Review: Paul Weller’s era-spanning masterclass at Bristol Beacon

It’s incredible to think that it’s been 42 years since ‘Modfather’ Paul Weller broke up arguably the biggest band in Britain when he quit The Jam at the peak of their powers in 1982. Weller’s walking away from the party at 24 years old when the bar was well and truly still open, to then expand and explore his musical horizons could well be the coolest act in rock history. After five albums with The Style Council brought us to the precipice of his early 1990s solo career, May of 2024 will witness the birth of the singer-songwriter’s seventeenth solo album 66 (to be released the day before his 66th birthday).

With such a prestigious catalogue to draw from, Weller’s near two hour performance in front of a sold out audience of 2,200 pitches itself almost perfectly between brand new songs, slightly less new songs, established and even more established favourites. Proving that he is much more than a nostalgia act, tonight admirably finds a sweet spot in choice of material.

With an exchange of wah-wah guitar interludes from Weller and excellent guitarist Steve Craddock, and bursts of saxophone from the consistently impressive Jacko Peake, tonight kicks off with the upbeat psychedelic rock of 2008’s ‘Rip The Pages Up.’ Two drum kits sit at the back of the stage, each bass drum containing the figure ‘6’ in promotion of Weller’s upcoming record. Some of tonight’s tunes thus feature a dual percussive approach, such as 2021’s ‘Cosmic Fringes’, its verse vocals fashioned into a nice call and response exchange with Peake’s saxophone.

Weller is looking sprightly and trim, the wings of his mod hair-do now grown out and whitened, and the voice is still in fine fettle. After he confirms that tonight will feature “new songs, old songs, all sorts”, we hear the first of three tracks from the upcoming 66: The pop-rock of ‘Soul Wandering’ has Weller embarking on the perennial search for meaning as, on the cusp of his 66th birthday, he sings “I want to believe in something greater than me.”

The beautifully gliding and soulful ‘Above The Clouds’ (from Weller’s eponymous 1992 debut), sees Peake replace saxophone with some tasteful flute while Weller upholds rare guitar solo duties as Craddock counters with some featherlight embellishments. ‘Stanley Road’, the title track from Weller’s mid-90s commercial apex, is the first of several occasions whereby Weller downs a guitar and sings at the keyboard stage right.

‘Fat Pop’, title track from his previous album of 2021, is a quirky and enjoyably off-brand slab of electro-tinged pop. There’s a moment of local interest when Bristolian Steve Trigg, from soul band Stone Foundation, arrives on stage to deliver trumpet during ‘More’ – the stage is appropriately bathed in golden light in concert with the song’s sunny choruses. Style Council stand out ‘Shout To The Top’ is perhaps the night’s first true temptation for audience members to whip out the smartphones and dance a jig from the balcony.

Weller’s between song chat is occasional, brief and mostly functional, throughout. He introduces back-to-back songs from 66 including ‘Jumble Queen’, a rock stomper with lyrics written by Noel Gallagher (“if you don’t understand the words, you’ll have to ask him,” Weller jokes). There’s a powerful moment a little later when Weller appears to get up from the keyboard in error and says “I’ve just had a request from the bass player to play you this.” He then returns to his stool and plays the opening chords of the rapturously received ‘You Do Something To Me.”

A one, two punch of the night’s only Jam tunes arrive in the form of ‘That’s Entertainment’, a pacey and simple four chord strum wherein the underrated poetry of Weller’s lyricism does the leg work, and ‘Start!’, the distinct bassline coopted from George Harrison’s ‘Taxman’. The evening tallies in at a substantial 27 songs, including the rarity of a double encore (five tunes, followed by another two). ‘Headstart For Happiness’ – on parity with The Jam – is the second Style Council outing of the night.

If one were to pick nits, career highlight ‘Wild Wood’ would perhaps have been best served as a starker arrangement without the distraction of Peake’s flute part, and Craddock’s rumbling guitar interlude sits slightly askew the plaintive folk blueprint. Finally, riveting guitar rock showcase ‘The Changingman’ and ‘Porcelain Gods’ hammer home Stanley Road’s sustained significance in the eyes of late career Weller.

It’s been pretty much faultless. A tight, dynamic band, a tasteful collection of songs and the Modfather apparently still at the top of his game.

Scott Hammond