Paul Weller began a five-night residency at the Royal Albert Hall on the eve of his 52nd birthday and with a magnificent new album, Wake Up the Nation, to show off. But what promised to be a celebratory evening didn’t go to plan. Weller’s set was dogged by average sound quality and clumsy sequencing. It ebbed and flowed and sporadically burst into life, yet for stretches the atmosphere in the Albert Hall was mausoleum-like.
It opened with Weller and his backing band briskly launching into “Into Tomorrow”, a track from his 1992 debut solo album. The singer looked trim in black and knocked out a neat wah-wah guitar solo, but the venue’s notorious acoustics were in unforgiving mood. The sound was both lumpy and not powerful enough.
The effect was particularly damaging for Weller’s bold new material. Wake up the Nation and its predecessor, 2008’s 22 Dreams, have jolted the Modfather from the dull Britrock he slipped into in the 1990s. They find him rediscovering the stylistic inventiveness of his Jam and Style Council days, with nerveless excursions into folk, orchestral pop, psychedelic rock, even free jazz.
His set was top-heavy with new songs. Wake up the Nation’s “7&3 Is the Striker’s Name” was atmospheric with eerie guitars and rumbling drums. A jabbing Jerry Lee Lewis piano motif gave “Moonshine” the galvanising power of early rock ’n’ roll.
Weller grew more vigorous as the set progressed, stamping his feet and shaking his platinum hair as he barked out Wake up the Nation’s snarling title track. Yet the audience remained largely unmoved, which, in combination with the unimpressive sound quality, gave the proceedings a strangely sedate feel.
A complex rendition of “Porcelain Gods” from 1995’s Stanley Road, drawn-out with time changes and acid-rock jamming, summed up Weller’s rediscovered spirit of adventure. Yet the warmest cheer of the evening came when he announced: “We’re going to play you an old song now,” before launching into The Style Council’s “Shout to the Top!”.
“Wild Wood”, performed with pop newcomer Rox, a female singer with a fine soulful voice, was interestingly made to sound like Blue Lines-era Massive Attack, but the rest of the set consisted of faithful renditions of old favourites, such as The Jam’s “Pretty Green” and “Start!”. A final mood swing back to brooding, Doors-like psychedelia for the last song – a disappointingly downbeat note on which to sign off – confirmed the impression that Weller hadn’t got the balance right tonight between experimentalism and elder statesmanship.
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