on the same ‘Barclaycard British Summer Time’ bill as The Who on the 26th June.
And that’s Paul Weller ladies and gentlemen, different as ever. Never standing still, but with no less of a glint in his eye, “always there to fool you”. Where he will go next, no-one knows, but one thing is for certain- with the new album due for release on the 18th May, we will uncover just another tiny piece of the still-partially-veiled Weller jigsaw, and long may he continue to surprise us and pull back the cloth to reveal an even greater legacy which will only be built on if the new songs exhibited tonight are anything to go by.
*NOTE: The Louder Than War interview can be easily accessed HERE and is well worth a read if you like what you heard at Cambridge or Southend, or if you are interested in discovering a new band. The website also ran some excellent photos from the Corn Exchange gig taken by Valerio Berdini.
By Tony Allen