I can vividly remember sitting in a physics class in 2nd year of school. Mr Hill was explaining how it was possible for a radio audience listening in Paris to hear the first notes of a song in the Albert Hall, London, marginally before the audience in the back row of the venue. Something to do with sound waves and frequencies and the speed of sound in a vacuum, he explained. Actually, I’m just making this part up. I have no idea how it works, which maybe explains why I never elected to take physics beyond the basic foundation level. It’s mind-blowing and all that, but really, who gives a shit?
Well, maybe some of last night’s audience in Glasgow’s Hydro. Officially the 3rd busiest venue in the world (behind London’s O2 and New York’s Madison Square Garden) it’s a beast of a venue. Filled to capacity most nights of the week, it’s hosted all the big acts since opening a couple of years ago; Prince, U2, Taylor Swift, all the hot tickets come to Glasgow’s Hydro where, for the majority of the audience they appear like Lego versions of the real thing, far off in the distance, or, plooks ‘n all, on two massive video screens suspended either side of the stage.
Some of the seats in the Hydro are in a different postcode to the stage. Others may well be in a different time zone, such is their distance from the action. Any old mod tuning in from Paris last night may well have heard the first bars of Long Hot Summer (yes!) before those poor folk head to toe in Pretty Green way up there at the back. Which means those Parisians would’ve had the first inkling that Paul Weller last night was on fire, raging with emotion, attacking his guitar like the angry young man he once was and still defiantly kicking against the pricks.
CLANG! (That’s the sound of a name about to be dropped….)
Johnny Marr told me recently that he’d never deny his audience the chance to hear the choicest of cuts from his stellar Smiths’ catalogue. Why would you, he said, when he enjoyed playing them and the audience wanted to hear them. Yes, he’s proud of his most recent work, but he’s equally proud of the songs that got him to where he is today. Weller, it’s pleasing to note, has done likewise.
A lengthy and epic career-spanning 28 song set-list was played out to his usual audience; aulder and balder with a touch more spread around their middle-aged waists but still bellowing and punching the air in celebration like it was ’78 or ’82. Or even ’95. Jam songs (for such a long time the missing link in his set) followed Style Council songs (for such a long time the missing link etc etc) which followed early solo classics which were followed by tracks from his current patchy but it-makes-sense-in-the-live-arena Saturn’s Pattern LP. In fact, almost every facet of Weller’s career was represented tonight. I think the only phase not acknowledged was his Wild Wood LP, which is really saying something, bop-bop-shoobeedoo-wop. You could sit right now and write a brilliant 28 song set of the tracks he didn’t play, but that would be churlish. Weller’s set tonight was carefully thought-out and paced. I’d even go as far as saying that this was the best I’d ever seen him.
Kicking things off in an understated fashion with the snappy one-two of I’m Where I Should Be and Long Time from the latest album, he was quick to dip into the depths of his stupendous back catalogue. The Jam’s Man In The Corner Shop was followed by Ghosts from the same era. The wham-bam bossanova of The Style Council’s Have You Ever Had It Blue came immediately after My Ever Changing Moods, Weller’s foil Steve Cradock doing his best Curtis Mayfield impression on the wah-wah.
The sideman was on fine form tonight, let loose on expanded versions of Up In Suze’s Room and Porcelain Gods. Into Tomorrow was recast as a dubby, spacey sprawling epic, as expansive as the waistline on some of those old mods’ sharply-creased trousers. Elsewhere, we had a slightly-too-slow take on Start!, a sublime Above The Clouds which sounded like a long-lost cut from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On LP, a spiky ‘n snarling Peacock Suit, a rare outing for lost single Starlite, a fantastic wigged-out version of The Jam’s In The Crowd and ooh, more than a handful of other crackers. It all finished off in the 2nd encore with a celebratory run through of Town Called Malice, Weller breaking into a smile as he bashed his tambourine into the microphone. He’s fast-becoming the English Neil Young; both have 3 distinct phases of their career, both can by awkward and bloody-minded, both are happy to give you epic sets filled with jam-heavy breaks (no pun intended) and they can both effortlessly switch from rocker to ballad to piano to electric guitar and back again. He’s alright, is our Paul.
The hardest-working man in the Hydro was undoubtedly Weller’s sound man. Those recent albums have been dipped in atmospherics and electro whooshes and the soundman sprinkled his magic dust over every track tonight, Weller’s voice echoing off and out into the ether, drums ricocheting around the room. This wasn’t just a bog-standard plug in and play gig, it was an all-encompassing, multi-sensory event. Sound and vision, to steal a phrase.
When Weller next returns to Glasgow, I’ll be surprised if it’s to the Hydro. He enjoys Glasgow, it’s always a fixture on his tour, but his gigs here have followed a pattern over the past decade or so. A gig at the Barrowlands was followed by an up-scaling to the Armadillo. He returned afterwards to the scuzzy setting of the Barrowlands. Next time round, he popped up in the rarely used for gigs Braehead Arena, before coming back once again to the Barrowlands and its familiar sprung dancefloor. He’s at his best in the smaller venue, where he can make real contact with the audience and create a true communion. I doubt if many artists can honestly say that about the Hydro, regardless of how popular a venue it has quietly become. “Nice gaff!” remarked Steve Cradock at one point. Yes, but it’s just that wee bit big, isn’t it?